After 44 years of teaching at Davidson College, Associate Professor of Sociology Bob Ruth knows that, while metrics can tell part of a story, the real stories–the best stories–are always about people.
The heart of Ruth's lifelong study of sociology has been that place where numbers, people and stories intersect. It's an intersection that has provided the structural form and rich content to his own professional life story.
Consider Ruth's special research paper for his master's work at Duke University, "Urbanization, Industrialization and Political Upheaval: A Cross National Study." He analyzed 5,000 domestic terrorism events in 84 countries over 15 years. Later, for his doctoral dissertation, "A Study of the Factors Affecting Teacher Attitudes and Participation in the New York City School Decentralization Controversy," also at Duke, Ruth examined a volatile inter-ethnic conflict through an analysis of more than 700 participants' involvement.
While in the New York City area as a graduate student, Ruth, a New York state native, also taught sociology courses part-time at Hofstra University and Rutgers University-Newark in addition to his own sociology research.
"Then I came to Davidson to analyze it and write it all up!" he said of his arrival on the Davidson campus as a new faculty member in 1971.
Ruth has been analyzing and writing ever since, to the benefit of generations of Davidson students.
Ruth's research has taken him deep into the sociological workings of a number of fields, both established and emerging. Many of his sub-specialties have grown in depth, breadth and visibility outside of academia over the course of his career: criminology, criminal justice, deviance and social control, medical sociology and issues in contemporary terrorism.
Looking back as he prepares to retire at the end of the 2014-15 school year, Ruth said that, while his research has been a driving force, it has ultimately been sharing his passion for the work with generations of Davidson students that has made his career click.
Ruth has always been keen to get his students out in the world.
In spring semester 1973, he added a new course, Penology and Criminal Justice, to the college's curriculum. The first course of its type in the nation, for the next 35 years it afforded up to a dozen Davidson College students every spring semester an opportunity to intern at one of four area prisons, with field trips to Raleigh, Morganton and other locations. (During his Davidson career, Ruth also introduced new courses in medical sociology, white-collar crime, hate crime and contemporary terrorism.)
Ruth recalls stories of the early days with gusto. For example, it was not always easy to get groups of students inside prisons for tours, interviews and internships for his Penology and Criminal Justice class. Not only was the class a first-of-its-kind, but also it was introduced during the college's first full academic year as a co-educational institution.
"It was an eye-opener for many students," he said with some understatement. "I told them another name for the class could be Games Criminals Play. I told them, ‘What you hear and what you see might not be quite real,' and I told them, ‘You will be conned. Figure it out!'"
Many of those students have gone on to careers "figuring it out" as prosecutors, public defenders, psychologists, federal law enforcement agents and analysts.
Ruth especially cherishes keeping up with students from medical sociology and criminal justice classes.
One such student, Hal Askins '78, has recently come full circle. After a 30-year legal career in state and federal prosecution, Askins is a special deputy attorney general for the N.C. Department of Justice, Law Enforcement Liaison Section. He works closely with the N.C. Criminal Justice Commission. As it happens, Ruth himself sits on that commission as a representative of the N.C. Criminal Justice Association.
Their relationship dates to Askins' freshman year, when he followed Ruth's encouragement to get in touch with a contact at the Mecklenburg County Police Department. Soon, Askins was going on ride-alongs and working as an undercover agent for the department.
"Liability concerns were different then," Askins deadpanned. (For the record, Ruth didn't find out about the undercover activity until it was a fait accompli.)
In due time, Ruth became Askins' sociology major advisor.
"He was very interested in what I was doing and we'd meet and go to the 900 Room over a pitcher of beer," Askins said. "His house was always open to talk about anything really. He was just a really good professor."
Medical Sociology, another of Ruth's classes long dear to his teaching heart, is an increasingly timely subject for Davidson's pre-medical and medical humanities students. Topics included in that course description are ripped straight from today's healthcare headlines: sociological factors of health and illness, the social organization of modern medicine, sociological analysis of the role and status of medical and paramedical personnel in this country, social differences in the acquisition of medical aid and in the reaction to medical treatment.
Ruth was named "Educator of the Year" in 1993, when he received the Margaret Lang Willis Outstanding Criminal Justice Educator Award of the N.C. Criminal Justice Association. Appropriately enough, a paper by one of Ruth's students, Jen Holladay '93 had received the association's top overall student award the year before.
Even more appropriately, she was his nominator.
"Dr. Ruth transformed my life," Holladay said by phone from her home in Denver, Colo. "I took almost every class he offered."
