Kansas farmer reminds the world we’re on the same team against COVID-19
That’s the lesson Dennis Ruhnke says he’s learned since a letter he sent to the governor of New York turned his generally quiet existence on a farm in northeast Kansas into an extended 15 minutes of fame, giving the 72-year-old retired farmer an unexpected and mostly unwanted celebrity status.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo read Dennis’ letter at his press briefing broadcast on national television on April 24 and posted a photo of the handwritten note on social media, calling it an example of “humanity at its best.”
That triggered an avalanche of media requests that had Dennis and wife Sharon’s phone ringing for two weeks straight. It also sparked online comments, and when folks couldn’t find the Ruhnkes on social media, they found their oldest son Josh, who began collecting comments to share with his parents. Letters – somewhere around 100 at last count – are still arriving via mail at their home in Troy, less than 20 miles from the Kansas-Missouri border.
It wasn’t simply words, though, that got reactions from Cuomo, international media and people from around the world. It was Dennis’ action and timing. Seeing the daily news accounts that New York didn’t have enough N95 masks, Dennis decided to send an extra he had along with the meaningful one-page handwritten letter that managed to unite people by reminding them that we’re all in this together despite our political beliefs, whether we are in a rural or urban setting and whether we live on a coast or in the middle of the country.
“This was never a political statement, it was just my dad wanting to help,” Josh said. “And this has gone far beyond what we ever thought it would. When you get a person from the Netherlands or the Philippines wanting to say hello or send their gratitude, it’s amazing because you realize that you’ve expanded past the boundaries of race, gender, creed, nationality, all of it.”
A simple Gesture from the Heartland
During an early May telephone conversation, Dennis tells me he is sitting on the family farm, enjoying an area that he calls his sanctuary: a small pond he rebuilt and considers his favorite fishing spot.
“I’m staring right now at two geese who come visit me every spring and have their young’uns,” he said. “Their babies are out there swimming around them right now. If I look to the north there’s a blue heron standing on the bank. This is where me and my dogs come to chill.”
The Ruhnkes are members of Doniphan Electric Cooperative and Dennis is a past board member. They’ve lived in the same house on 50 acres for going on five decades. It’s about a mile from the 200-acre farm where Dennis’ parents moved in 1948, two months before he was born.
Dennis retired from farming corn and soybean crops about five years ago, and Sharon is retired from a 45-year-career teaching public school. He reads often and is also a news junkie, flipping through CNN, Fox and MSNBC throughout the day. In late March, nearly all he was seeing on television was coverage of how bad things were in New York.
“At that time, they were almost pleading for masks,” he said. “People in New York City were dying because they didn’t have these N95 masks. That’s all I ever bought when I was a farmer and I thought I might have a few left. I went to the farm and dug around the drawers and found five unused masks, still in the box.”
He kept one for himself, Sharon, his son Cory who lives on the farm and Cory’s girlfriend. Sharon reached out to her niece who is a paramedic to see if she wanted the extra mask, but her team had enough personal protective equipment. As Dennis thought of who needed it most, he thought of Cuomo, who was on the news daily giving updates about the city’s struggle in battling COVID-19.
Admittedly, Dennis had no idea how to send something to a governor. He doesn’t use the internet for much more than research, but in this case he scored the mailing address for Cuomo. He packaged the mask in a Hills Bros. cappuccino box and added the letter that he wrote on a sheet from a lined notepad.
“I decided to put my name on the box at the last moment because I didn’t want it to end up in a dead letter office,” he said. “Just in case it didn’t go anyplace else, it would at least come back to me and I could try sending it to someone else.”
Even if it did get delivered, Dennis didn’t expect the governor to ever see it. In fact, he started the letter: “Dear Mr. Cuomo, I seriously doubt that you will ever read this letter as I know you are busy beyond belief with the disaster that has befallen our country.”
Reactions to the Letter
Cuomo did see the letter and he read it to a national audience, then shared a photo of the letter on his social media channels, omitting the couple’s last name.
When Josh heard that opening line, though, he knew who wrote it.
“Without seeing the letter, I recognized my dad’s style of writing right away,” said Josh, who has lived in Arizona for the past 20 years. “He pretty much always starts out everything with ‘you’re probably not going to read this but …’”
While others appeared amazed at his parents coming up with the idea and actually going to the effort of mailing the mask, Josh said his family and friends know this is just his mom and dad being themselves.
