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Suzanne Ruley, fierce advocate for the arts in Pinellas, dies of COVID-19

“She was so strong. She made the best of everything.”
Suzanne Ruley, center, cheerfully addressed the audience at this Ruth Eckerd Hall gala. “She was a singer, she was an actress, but her as a personality was a one-woman show in itself,” said a friend and colleague, Jared O’Roark.
Suzanne Ruley, center, cheerfully addressed the audience at this Ruth Eckerd Hall gala. “She was a singer, she was an actress, but her as a personality was a one-woman show in itself,” said a friend and colleague, Jared O’Roark. [ Courtesy of Heather Wilson. ]
Published Jan. 16
Updated Jan. 16

Matthew Ruley wore protective medical gear and sat beside his wife on their 25th wedding anniversary. From her hospital room, where she was sedated due to COVID-19 complications, he called people who had been at their wedding — the bridesmaids, the woman who caught the bouquet. He held the phone to her ear.

They had met during the first rehearsal for a production of Sweeney Todd put on by the St. Petersburg Little Theatre. And after that, they did everything as a team: facilitating meetings, serving as sounding boards on big projects, raising two kids they adopted from Kazakhstan in 2008, putting on shows, performing tunes.

Those who heard Suzanne Ruley’s voice said they never forgot it.

But the multi-talented singer, artist and nonprofit fundraiser was more often an unsung voice in the room. After her death on Wednesday, family, friends and colleagues spoke of her effervescent personality and her fierce advocacy for the arts, quietly raising millions for nonprofits in Pinellas County.

When Ms. Ruley, the director of development at the Pinellas Community Foundation, was admitted to the hospital a couple weeks before Christmas, her friends followed Matthew’s Facebook posts and thought she would pull through. That’s who she was, they said.

“She was a fighter,” said Susan Crockett, president and CEO of Ruth Eckerd Hall, where Ms. Ruley had previously worked. “She was so strong. She made the best of everything.”

Suzanne Ruley, center, poses with her husband Matthew and Susan Crockett, the president and CEO of Ruth Eckerd Hall. [Courtesy of Heather Wilson]
Suzanne Ruley, center, poses with her husband Matthew and Susan Crockett, the president and CEO of Ruth Eckerd Hall. [Courtesy of Heather Wilson]

Ms. Ruley had worked as a volunteer on Ruth Eckerd’s board of directors before being hired to help secure grants. She would ask others what she could do to support their work and pushed colleagues in their own professional development.

Crockett remembered an after-work boot camp the organization held for employees. Ms. Ruley had accidentally packed two left shoes. They laughed, but Crockett was more surprised to see Ms. Ruley lacing up her shoes and laughing at herself through a workout.

“That was just kind of what she would do,” Crockett said. “She would persevere. Whatever was in front of her, it didn’t stop her. ”

Ms. Ruley was born in Hackensack, NJ, and raised as an only child. After graduating from the Academy of Holy Angels, she earned a degree in painting and drawing from Carnegie Mellon University.

She was an artist in many mediums, visual and performing. Her friends and colleagues remembered her readiness to burst into song at the smallest bit of good news.

“She was a singer, she was an actress, but her as a personality was a one-woman show in itself,” said Jared O’Roark, who first worked with her at Ruth Eckerd Hall. “She just lit up a room. She had one of those laughs that if you hear it across the room you know exactly who it belongs to. Even if she was telling a joke and her joke wasn’t funny, her laughing at the joke was what would make you chuckle. And there were so many times we were laughing to the point we had tears coming out of our noses or couldn’t breathe.”

Her husband said her big heart spilled into everything she did, whether serving as an advocate for the arts or dancing with the kids when they were small or playing hide-and-seek in the grocery store when they were old enough to act embarrassed about it.

“She just had this warmth and joy, and laughter was just part of her nature,” Matthew Ruley said. “When you met her you’d see how vibrant she was. And it wasn’t an act. It was absolutely her.”

Christian Hubbard, cultural affairs coordinator for the city of Clearwater, first came to know Ms. Ruley through research and papers she presented on the importance of public art. He fondly remembered meetings facilitated by both of the Ruleys.

“She had such a wonderful voice and personality she brought to something even as normal as a sit-down planning experience,” Hubbard said. “It felt like fun to work with her. She was bubbling with energy and thoughts of anything’s possible.”

Duggan Cooley, CEO of the Pinellas Community Foundation, said he always enjoyed overhearing Ms. Ruley’s phone calls. No matter who was at the other end, he said, she made it sound like they were the most important person.

Her success as a fundraiser, he said, came from a deep belief that people could find themselves and understand where they belonged in the world through art, and that it should be accessible to all.

“Everything about her was genuine and people knew that,” Cooley said. “She had no issue talking to anybody about almost anything.”

O’Roark remembered leaving Ruth Eckerd Hall to start a theatre-based nonprofit in Tampa. But at the time, he said, he knew very little about grant writing, so Ms. Ruley tutored him.

“She took me to the library, sat me down, taught me how to look for grants, find grants, secret ways for looking grants other people might not know of,” he recalled. “She just wanted the best for everyone involved. She lived what you want a nonprofit to be.”

And the Tampa Bay community will miss her, he said.

“When someone’s in development, they’re the unknown voice in the room,” O’Roark said. “It’s because of them people in nonprofits get to do what they do a lot of the time.... She’s touched hundreds of thousands of kids who have felt her legacy from projects she’s helped fund.”

• • •

BIOGRAPHY

Suzanne Ruley

Born: Sept. 17, 1968

Died: Jan. 13, 2021.

Survivors: Matthew Ruley, husband; Alonya Ruley, daughter; Andrey, son.