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For 50 years, this foster dad has kept the heat on at one of the country’s first HBCUs | We The People

A foster dad is one of Lincoln University’s longest-tenured employees.

Michael Ruff, a Lincoln University boiler tech, recently marked 50 years as an employee at the HBCU.
Michael Ruff, a Lincoln University boiler tech, recently marked 50 years as an employee at the HBCU.Read moreJESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer

Meet Michael Ruff, foster dad and boiler tech at Lincoln University, where he’s worked for 50 years.

• Retirement options: “I often think ‘What am I going to do if I retire?’” Ruff said. “I’d rather be working.”

• Foster care and concern: Ruff and his longtime partner have fostered between 20 and 30 children. “It’s exciting but it’s also scary,” he said. “You hope you get the right kids to fit you.”

Michael Ruff was a senior at Avon Grove High School when he went to Lincoln University for the first time. It was a trip with his high school sweetheart to pick up her mom from work.

The university’s housekeeping foreman saw Ruff on campus and asked if he was looking for a job.

“Yes,” his girlfriend’s mother answered for him.

No matter that Ruff already had a job at a knitting mill in West Grove — his girlfriend’s mom obviously thought this one was better.

As it turned out, Ruff’s hours were getting cut back at the mill and he did need something more stable. So in December 1969, he took a job in housekeeping at Lincoln University — one of the country’s first Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs).

Ruff couldn’t have known then just how stable the job at Lincoln would be. He doesn’t have that girlfriend anymore, but 50 years later, he still has a job at the university, where he now works as a boiler tech. He is the longest-serving employee on Lincoln’s campus.

“I figure as long as I’m able to do some good, I’ll keep going, year by year,” Ruff, now 69, said.

Not only has Ruff kept the heat on for decades at Lincoln University, he and his current girlfriend have also provided a warm home to 20 to 30 children as foster care parents since the mid-1990s.

“I love kids,” Ruff said. “Good, bad, or indifferent.”

Ruff grew up in West Grove, Chester County, the son of a steelworker and a mushroom farm employee. As a young man, his dreams were modest, he said.

“I thought about college, but what I wanted instead was to find a good job, buy some land, and have a house," he said.

And that’s just what Ruff, who now lives in the Lincoln University section of Lower Oxford Township, did.

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When he took the job at Lincoln, Ruff had no idea of the historical significance of the school. By some, Lincoln is considered the country’s first HBCU, but that is a point of contention with Cheyney University, another HBCU just 25 miles away in Delaware County.

Cheyney says it’s the nation’s oldest HBCU because it was founded in 1837. However, Cheyney didn’t award its first degree in higher education until 1914. Lincoln, meanwhile, began offering college degrees in 1854. Among Lincoln’s notable graduates are poet Langston Hughes and Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall.

But Ruff thought about exactly none of that as he swept the floors, took out the trash, and cleaned the bathrooms during his first three years of work as a housekeeper at Lincoln. He just thought about how he hated the monotony.

So Ruff took an electrical course and, within weeks, was offered a job at the school as a boiler operator, reading meters and making sure the equipment that kept the Chester County campus warm ran properly.

During his 47 years as a boiler operator and tech — 44 of which have been as a union member with 32BJ SEIU — Ruff’s seen the equipment transition from oil to gas, and he’s watched as numerous safety features have been introduced. From 1991 to 1999, in addition to being a boiler operator, he also worked as maintenance supervisor for the campus.

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He’s trained all three of the men he works with now, and he’s watched the campus grow exponentially over five decades. Ruff has even met some celebrities who’ve visited Lincoln, including actor Roscoe Brown and singer Patti LaBelle.

But the most important person he met at Lincoln is his girlfriend of 30 years, Robin Hudson, who works in the school’s shipping and receiving department. It was she who first suggested they become foster parents.

“I remember when my girlfriend wanted to do it. I was like, ‘Go ahead,’" Ruff recalled. “She said ‘It doesn’t work that way. We’ve both got to take these classes.'"

While Ruff finds foster parenting rewarding, he bemoaned “the system’s" stance on punishment, which he said makes discipline difficult.

Of the 20 to 30 kids the couple has fostered, they went on to adopt three. One of them, Marcus Ruff, was struck and killed by a truck while on his way to work as a stonemason in 2014.

But that didn’t stop the couple from opening their hearts again. Currently, they are raising a 13-year-old boy who’s been in their care for three years.

Ruff said if he had it all to do over again, he would.

But luckily, he can still keep doing all of it for now.

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