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Saying farewell to a sharp wit and light heart

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By HOWARD TROXLER

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 19, 2000


In an obituary, all of the official stuff must be included. No one feels much like telling jokes or funny tales. Those closest to the departed are grieving. They often are not, as the phrase goes, Available For Comment.

So when Dorothy Walker Ruggles, the supervisor of elections in Pinellas County, died this week of cancer at the age of 59, she received a quite proper and fitting summation: 23 years employed in the elections office, the past 12 as its supervisor. Never opposed for re-election. And so forth.

To which I would like to add:

What a hoot of a woman! I liked her tons, like most everybody else did. She was fun, funny, enthusiastic, self-deprecating and deliciously gossipy.

She wisecracked with a fast twang. She relished a wide network of friends and acquaintances, whom she addressed for the most part as "Sweetie." She didn't "have" lunch with them all, she waged lunch.

"I don't think I ever in my life called her "Dot,' " Jade Moore told me. He is executive director of the Pinellas Classroom Teachers' Association and a friend of Ruggles for more than 20 years. "It was always, "Hey sweetie! Hey honey!' "

Ruggles was a former president and active member of the Suncoast Tiger Bay Club, a politics-minded group that prides itself on grilling public figures with tough questions. The club holds an annual banquet with satirical skits from the "Tiger Bay Players."

"Her singing voice had a lot in common with a cat who had gotten his tail caught in a rocking chair," Moore said. "But she was plucky. We could talk her into any skit we had."

Gregory Wilson, another former Tiger Bay president, said of Ruggles: "I imagine the only difference between her and most of the rest of us was she was more loved. She had an entirely different style than the rest of us. She loved Tiger Bay, but she did a better job of not taking herself too seriously."

She was part of Pinellas County's old-guard, early Republican tradition, long before the GOP spread to other places in Florida. She always was more interested in good governance than in ideology or meanness. When the newspaper had to sue her in 1998 over a point of confusion in the election law, our lawyer added, graciously: "This is not to suggest that Ms. Ruggles doesn't run a tight ship because I know she does."

Most citizens knew her only from her despairing predictions of low voter turnout in off-year elections. "I'm going to call all my friends," she complained in 1998, "and say, "Go out and vote again.' " Her experience as an election overseer in Albania in 1997 -- with bullets whizzing overhead -- drove home for her how much we take voting for granted.

In 1993, Ruggles was dragged into a controversy in St. Petersburg when David Fischer defeated former police Chief Curt Curtsinger by just over 1,400 votes in the mayor's race. Curtsinger's supporters accused Ruggles of rigging the election. It was a ridiculous charge, but it tied her up for months.

Ruggles handled it with typical good humor. When an opposing lawyer accused her of setting up a confusing system, she replied: "If I can understand it, I assume anyone can."

She claimed not to be bothered by it all: "I'm going to outlive those people. I'm a lot younger than they are. It doesn't matter what they do or say." Unfortunately, she was wrong.

Jade Moore told me she would have enjoyed people getting a few laughs in her memory. "She kept a really light touch," he said. "She wanted people to think, but to have a good time thinking. There are too many people who get so long in the face when they think about the weighty matters of the world."

Agreed. Goodbye, sweetie.

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