In 1991, she took Ruth's class on domestic terrorism. Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan were the focus then, before the Oklahoma City bombings. In the course of that class, Holladay learned about the Southern Poverty Law Center-where she went on to work for 15 years. During those years, their paths would sometimes cross at professional training programs for local, state and federal law enforcement agencies. She also focused on K-12 anti-bias social justice work, and now works in the public school system in Denver.
"It was in Dr. Ruth's classes that I found my true love of learning," she said.
In the late 1990s, Ruth took an extended sabbatical to research terrorism and counterterrorism, with particular interest in networking among domestic and international terrorist groups. Then as now, he consulted with law enforcement agencies nationwide in efforts to prevent terrorism, and presented research findings to broader public and academic audiences as well. He has conducted counter-terrorism workshops and briefings nationwide, including at the North Carolina Justice Academy and at the FBI Academy, and has conducted counter-terrorism research at the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution, and Peace at Stanford University and at the Royal Military College of Canada in Kingston, Ontario. He was heavily involved with the investigation of the Murrah Federal Building bombing in Oklahoma City, April 19, 1995.
A number of Ruth's terrorism presentations were as a team with the late Joe Auten of the North Carolina Justice Academy, and were entitled "Guns, Bombs, and God." Mere months before the USS Cole was attacked in Yemen and the World Trade Center in New York, they prognosticated the gathering storm of terrorist attacks on America, including the use of airliners as weapons.
"We were jumping up and down telling law enforcement personnel it was going to happen," he said.
In February 2000, in an award ceremony in the auditorium at FBI Headquarters in Washington, D.C., Ruth was the recipient of an award from FBI Director Louis Freeh "For Exceptional Service in the Public Interest."
Following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States, Ruth was an invited participant in a national multi-agency task force working on Homeland Security planning out to 2005. He was also a charter member of the Charlotte Area Homeland Security Corporate Working Group. In 2002 he became a duly sworn commissioner on the North Carolina Criminal Justice Education and Training Standards Commission. Since 2003 he has served on InfraGard, a joint FBI-private sector counter-terrorism program, becoming a deputy sector chief in 2008 and a sector chief in 2012. He is a member of the International Association for Counterterrorism and Security Professionals.
Ruth has never shied from speaking up closer to home, either.
In 1983, at the conclusion of a guest lecture in his criminology class by Mecklenburg County District Attorney Peter Gilchrist, a young woman in the class approached them and asked to meet with them alone. They found an empty classroom, where she asked them for help addressing sexual assault. Later, when students had difficulty finding a faculty sponsor for a student Rape Crisis Committee, Ruth volunteered to serve in that capacity, and facilitated their receipt of a $5,000 grant from the Governor's Crime Commission. He and his wife Joyce opened their home in Davidson as a place where the committee could meet confidentially and as a safe house for students in distress.
In 1997, Ruth and Joyce became a host family for a four-year old Muslim boy D'jamal, from war-torn Bosnia, his 26-year-old mother Rasjia and 19-year-old interpreter Alenka, for six weeks while D'jamal received pro-bono open heart surgery at Carolinas Medical Center. He went home to Bosnia with a healthy heart.
Now looking ahead to his retirement, Ruth counts on keeping up with many of his local contacts as well as those farther afield. He is past-president of both the Mecklenburg County Crime Prevention Association and the North Carolina Criminal Justice Association, of which he is an Honorary Life Member. He has served on the City of Charlotte-Mecklenburg County Police Merger Task Force, the Executive Board of the North Carolina Sociological Association, and is past-president of the Davidson Lions Club.
He and Joyce, a retired pediatric nursing professor at UNC Charlotte, are active members and team teachers of an adult Sunday school class at Davidson United Methodist Church. He will continue his service on the state criminal justice commission and InfraGard, while making time to travel, read the backlog of books on a very full bookcase, pursue his interests in photography and cooking, and mentor his 10-year-old granddaughter, Emma, a budding Wildcat.
During the course of cleaning out his office in the spring semester of 2015, Ruth jotted a two-page list of names from off the top of his head of nearly 100 students he recalled especially clearly from times gone by. Some were from the early days, and by now he's taught their children, too. One of his 1980s students is now his gastroenterologist. ("He made an ‘A' in Medical Sociology. No worry about payback!" Ruth quipped.) Others who made a clear impression are more recent, a post-Katrina transfer student and advisee from Tulane, even a couple of men's Wildcat hoopsters from the 2007 Elite Eight team.
Ruth made a clear impression on them, too, as well as on his colleagues, as an enthusiastic teacher and an avid researcher. Davidson bids him adieu and wishes him well with accolades for contributions that stretch from his Davidson classrooms to the other side of the world, through direct involvement and through the lives and work of the students he has taught.
As he himself learned early on, the real stories, the best stories are always about people.