“They’ve always acted this way and they’ve always been giving like this because you don’t go into farming and teaching for glory or money,” he said, recounting other efforts he’s witnessed, including pulling people’s vehicles out of ditches during storms, turning the farm office into a daycare when employees needed to bring their kids to work and building a makeshift tent in a pasture to cover an ailing horse during a rainstorm and staying with the animal through the night.
Cuomo’s commentary after reading the letter explained why he was moved to share it: “A farmer in northeast Kansas. His wife has one lung and diabetes. He has five masks, he sends one mask to New York for a doctor or a nurse … talk about a snapshot of humanity … How beautiful is that? I mean, how selfless is that? How giving is that?”
Learning that Cuomo not only saw the letter but shared the letter publicly was a surprise for the Ruhnkes, and they never would have imagined the reaction from around the world. The story has been told by every major news outlet. Dennis is hearing from college roommates he’s not talked to in decades, and the couple takes calls from former neighbors and farmhands.
Josh believes it was a glimmer of hope in a sea of gloom and doom that the world needed.
“Dad sent the letter right at the time when everything was bad in the news – death tolls, infection rates and don’t touch each other – and people were craving good news,” he said.
Josh made a public Facebook post to allow strangers – or long lost friends – to reach out.
From New York: “Every day I hear one bad thing after another – death and sorrow. Your dad’s letter brightened my day. If they ever make it to NY I’d love to take them for a beer.”
From California: “To Dennis Ruhnke, retired farmer, Kansas: Sir, I was in tears while your letter was being read. You strengthened people’s faith in humanity. You showed kindness and generosity in the midst of the pain and ugliness around us. You are what America’s greatness is all about. You made me proud to be an American. Thank you!”
From Pennsylvania: “Please tell your parents thank you for their kindness and for counting all Americans as their neighbors ❤.”
Reaction to the Reaction
The Ruhnkes are overwhelmed by the response. They are ready for the media attention to be over, but are grateful, too, for the outcomes.
Gov. Cuomo sent a letter thanking Dennis for “reminding us of the importance of generosity and kindness at a time like this.” The governor also called on Dennis’ birthday, May 5.
“I was so shocked he took 10 minutes out of his extremely busy day to call me,” Dennis said. “He was so kind and I wasn’t even nervous, it was just as comfortable as talking to my sister. We bantered back and forth about this and that, and life in general.”
The family was asked almost immediately by strangers what they could give them in return for the act of kindness. They wanted nothing in return, asking instead for anyone who could do so to pay it forward. Even so, as N95 masks became more readily available, people started sending the couple masks. With the help of family and friends, they are giving them out to anyone who doesn’t yet have one.
Dennis credits his wife working with neighbor Thad Geiger to get the ball rolling on one reward Dennis has always wanted. When Dennis was a senior at Kansas State University, his father died so he left school two credit hours short of his degree to manage the family farm. At a special ceremony on May 5 at the Kansas statehouse, Gov. Laura Kelly and Richard Myers, president of Kansas State, awarded Dennis an bachelor’s degree in agriculture as a member of the class of 1971.
Dennis calls the entire experience life changing and said he’s still trying to wrap his mind around all that’s happened. Next on his to-do list is replying to the letters they’ve received, with a handwritten card, of course.
“Of the dozens of letters I’ve received, I think only two were typed out,” he said. “Every other one was handwritten and that meant a lot to me. I’m old enough to appreciate the handwritten letter and that’s how I’ll be writing them back.”
Most moving, though, was the content of the letters. He said the authors of more than half the letters mentioned that they cried when they heard Cuomo reading Dennis’ letter. And, none have brought up politics or denounced anyone; they’ve all been uplifting and positive.
“My wife is putting all of this in a scrapbook that will someday end up in my grandkids’ hands so they can see just what happened,” Dennis said. “They are pretty young right now, from age 13 down to 2, and one of the worst things about this virus is not being able to hug those kids.”
At the end of our phone conversation, Dennis apologizes for not having much time for an interview. “I’m still trying to catch my breath from all this,” he said. “Well, at the moment, I’m also trying to catch a fish.”