2003 Harvey E. Beech Outstanding Alumni Award
Benjamin S. Ruffin ’76 (MSW)
Ben Ruffin made history in 1998 when he was tapped as the first African-American to chair the UNC Board of Governors. Over the years, he has built a distinguished career as a leader who has made a lifetime commitment to his trademark philosophy: “To whom much is given, much is required.”
When he was in high school, teachers told him no one from Durham’s West End goes on to college. Ben was encouraged to take tailoring classes. He worked in a tailor shop, sewing cuffs and listening as black community leaders dropped off suits and chatted about happenings in the community.
He has said of that period, “I learned then that we are all standing on the shoulders of those who have gone before us.”
Ben became involved in the civil rights movement in the early 1960s and directed a Durham-based self-help group of 21 neighborhood councils working to improve housing, employment and neighborhoods. He got the first of his college degrees, in education, from North Carolina Central University in 1964.
In 1977, he joined the staff of Gov. James B. Hunt Jr. ’64 as a special assistant focusing on improving education, developing workforce skills and increasing opportunities for minorities. During his seven-year tenure, Ben was instrumental in increasing the number of African-American judges in the state and expanding the number of blacks employed in state government.
Kelvin Harris ’82 recalls being fired up when Ben spoke in 1981 about the importance of education, dedication and goal-setting to prospective members of Kappa Alpha Psi, the fraternity both men belonged to while in college. “Ben exudes credibility,” Kelvin said. “You meet him and you know you’re dealing with a genuine person.”
“Ben is definitely a positive role model, and not only a role model for the young and the old and black and white, but for everybody,” adds Lori Ann Harris ’84. “He talks about his background and how he came from meager means and through hard work and the support of his family was able to go to college and thrive and do well.”
In 1984, Ben became vice president and special assistant to the president of North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Co., a position he held for two years. He then joined R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., where he served as director of corporate affairs for R.J.R. Nabisco and later as vice president of corporate affairs for R.J. Reynolds Tobacco.
Ben joined the Board of Governors in 1991, and served two terms as its chair. The consummate businessman, Ben speaks his mind with an eloquent and prophetic voice. He quickly earned a reputation for building consensus among the 18-member board and proved he could represent all universities in the system.
Known and admired around the country, Ben is chair of the corporate roundtable of the National Black Caucus of State Legislators; a member of the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation; chair of the board of directors of N.C. Mutual; and a member of the boards of Mechanics & Farmers
Bank and the Research Triangle Foundation of North Carolina.
These days, Ben is president of The Ruffin Group, a Winston-Salem management and consulting firm. To future trailblazers like himself, Ben talks about attitude, aptitude and altitude. It is not where you are coming from, he says, but where you are going; it is not what your name is but the name you make for yourself.
Perhaps Ben’s way was best seen earlier this year, when he delivered the UNC-Greensboro commencement address. His moving speech drew references from Langston Hughes, Benjamin Elijah Mays and hymn writer Charles Wesley.
“It doesn’t matter so much today whether you graduated magna cum laude, summa cum laude or just ‘thank you Lordy.’ Your future is in your hands,” he said.
The stirring address drew a standing ovation, as Ben so often does, and we are proud to welcome him to the ranks of the Harvey E. Beech Outstanding Alumni Award.