Barbara Peterson Ruhlman ’54 passed away on Jan. 2. Barbara graduated from Wellesley in 1954, yet she did not return to the campus until 1995. Her philanthropy and service after that visit would change Wellesley forever.
Barbara’s first gift to Wellesley was visionary. The Barbara Ruhlman Fund for Interdisciplinary Studies acknowledged and supported the increasing interest of students and faculty in collaborating across disciplines. Since 1997, the fund has sponsored the Ruhlman Conference, an annual spring event that celebrates student scholarly and creative achievement. As associate dean of the College at the time, I had the good fortune to work in partnership with Barbara to create the conference. The letters she wrote to me after each conference were marked by consistent themes—appreciation for the work of faculty, staff, and students who plan and run the conference; amazement at the diversity and excellence of the student presentations; and gratitude for the opportunity to return to Wellesley. “The Ruhlman is truly a magical, inspirational day that is hard to describe but is better experienced in person,” Barbara wrote in 2001. Although she shunned attention, Barbara was treated like a rock star on her annual visits to the College.
Everyone at Wellesley knows about “the Ruhlman,” but many may not be aware of the philanthropy that followed her initial gift. Barbara established endowed funds for the Book Arts program, faculty salary support, the social science summer research program, and the sociology department. She also made substantial gifts to the Alumnae Hall renovation project and the Lulu Chow Wang Campus Center. Barbara was equally generous with her time, serving on the Campaign for Wellesley Leadership Gifts Committee, the National Development and Outreach Council, the Class of 1954 Durant Committee, and the WCAA Clubs Admissions Committee.
In Cleveland, where Barbara had lived since 1941, many organizations benefited from her philanthropy, but two were particularly dear to her: University Hospitals, where she served on the board of directors, and Laurel School, her alma mater, where she served as trustee for over 20 years.
The Ruhlman Conference gives us the opportunity to recognize and express gratitude for Barbara’s immense generosity to Wellesley. But every day offers us that same opportunity. When we enter an academic building, the library, or the campus center, or we walk through the Wellesley landscape, we are in the presence of Barbara’s legacy. Given her modesty and aversion to spotlights, that is exactly how Barbara would want us to remember her.