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Dot Ruggles, 59, elections chief, dies

(ran SS edition of METRO & STATE)

The longtime public servant's fight against breast cancer was quiet, but courageous, friends say.

Dot Ruggles never wanted anyone to know she was sick.

A week after finding a lump in her breast in January 1999, she took a cab to Morton Plant Hospital, had a mastectomy and called her office to say she would be out for a few days with the flu.

Despite a regimen of chemotherapy and medication, Ms. Ruggles never considered giving up her job as Pinellas County's supervisor of elections, a post she had held for 12 years. When she could not come into the office, she worked from her Clearwater home.

That is where she died Tuesday, surrounded by a small group of family and friends who kept silent about her death for a day to give her young grandchildren time to adjust. She was 59.

"Dot has absolutely fought this breast cancer tooth and nail. She has had the most positive attitude of anyone I've ever known going through a terminal illness," said Pam Iorio, Hillsborough County's supervisor of elections, who used to call Ms. Ruggles after her chemotherapy treatments.

"She'd say, "I decided I'm not going to get sick from chemotherapy,' and I'd say, "Good for you,' " Iorio recalled. "I just think the world of her."

Ms. Ruggles' death came a day after her son, who had power of attorney, officially resigned on her behalf. It is up to Gov. Jeb Bush to appoint an interim supervisor until a new one can be elected in November.

Elections office employees, more like family than co-workers, plodded through Wednesday with long faces and angel pins on their lapels. Flags outside the Pinellas County Courthouse in Clearwater flew at half staff in honor of Ms. Ruggles, who worked in the elections office for 23 years.

Rumors of her ill health had circulated for about a year, but she preferred not to talk about it. Instead, she plowed ahead, business as usual.

"Dottie never felt sorry for herself. She didn't want others to feel sorry for her," said U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill Young, a longtime friend for whom Ms. Ruggles once worked. "Her commitment to the job she had was total."

"If anybody could've beaten what she had, it would've been her," said Pinellas County Commissioner Barbara Sheen Todd. "She was determined. She feared nothing."

Highly regarded throughout the state, she was installed last year as the president of the Florida State Association of Supervisors of Elections.

The League of Women Voters of Florida awarded her its "Making Democracy Work" award for 1999, recognizing her extensive work as an elections observer overseas.

She examined the process in 1997 in Bosnia, Serbia and Albania, where rival factions traded gunfire just outside her tent. She also participated in 1998 in the International Republican Institute mission to China, where she met with village administrators in Beijing regarding elections and governmental procedures.

Each time, she came home with an even greater appreciation for America's democracy and a heightened frustration with those too lazy to participate in it.

"I don't ever want to hear my voters complain about how difficult it is to vote," she said after watching Albanians trudge through miles of rough countryside to cast a ballot.

"She was emotional about the fact that these people would stand in line for the privilege to vote, and then you come home and find people who can't even be bothered to register," said Fay Law, former president of the state and North Pinellas chapters of the League of Women Voters.

Three months after returning from Albania, Ms. Ruggles reached out to Serbian refugees Ljilja and Mirjana Cvijic, sisters who had been brought to Pinellas County by St. Paul's Lutheran Church and the Lutheran Ministries of Tampa.

She helped the young women get their finances in order and find jobs, and she treated them like family, said church member Carol Dunn. Ljilja Cvijic now works at the Supervisor of Elections Office.

"She has taken them in emotionally as part of her own family," Dunn said. "Dot has been a godsend for them."

A native of Missouri who grew up in eastern Tennessee, Ms. Ruggles was selling real estate and running the Gerald Ford re-election campaign phone bank in 1976 when Charles J. Kaniss met her during his bid for the Pinellas County elections supervisor's post.

After winning, Kaniss hired Ms. Ruggles to run his voter outreach program, which was later used by the Federal Elections Commission as a model for other registration drive programs nationally. She left for a few months in 1981 to work for Young in Washington.

She also graduated with a bachelor's degree in management from Eckerd College while working for the elections office.

Ms. Ruggles, a Republican, was first elected to the supervisor's job in 1988 after Kaniss retired. She was responsible for overseeing the election process in Pinellas, registering voters and keeping voter lists current. She managed a staff of more than 30 people.

"I just absolutely love what I do," she said in 1992 after announcing her bid for re-election. She was elected that year and in 1996 without opposition.

Todd recalled a constitutional officer who presented her budget requests with a grin and a lilting southern accent.

"She could usually get what she wanted, but she would do it with the sweetest charm," Todd said. "At a budget hearing, she probably could've asked for the moon and gotten it. She'd just smile and put on that southern charm and everybody would fall all over themselves."

Those who worked and volunteered for Ms. Ruggles said she remained calm under pressure and treated everyone with respect, even during the busiest elections.

"She was a true lady. She was energetic, and through it all, very pleasant. Why she didn't tear her hair out at some of the things she saw, I don't know," Law said. "I don't think anyone ever met Dottie who didn't think she was pretty great."

Despite her diagnosis, Ms. Ruggles remained a whirlwind at the office, tabulating next year's budget and gearing up for November, one of the county's busiest election seasons on record.

"Her thing was lead, follow or get the hell out of the way," said Deborah Clark, her deputy administrator and close friend. "You talk about a woman of action. We used to absolutely marvel at how much the woman got done. We used to just run to keep up."

Ms. Ruggles' health had begun to decline noticeably only recently.

On May 5, she said she would probably withdraw from the November ballot. A few days later, she made it known that she planned to resign well before the election took place.

On May 11, she was admitted to Morton Plant Hospital in Clearwater. Accompanied by her son, James L. Walker, and daughter, Diane Romero, Ms. Ruggles returned to her Clearwater home Tuesday morning, where hospice workers cared for her, Clark said.

In addition to her son and daughter, Ms. Ruggles is survived by three sisters, a brother and five grandchildren.

"She was as nice a person as I've ever known," Young said. "I am very sorry that she suffered. And I am very sorry that Pinellas County has lost a real outstanding public servant."

_ Information from Times files was used in this report.