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UVic political scientist Norman Ruff dies at 78

Norman Ruff, a political scientist who taught some of the province’s top politicians and analyzed almost 50 years worth of political drama, has died.
University of Victoria professor emeritus Norman Ruff

Norman Ruff, a political scientist who taught some of the province’s top politicians and analyzed almost 50 years worth of political drama, has died.

Ruff died in hospice Saturday night with his daughter, Simonne, by his side after a long battle with esophageal cancer. He was 78.

A professor of political science at the University of Victoria for 36 years, Ruff was a long-time political commentator who was on the speed dial for press gallery journalists looking for thoughtful analysis.

He started teaching at UVic in 1969 and until his retirement in 2005, inspired hundreds of political science students, some of whom went on to become cabinet ministers, MLAs and senior government staffers.

Former B.C. Liberal cabinet minister George Abbott was Ruff’s teaching assistant in the 1970s. Ruff stood out as an exceptional teacher thanks to his sharp analytical mind and his irreverent sense of humour, Abbott said. “The way in which Norman conducted himself and his political science classes ensured all of his students graduated from his courses even more interested in the art and science of politics than when they entered the class.

UVic president Jamie Cassels called Ruff “an inspiration to generations of young scholars.”

“As a political scientist, his learned, intuitive commentary was a staple of news coverage and analysis during numerous elections,” Cassels said in a statement. “Colleagues recall media reporters lining up outside his office for the opportunity to glean even the smallest nugget of incisive wisdom and well-informed opinion of happenings on the political front.”

“Respected by all, he was held in the highest esteem by politicians of all stripes, even among those who were in the critical crosshairs,” Cassels said.

Vaughn Palmer, the Vancouver Sun’s veteran political columnist, said Ruff was “the teacher of us all.”

He said Ruff had a unique ability to put complex issues into vivid plain language in a way that underscored why they matter.

“He was legendary for it,” Palmer said. “It was an uncanny ability to communicate.”

This earned Ruff an honorary life membership to the B.C. Legislature Press Gallery.

From the B.C. rail corruption trial, to the fast ferries fiasco, to former premier Gordon Campbell’s drunk driving charge, Ruff compiled a summary sheet of B.C. political scandals which he called Scandology.

He joked about turning it into a book called A Ruff Guide to B.C. Politics, Palmer said.

“You couldn't spend any time with Norman without realizing he has this encyclopedic knowledge of B.C. politics,” said Jeremy Wilson, a professor emeritus in political science. “He really was a political junkie in the best possible way.”

At one point, Ruff shared his political insight during a weekly radio show CKNW Radio called In the Ruff.

Times Colonist political columnist Les Leyne said Ruff was “unfailingly helpful and always understood reporters’ peculiar needs.” Leyne said he’s glad Ruff got to witness the last three months of B.C. politics, which saw the B.C. Liberals ousted after 16 years in power, replaced by a minority NDP government.

Deputy Premier and Finance Minister Carole James said “B.C politics and Norman Ruff go together.”

Ruff’s delight in politics and history was infectious, she said. James said she’d often see Ruff during his frequent walks or at Munro’s Books and he had a knack for turning a conversation about present-day politics into a history lesson.

“I feel sad at losing him,” James said. “I also thought about how disappointed he would be that he couldn't get to comment on a minority government, another piece of politics he could inform us all about.”

Born and raised in England, Ruff moved to New Brunswick in 1962 to work on the government’s treasury board.

He completed his masters degree in political science at McMaster University in 1965 and his PhD at McGill University in 1973.

Simonne said her father instilled in her and her brother, Andy, the importance of knowing the facts and doing what you love.

“[He taught us] how important it was to know what made you happy and to do that. And that would really sustain you but also that you would do your best work that way,” Simonne said.

Simonne said her father had an “amazing wonder and curiosity about everything in the world.”

Ruff has four grandchildren, Simonne’s two children, Kahveh and Arya, and Andy’s two children, Annabelle and Alfie, who live in the U.K.

Simonne has fond memories of visiting Victoria from her home in San Diego and watching her children skip rocks with their grandfather along Willows Beach and Cattle Point.

She said Kahveh and Arya still cherish the crystals Ruff bought them from the Royal B.C. Museum, which he told them to dip in the ocean so they would be more powerful.

“He was such a loving father and grandfather,” she said.

Ruff’s retirement didn’t stop him from penning letters to the editor, editorials or giving interviews on the latest political saga.

Ruff was passionate about electoral reform, the subject of his last opinion piece, which he wrote from his bed. It was published on Aug. 15 in the Times Colonist.

“Right up until the end he was doing what he was passionate about and what he really loved,” Simonne said.

Details have not yet been finalized for a memorial, but it will likely take place in September or October.