In his all-too short life, Dr. Roosevelt Ruffin was a singer, an actor, a scholar, an author, an educator, a politician and a financial consultant—and he did just about all of them well.
He was born in 1938 in Saginaw, the son of Oneeda and Willie Ruffin. He attended the Saginaw public schools, graduating from Saginaw High.
His old friend, Fred Porterfield, recalled that he and four young friends had a singing group they called the Five Arrows. “The Arrows were among 600 performing acts from across the country that auditioned for a chance to entertain with the USO. The Arrows were good enough to be selected and performed in North Africa, Germany and France. They sang for Count Basie’s Orchestra and Duke Ellington in New York, but the big break escaped them.”
After the USO tour, Ruffin enrolled in Bay City Junior College—now Delta College—and got his associate’s degree in 1959. He went on to earn a B.A. in Spanish from Michigan State University in 1961 and a master’s degree in romance languages from MSU in 1965. The University of Michigan awarded him a doctorate in romance languages and literature in 1975. He was a Ford Foundation scholarship recipient, a member of Sigma Delta Pi honorary society and received an achievement award from the Negro Business and Professional Woman’s Association. In his career as an educator, he taught at Wayne State University and in the Lansing Public Schools.
Returning to Saginaw, he was assistant principal of Arthur Eddy Junior High School for three years before being named principal of North Intermediate School in 1976.
He spent three years researching and writing a definitive book, The Black Presence in Saginaw 1855-1900 which chronicled the early settlement of African Americans in Saginaw. It was published by the Saginaw News on February 22, 1978. His research also provided substance for a 20-minute tape, “Saginaw Mosaic: the African Americans” which was produced by the Saginaw Intermediate School District. More than one person referred to Ruffin as Saginaw’s own Alex Haley (who wrote the enormously successful “Roots”). Ruffin said only, ”For a long time in Saginaw, there was no place to begin if you were talking about black society. Now, if someone wants to study black history, there will be a basis.”
In 1985, still keeping his “day job” at North, Ruffin ran for and was elected to the Saginaw City Council. Always upbeat and positive, he was a prime mover in developing community awareness and action aimed at curbing Saginaw’s high rate of infant mortality.
In 1988, Ruffin left North to become a financial consultant. It wasn’t his luckiest move. On the day he began his financial career, Wall Street recorded one of the most disastrous days in its history.
Also in 1988, Ruffin taught Spanish at Saginaw Valley State University as a visiting instructor.
One of his favorite “careers” was the acting he did at Saginaw’s community theater, Pit and Balcony. In 1988, he made his debut in P and B’s production of “Damn Yankees” and he starred in its production of “Fences” but his most memorable role was as the chauffeur Hoke in “Driving Miss Daisy.” Ruffin said of the play, “I really like the story. It’s more of a portrayal of two personalities, each perceiving the other as undesirable, who grow to appreciate each other.”
Ruffin’s final job was as director of multi-cultural programs and affirmative action at SVSU. In announcing his appointment, SVSU President Eric Gilbertson said, “He has a strong background and a history of deep involvement in the community.” Ruffin said that he hoped to use his network of contacts to increase communications between minorities and the university.
Roosevelt Ruffin certainly had contacts: he was a life member of NAACP, a member of Rotary International, Pit and Balcony, the Michigan Council for the Humanities, Saginaw Community Foundation, Saginaw County Enrichment Commission and Zion Baptist Church. He served on the boards of YMCA, St. Mary’s, Janes Street Clinic, Team 1 Credit Union, Michigan Black History Network and the United Way.
He was married in 1961 to the former Thelma Jones and they had two children, Karyn and Alan.
After his untimely death at 56, the Roosevelt S. Ruffin Community Health Center at 229 Gallagher was named in his honor. The Roosevelt Ruffin Symposium is held annually at SVSU to enhance middle and high school students’ awareness of teaching careers, post secondary opportunities and collegiate success. Channel 19/35 aired a tribute to him. In it, former Saginaw Mayor Larry Crawford said, ”He was cerebral and intelligent. He could see a problem and find an answer. And he could make people feel he was just another guy.” Saginaw News reviewer Janet Martineau added, “…it was Ruffin’s ultimate humanity that reached into our souls—his all-embracing bear hugs and life-affirming smiles. With him, everyone felt like a lifetime friend.”
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