I learned today that my friend and mentor of 27 years…my former boss…has lost his life to a battle with leukemia. I count myself lucky to have considered Steve Ruggenberg a “forever friend,” and mentor at the times I have needed it most: early in my career, and recently as I explore my passion for writing. I already miss him.
I was 22-years-old, straight out of college when I pulled into the parking lot that was filled edge-to-edge with cars. How could I be so lucky to find an open spot right near the front door? Driving straight through the driveway, there it was…beckoning me to pull right in. My first day at the new job, straight out of college, and I already was finding the perfect parking spot. This had to be a good sign.
Little did I know, as I bounded in for day-one of what would become a 17-year work place, I had swiftly stolen away the boss’ preferred parking space. No, the spot wasn’t marked, but that was THE place. The prime location, long-ago claimed by the General Manager and his gold Datsun 280-Z. I quickly was asked, though, by my new manager, “Um, is that your car parked under the tree?” Yes. “That’s where the GM likes to park.” Well okay, then. Said car shall be moved. Right away!
I already had a sense of the gravitas exhibited by this general manager I had never met. A crisis had been averted, but I made mental note of the need to tread lightly around my new “big boss” (and to stay away from the shaded parking spot in the front).
Ah, but that was before I met Mr. Big Boss. Oh yes, Steve Ruggenberg was indeed in charge of Golden Empire Transit District. Everyone knew it. But in a very short time, I came to learn that “Mr. Big Boss” also had a soft side. I was lucky enough to see it, to learn from it, and to eventually become friends with it. Lucky, indeed.
Steve Ruggenberg was an effective leader in a quirky sort of way. He required managers and supervisors to attend a 10 minute “stand up staff meeting” each morning where each of us gave an uber-brief update of what our schedule looked like for the day (while standing up, so we would be sure to keep it short). He required that the same group study the Seven Habits of Highly Effective People and to attend weekly meetings where we would discuss the week’s chapter. (One lucky person would have their name drawn from a hat, and that person got to lead the conversation that day!)
I learned so much from Steve in the 10 years we worked together. In fact, just yesterday I referenced something he “made” me learn from our Seven Habits meetings. The concept of the “emotional bank account” is now well known among my staff and my family, and it’s always top of mind when I’m assessing relationships. I also learned about the importance of loving our community; his commitment to Downtown Bakersfield as the heart of our community was well-known.
And I’ll never forget, when I was a new mom and told him I wanted to do something impactful in our community…and he reminded me that the most important thing I could do was focus on my child, Jake, and help him grow into a loving and caring, productive person.
When Steve and his beautiful bride (the love of his life), Shana, moved to St. Helena some 15 years ago, Steve “followed his bliss.” He would leave the daily grind of going to “work” and would pursue what he loved: baking. Many of us in Bakersfield were beneficiaries of Steve’s love to make sourdough bread, and I’ll never forget him bringing freshly-made scones to my mother and me as we packed up my house to move into my family’s newly-built home in 1999.
Ten months ago, I began to seriously explore writing—my passion that Steve knew had been lying dormant for ages. In fact, for many years he started each of our very occasional telephone conversations with, “Are you writing?” Until almost a year ago, the answer was a quiet “No, not really.” When the need to express myself in writing had become impossible to ignore after losing my mother, I couldn’t wait to share my written words with Steve. I knew he would be supportive. And proud.
Now, just one day after Steve has left this earth, I’m searching for a way to honor and remember him and what he’s meant to me all these years. How appropriate that the first place I go, the place I have run to, is the written word.
I like to think my friend and my mentor would be proud.