Gloria & James Ruffins

Gloria Hearn grew up on Chicago’s West Side, but her family frequently visited her mother’s sister on the South Side. She was there on the porch when Jim Ruffins came from next door to say hello.

Nearly every visit after that, Gloria and Jim talked about their high schools, their favorite classes, and sports. He played football. She was a cheerleader and ran track as part of the Douglas Park Junior Olympics Team.

“She was really smart, bright, and interesting, and it was nice to be around her,” said Jim. After about a year of talking, Jim, then 16, asked Gloria for a date. Gloria wanted to say yes, but could not. “I’m not allowed to date until I’m 16,” she told him.

Jim started calling her, though, and he came to the dances held by the roller skating club Gloria had organized. Jim called on her 16th birthday to ask her out. They dated through high school and then whenever he was home from Coe College in Cedar Rapids and she from Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, Ill. After graduation, they became exclusive.

“She’s the smartest person I know, and I love listening to her. She’s fun, and she’s a very kind person who is very much interested in other people and concerned about other people,” said Jim. “But the core of it is how I feel about her — it’s a way I have never felt about any other woman.”

Gloria admired Jim’s intellect and kindness, too. “I love the way he converses with me, and with my friends, and, when we were young, I truly loved how he talked with my mother,” she said.

Gloria’s father died young and suddenly. Her mother, a Madam C.J. Walker beautician, worked from home to support her four children and see them through college. “One time, when we went to the drive-in, Jim asked my mom to go with us. Who does that? I knew he was exceptional,” Gloria said.

Jim and Gloria married at the Carey Tercentenary A.M.E. Church on Dec. 1, 1963. A reception followed at the Roosevelt Ballroom. President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated two weeks prior. “We thought no one would show up because everybody in the whole country was glued to the television, but over 100 people attended,” Gloria said. “I think they just needed a release from all the drama and hurt caused by his death.”

For a year, she taught at a local elementary school and Jim taught high school biology, then the couple moved to DeKalb, where Jim earned the first of his two master’s degrees at Northern Illinois University. Gloria commuted to an elementary school in Elgin until she was hired to teach first grade in DeKalb, where she was the school system’s first Black teacher.

It was the Penn Relays that introduced the couple to Philadelphia in 1969 or ’70, shortly after they moved to Greensburg, Pa., so Jim could take a biology professor position at Seton Hill College.

Jim had heard about the relays at the Drake Relays in Des Moines. “There were announcements about all the records being set in Philadelphia, and it captured my imagination,” he remembered. Gloria, who had won gold metals in the 100-yard dash as a teen, loved track and field as much as he did, and Greensburg was too close to Philadelphia not to go.

“It was so exciting,” said Gloria. The track teams’ uniforms were colorful, and when Florida A&M won an event, they tossed oranges into the stands, she remembers.

“It was like nothing I had ever seen in my life, with runners from all over the country and world and thousands of people there,” said Jim.

The two made the drive annually, first from Greensburg and then from Pittsburgh; Gloria earned a master’s degree and they both earned Ph.D.s in higher education from Pitt, walking the stage together.

They moved to Philadelphia in 1975 when Jim, who is now 80, became head of the counseling program at Antioch Graduate School’s local campus. After Antioch, Jim entered the private sector as a consultant with an international management training firm. In 1990, he became a counselor at Community College of Philadelphia, where he advised students on everything from their careers to personal issues and also organized school functions for nearly a quarter century until retiring in 2015.

Soon after they arrived in Philadelphia, Gloria became director of education at Baptist Children’s Services, a foster home for children. Several years later, she joined the faculty at A.S. Jenks School, where she most often taught first grade. She was a finalist for the district’s Teacher of the Year Award in 1995. She retired in 2006.

The couple are proud members of White Rock Baptist Church. Gloria belongs to Delta Sigma Theta sorority and Jim to Omega Psi Phi fraternity. For more than 30 years they have been part of the Gourmet Club, which at least twice a year holds a gathering at a member’s home featuring the food of a chosen country.

Yet, the Penn Relays retain a very special place in their lives. Since traveling from Greensburg to attend their first, Gloria and Jim have missed just one of the events each. They took their daughter, Ebonne, to her first in 1983, when she was one month old. After buying a home in University City, the couple launched their post-Relays party. There were eight guests — as many as could join them at their kitchen table. They served pizza, salad, and whatever desserts guests brought.

At the relays, “I see people giving their all,” said Jim. “I see people from all over the country and from different countries — it is really an event unlike any other.”

“When you have the same seats year after year, you meet so many people in front of you, behind you, beside you,” adds Gloria, “So you are seeing friends again.”

Some of those Relays friends became post-Relays party guests, and, especially after the couple moved to a condo near the Art Museum in 2008, the party grew. Attendees now come from across Philadelphia and the country, including New Jersey, Georgia, California, Delaware, Virginia, Maryland, Tennessee, and South Carolina, home of Gloria’s brother, Nate, who never misses.

Gloria has two long-standing requests for her guests, whose numbers have reached about 70: She needs a pennant from their collegiate alma mater for her annual display, and every guest must meet and converse with at least two people they did not come with.

So central to the Ruffins family are the Penn Relays and party that Ebonne attended even when studying at Spelman College in Georgia and Northwestern University in Illinois, and when working at CNN in New York. When she returned to Philadelphia to become a Comcast VP, Ebonne became a party cohost, changing the menu to gourmet buffet. Her husband, Keith, a member of The Inquirer Board of Directors, proposed to her at the 46th Penn Relays party in 2019.

No one suspected that would be the last party, and the last Penn Relays, for some time.

Gloria and Jim were not surprised when the 2020 and 2021 events were canceled because of COVID-19. The magic of the Relays requires bringing a lot of people together.

“Even though the athletes are the main event, it’s also the participants packed in the stands cheering the contestants on that add to the flavor, the grandeur, and the fun that give it a carnival atmosphere,” said Jim.

“Hopefully in 2022 the Penn Relays will return, welcoming athletes and fans to Philadelphia again,” said Gloria. “The Ruffins family looks forward to welcoming our guests again to a fantastic party.”

For Jim and Gloria, the ability to safely cheer on the athletes, then celebrate with friends and family from all over the country would signify that life was largely back to a beautiful normal.