May 25, 2020

GUEST ROOM | Friends and Colleagues Say Goodbye to Thomas Ruttledge

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Dr. Thomas Ruttledge died on Tuesday while out on one of his famous bike rides. Tom discovered his love for chemistry while an undergraduate at Wayne State University. He wrote his thesis on pathogen interactions in plants with David Lynn at the University of Chicago and later came to Cornell University as a post-doctoral associate.  He taught at Earlham, Whitman and Ursinsus Colleges before coming to Cornell a little less than twenty years ago. Here he taught some of our largest organic chemistry classes, and the more general Language of Chemistry class.  Through the Cornell HHMI Accelerating Medical Progress Through Scholarship and Douglas programs, he was active in the underrepresented minority STEM education work of the chemistry department.

Tom Ruttledge had been teaching Chem 2510, 1150 and 3010 for so many years that, until his recent heart problems, it is difficult to remember another professor teaching any of those classes. Many of you will remember him from Chem 3580.  He was a truly memorable teacher. Some students loved the way he taught and others did not. But everyone knew that he was going to teach any class he taught with the same in your face, you’ve got to look at me style. Those jokes. That smile. His wardrobe must have glowed at night.

Tom was always out there. His office door was pretty much always open. Undergraduates, fellow teachers, graduate students, custodians, building managers, administrative assistants, anyone who knew him could, and would, come in to talk.  He would listen to anyone’s problems and when I was the one talking, I always felt like I had entered some late night talk show, where I was the guest and Tom was David Letterman.  In the end, those late night talk show meetings left you with a new understanding of the topics you discussed.

But of all the people who came into his office, it was always you, the students, who were at the center of his sphere. He would listen to your problems, both chemistry and otherwise. And he would think about what the best solution would be. Sometimes the decisions he came to just drove the class batty. Like not giving out the answer keys to his practice exams. He explained to me he knew in his bones, that as a class, you would learn better without the answer keys — that the uncertainty of not knowing the answer and thinking about the answer was better life preparation than having the answer done for you ahead of time and feeling everything worked out easily. It is what he believed as an educator, and my goodness, did he stick to it.

Dr. Ruttledge once mentioned that he had been told that he was the professor on campus who wrote the most recommendation letters to the HCEC for medical school. How many letters would that have been?  It must have been close to twenty. Twenty students a year whose lives had most been changed by Professor Ruttledge, who thought that he got them as people most clearly and whose words would be of the greatest interest to medical schools. That’s 0.1 percent of all doctors in this country.

So one way we can remember Tom is, whenever we enter a new doctor’s office, to think that there is a very real chance that Tom Ruttledge is one of the reasons why the doctor facing us is talking to us now. But we will never forget his jokes, that smile and the clothes.

In his memory, sincerely yours,

Stephen Lee and Michael Lenetsky

Stephen Lee is a Professor and Michael Lenetsky is the Sr. Department Manager within the Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology in the College of Arts and Sciences. Comments can be sent to opinion@cornellsun.com. Guest Room runs periodically throughout the summer.