Volunteer Spotlight: ‘Big Fred’ Ruhrwien
An Interview With Recently Retired 89-Year-Old Park Greeter, Guider of Tours, Unraveler of Mysteries and Volunteer Extraordinaire
“Big Fred” Ruhrwien has spent a lot of time in Forest Park since becoming a Forest Park Forever and Explore St. Louis volunteer in 2003, but it was another St. Louis City landmark that first sparked his love of public parks.
“I grew up in North St. Louis near Fairground Park,” Ruhrwien, age 89, recalls. “As soon as we got out of school, we would run over to the park. In the summers we slept in the park because we didn’t have air conditioning. And for a dime, men could get a piece of soap and a towel and shower there. We didn’t have showers at home.”
Trips outside the neighborhood were as rare as a shower. Ruhrwien’s family didn’t have a car until he was 12-years-old, and getting to Forest Park required two buses. But sometimes, his dad would borrow a car and drive the family to the Park.
“We would sit in front of the fountain on Government Hill and just watch the lights change,” Ruhrwien says. “And whenever we got a chance, we would go on sled rides down Art Hill. It was a magical place.”
After attending Harrison Grade School at Fair Avenue and Green Lea Place, Ruhrwien studied at nearby Beaumont High School. He joined the Marines after graduating, allowing him to attend Washington University through the GI Bill.
“It was the only way I could have gotten to Washington University,” he says. “We were a poor family, but we didn’t realize we were poor. We had a nice life, and we always had a roof over our heads and enough to eat at night.”
Ruhrwien studied business and public administration at Washington University, joining Lincoln Engineering on Goodfellow once he had earned his degree. He then worked briefly as a salesman at Gaines Hardwood Company, where his father also worked, before joining the firm that would be his employer for the next 31 years — McDonnell Aircraft — in 1962.
“I had told my wife, Helen, I’d do it for six months and then get out of there!” Ruhrwien laughs.
At McDonnell, later McDonnell Douglass and now Boeing Company, Ruhrwien wrote proposals for the company’s commercial aircraft division. It was a busy time for the company, which was also manufacturing the F-4 Phantom jets and Mercury space capsules.
“We used to work all night long on proposals,” Ruhrwien says. “My dad would say, ‘There’s 35,000 people working out there — why do you have to work all night?’ I’d just say, ‘Dad, it’s hard to explain!’”
Ruhrwien took his hard-earned retirement in 1993, but in 2001 he realized he “didn’t want to be a couch potato” and launched his volunteer career. He first volunteered with the St. Louis Sports Commission, doing various jobs as the commission brought the Women’s Final Four basketball tournament to downtown the Savvis Center. However, when he learned of the work Forest Park Forever was doing, he knew he had found his calling.
“There was no doubt in my mind,” he says, though the young organization was a far cry from what it is today, thanks to thousands of donors and volunteers, like Ruhrwien.
“Forest Park Forever has done a tremendous job,” he says. “When I started, the organization was in a small corner of the building which is now part of the Trolley Room. The Grand Basin was falling apart, and the Boathouse looked awful. The restoration I’ve seen has been amazing.”
For many years, Ruhrwien led walking and bus tours every Monday except the first Monday of each month. He even became a local celebrity in 2009 when he helped unravel the mystery of the old Spanish Cannon “Examinador” near Lindell Boulevard.
Fred lost Helen in 2014 after having raised four daughters with his bride of 58 years. Recently, he hasn’t been able to drive himself to Forest Park, but technology has come to the rescue: he started using Uber to get to his job greeting guests in the Visitor Center every last Monday of the month. December 31, 2018, was his last day of service.
“Working at Forest Park was my therapy,” he says. “I enjoyed talking to people from all over the world on my walking and bus tours. I’ve helped with the Shakespeare Festival and the St. Louis Symphony’s annual free concert, and in 2003 I gave out 3,000 flashlights when the Celebrate 2004 Party was held in the Park.”
“I plan to get back to Forest Park as often as I can with my 12 grandkids and two greats — that is, when I’m not sitting on my balcony smoking cigars.”
“Big Fred” Ruhrwien volunteered for a total of 2,000 plus hours at Forest Park Forever.