An Iowan who’s been a prominent figure in the nation’s business, philanthropic and political communities has died. John Ruan, founder of Ruan Transportation, died Saturday at the age of 96.
Michael Gartner first met Ruan in the 1970s when Gartner was executive editor of The Des Moines Register. “We became great friends. I had breakfast with him every two or three weeks for the next 20 years, just the two of us, and I found that he was an unbelievably interesting guy,” Gartner says.
“He cared about the community. He cared about his family. He was driven to succeed. There’s no question about that, but you understand it when you see his background. His father died. He started out with a dump truck, living in a tent, hauling gravel all day long down in southern Iowa and he was determined to succeed and he did.”
The transportation company Ruan founded is still owned by his family and four of his six grandchildren work at Ruan Transportation. In 1990, Ruan gave the seed money to establish the World Food Prize, an annual award recognizing leaders in the fight against world hunger. Gartner, his longtime friend, says it’s the kind of work that makes Ruan’s life story so interesting.
“Late in life he was determined to stamp out hunger in the world and he worked just as hard at that — the World Food Prize — as he did at building Ruan Transportation, or being a banker, or building a building or working on civil projects in Des Moines,” Gartner says.
Ruan’s family bought Banker’s Trust in 1964. He was also among the driving forces behind the private fund drive that raised the money to build the Civil Center in downtown Des Moines. Ruan was influential in Iowa and national political circles as well, contributing tens of thousands of dollars to Republican candidates. He also helped raise money to help fight multiple sclerosis, a disease which claimed a wife and Ruan’s daughter. Gartner says Ruan was determined to help find a cure for the disease.
“In doing that, he set up the single-largest one-day charity golf tournament in the nation and it was to benefit M.S. research,” Gartner says. “He was dogged in seeking out experts on that and in financing their research as he was in anything else.”
Ruan started his trucking company in the Great Depression and by the 1950s his company was the nation’s largest hauler of petroleum products. Ruan is often described as a self-made man and Gartner says he wasn’t one for sitting idly by, doing nothing.
“Guys like John, first generation entrepreneurs, they work all day and all night. John told me once, he said: ‘I’m not any smarter than anybody else. I just get up earlier,'” Gartner says. “…He was determined. He had great vision about what he wanted his company to be and he made it happen.”
Ruan was born on February 11, 1914, in Beacon, Iowa, which is near Oskaloosa. His family has asked that memorial contributions in Ruan’s honor be given to The World Food Prize.