Columbia College lost one of its greatest treasures Friday, Feb. 2, with the passing of the institution’s 15th president, Dr. Donald Ruthenberg Hon. ’95. He passed away peacefully surrounded by family. He was 94.
A memorial service is scheduled for 10:30 a.m. on Friday, Feb. 23, at Missouri United Methodist Church, 204 S. Ninth St., Columbia, MO 65201. Interment will follow in the MUMC Prayer Garden.
Ruthenberg, alongside his wife, Dee, who passed away in 2017, served the college thoughtfully and resolutely from 1984 to 1995. He received an honorary alumni degree from the college upon his retirement.
“Like so many members of Cougar Nation, I valued my many conversations with Dr. Ruthenberg – full of wisdom, humor and deep affection for higher education,” said current Columbia College President Dr. David Russell. “When I would have occasion to visit with him, I would ask how he was doing. Usually, he would respond with, ‘David, I am magnificent.’ Indeed, he was magnificent, and I am truly thankful for the wisdom and institutional knowledge he shared with me. Please join me in keeping Dr. Ruthenberg’s family in your thoughts and prayers.”
Ruthenberg was a champion of diversity, equity and inclusion throughout his esteemed career in higher education and brought an influx of national and intercultural endeavors to the college.
When he started at CC, the college faced significant challenges, but as he noted, “A mighty band of people long forgotten said it’s a dear school that in its own way brings light into the world.”
“A mighty band of people long forgotten said it’s a dear school that in its own way brings light into the world.”Dr. Donald Ruthenberg, Columbia College’s 15th president, on his tenure from 1984 to 1995
Ruthenberg was ever the visionary. He spearheaded a pattern of progress during his 11 years guiding the institution. Through his bold and creative leadership, he helped the college achieve financial stability, expand opportunities for students and improve conditions for faculty and staff.
Under his leadership, the college reduced its debt from $1.8 million to zero and increased its endowment from $350,000 to $2 million. One hallmark of his presidency was his perpetual encouragement for people to leave the residue of their estate to Columbia College to support the institution well into the future.
During his tenure, the college developed a variety of programs to meet the needs of international students. He organized sister-city and sister-institution partnerships, including in Taiwan and Japan, as he sought to expand the Extended Studies Division, now known as Columbia College Global.
Ruthenberg fulfilled the plans and dreams of several past presidents when the college opened the J.W. and Lois Stafford Library on main campus in 1989. He also led renovations of St. Clair, Dorsey and Williams halls as well as Launer Auditorium.
He was an avid fan of all sports, attending most home contests and befriending CC student-athletes. When he was inducted into the Cougar Athletics Hall of Fame in 2014, the recognition highlighted how he “moved Athletics into a realm far beyond its stature at the time.” During his tenure, he oversaw the construction of facilities including the Southwell Athletic Complex and R. Marvin Owens Athletic Field. His encouragement and unfailing support helped establish Columbia College as a leader in the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA).
The college changed its mascot and nickname from the Centaurs to the Cougars under Ruthenberg’s administration, and an Athletic Review Committee formed in 1985 carried out recommendations to improve the athletic department. The most decisive change in athletics came with his hiring of Hall of Fame coach Bob Burchard in 1988 as director of athletics and head men’s basketball coach.
According to Burchard, Ruthenberg had a way of “pushing you beyond where you felt comfortable” and of “saying outrageous things and then making them happen.”
The result was a spectacular record of accomplishment that propelled the institution forward.
Ruthenberg promised the college he would serve as president for 10 years and stayed for 11, making an indelible impact that lasts to this day.
Dr. Ruthenberg had a way of “pushing you beyond where you felt comfortable” and of “saying outrageous things and then making them happen.”Bob Burchard, former Columbia College athletic director and Hall of Fame men’s basketball coach
Born Jan. 7, 1930, in Akron, Ohio, Ruthenberg earned a doctorate in education from the University of Denver. He also was an ordained Methodist minister. He served as president of Southwestern College in Winfield, Kansas, from 1972 to 1980. He then supervised about 25 Iowa colleges from 1980 to 1984 as president of the Iowa Association of Independent Colleges and Universities.
Upon his retirement from Columbia College in 1995, he and Dee moved to the Lake of the Ozarks area. He served as a consultant for several private colleges in mid-Missouri and remained active in various local and international activities.
“I think life is so great,” Ruthenberg said at an event on campus last year. “So many opportunities. I try to keep up with faculty members. I see (a message) that comes through, and I think, ‘You can still have influence until you die.’ And then your influence goes on because people enlarge upon that.”
In tribute to Dr. Ruthenberg, all Columbia College flags have been lowered to half-staff.
The college is humbled to accept gifts made in his memory to either the Dee and Don Ruthenberg Scholarship given to student(s) active in Christian service or the Dr. Donald Ruthenberg Endowed Program Fund in honor of Dr. Ruthenberg and Bernie Lensmeyer in support of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion efforts.
Editor’s note: Special thanks to “Columbia College: 150 Years of Courage, Commitment, and Change” by Paulina A. Batterson for historical information contained in this article.