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Obituaries|J. Frederic “Fritz” Ruf

Ruf's can-do attitude made him successful in banking, politics

June 19, 2014

By Jan Uebelherr of the Journal Sentinel

June 19, 2014 0

Banker, (co-creator of the TYME automated teller system), public servant (the state Department of Development and the WHEDA housing agency), politician (three terms on the Waukesha County Board) — J. Frederic"Fritz" Ruf wore all these hats, and a few others.

"He had a liberal arts education, and he lived the liberal arts spirit through and through. He was always thirsting for knowledge and new things, and he never tired of that," his daughter Sarah Spencer said of Ruf, who served in Gov. Tommy Thompson's administration as deputy secretary of the Department of Development and as head of WHEDA, the Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development Authority.

"I knew when I assigned him something, he'd get it done, just like he did in the banking world," Thompson said of Ruf. "He always had a smile on his face and always had that can-do attitude."

Ruf, who had suffered a heart attack years ago and a stroke several weeks ago, died of natural causes Friday at his Pewaukee home. His wife, Sally, had gone outside to watch the moon rise that evening, their daughter said, and discovered him when she returned. He was 77.

Ruf grew up in Elm Grove but often pointed to an experience as a child on a family farm near Green Bay that shaped his life.

It was the early 1940s, and Ruf was 8 or 9 years old when he was sent to work at an aunt and uncle's farm. Their sons were off fighting in World War II, and the family needed help.

"It was only one summer, but it was such a lasting impression — being on a farm, getting up early and getting the work done that had to be done," said Spencer, of the Town of Delafield.

Ruf got a degree in political science from Lawrence University in Appleton, then headed to the University of Wisconsin-Madison for a law degree.

It was there that he met an undergrad named Sally Meyer. Ruf's friend, Jim Klauser — who would serve as a top aide to Thompson and introduce Ruf to the governor — had asked her to be a witness in a mock trial.

"My mom was the witness for him (Klauser) and my dad was the opposing attorney," Spencer said. "He used to say he cross-examined my mom and lost, but she won his heart."

They married on Dec. 26, 1964, at Galilee Lutheran Church in Pewaukee.

Fresh out of law school, Ruf turned down a job as an attorney because he could make $4,000 more at Continental Bank in Chicago in its training program.

He would become the youngest officer at the bank, his daughter said.

Ruf left the Chicago bank in 1969 for a job as vice president of retail banking at M&I Bank. In the 1970s, he represented M&I in a consortium that worked to make the automated teller machines a unified system — unlike what was happening in other states.

The result was the TYME Corp., and Ruf served as president.

Ruf left M&I in 1984 and became president of RBP Chemical Corp., a small firm that made chemicals for the printing industry.

He always had an affinity for politics and as a banker lobbied on interstate banking issues. His old college friend, Klauser, got involved with the Thompson campaign and introduced Ruf.

Ruf and his wife held one of the first fundraisers for Thompson in Waukesha County.

In 1991, Thompson named Ruf deputy secretary of the Department of Development in a move described as a shake-up at the agency.

Ruf left the job in 1993 to become chairman of Omnion Power Engineering Corp. of East Troy and A.C. Battery Corp., a companion company.

In 1995, Thompson tapped him again, this time as head of WHEDA.

"He really shined over at WHEDA because he was able to run the whole department and get things done — get money out and help low-income individuals who had never been able to buy a home," Thompson said. "He loved doing that."

Ruf left WHEDA in 2003, but already had begun serving in local government, starting with the Pewaukee City Council from 2001 to '04. In 2006, Ruf won the first of three terms as a Waukesha County Board supervisor. He also served on the Lake Pewaukee Sanitary District and the Pewaukee Fire and Police Commission.

Ruf never truly retired, remaining active in alumni matters at Lawrence University. He completed his final term on the Waukesha County Board in April. He enjoyed curling. And he loved to sail — something that he took up because his wife's family did it.

He grew to enjoy the family aspect of it, his daughter said, but also something more.

"It's that feeling that even though people are from all different walks of life, you were all equal when you got out on the racecourse," his daughter said.

"Even in his career, it didn't matter if you were the secretary or the janitor. He was going to be your friend. It was that whole idea of equality."

Besides his daughter, Ruf is survived by his wife, Sally; a son John; and grandsons Christian and Sam Spencer.

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J. Frederic "Fritz" Ruf

Visitation will be held at Galilee Lutheran Church, N24-W26430 Crestview Drive, Pewaukee, from 10 a.m. to 12:45 p.m. Friday. A memorial service will be held at 1 p.m. at the church. Memorials are suggested to the Inlan Lake Yachting Association Foundation, P.O. Box 311, Fontana, WI 53125-0311; Lawrence University, 711 E. Boldt Way, Appleton, WI 54911; or Galilee Lutheran Church.

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About Jan Uebelherr

Jan Uebelherr writes obituaries about a wide range of local people who have died, as well as end-of-life issues. She won the 2009 National Headliner Award for best news series.

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