Perhaps it is no coincidence that community servant Ira Ruskin passed away on the eve of Independence Day. His adult life was devoted to serving the people of the country he loved. As we celebrated Independence Day on July 4 we could also reflect on Ira’s life, cut short by complications from the brain cancer that he knew was going to take him.
He packed a lot into his 70 years. The former Berkeley “radical” who worked on the leading issues of his time eventually moved to Redwood City, a town he and his wife Cheryl chose for the qualities of the community, and where Ira first made his mark in elective politics.
Perhaps it is not surprising that Ira could work well across all lines given he could balance having prestigious degrees from fierce competitors Cal and Stanford. He was a unique individual, from working on international issues, being the first male to receive an award from DAWN, a feminist organization, for his work on women’s rights, to, as a New York-born white male, being a member of the Organization for Chinese Americans.
His six years in the California Assembly and his statewide efforts on the environment and other key issues is well chronicled. But to many of us, state service is distant and hard to personally connect with. For me, his real “connection” was to the local community and his impact leaves an enduring legacy.
When Ira first ran for City Council in Redwood City, he knew he had an uphill battle but, despite being an unknown newcomer, he spoke to the heart of many important community issues. Ira talked about the need for city councilmembers and school board members to work together for our youth. He helped transform the relationship in ways that still resonate. Some said councilmembers should stick to city business — Ira said and knew that quality schools and opportunities for youth are city business. Ira said that the Redwood Shores neighborhood should be more integrated into the broader community and should have more community facilities. Some in Redwood Shores said, let’s secede from Redwood City. Ira said let’s work together — since then, not only has there been a new Redwood Shores library and other community facilities, two residents of Redwood Shores were selected as Redwood City mayor, Rosanne Foust, and current Mayor Jeff Gee.
After one disappointing election, Ira could not be stopped thereafter, becoming the top vote-getter on three crowded ballots, including a remarkable term as mayor. Ira, never an ideologue on the City Council, believed the basics were critical, even if they did not generate popularity. He drove city engineers to distraction when he would go out to monitor how the new downtown sidewalks were being installed — they had to be just right. He knew that our citizens, schools, businesses, hospitals and churches would need a protected water supply with an ability to grow — his behind-the-scenes hand in the enactment of necessary ordinances and installation of an extraordinary recycled water facility was masterful to say the least. Without his guidance to staff and leadership of the council, it would not have happened.
Ira believed too that we had to find a better way to provide emergency medical services. Fire engines and ambulances would both respond to medical calls, generally with engines able to arrive first. On behalf of Redwood City, he worked tirelessly to forge the successful countywide effort to ensure in a cost-effective way that a paramedic was on every fire engine and that ambulances would be secondary as needed — an extraordinarily complicated effort. In parallel, city boundaries were dropped so that the closest available fire engine would respond, no matter from what city the engine originated. His efforts were largely unnoticed by the public but made a difference to each person in the community.
An effective leader must have perseverance, commitment and courage. Ira had all of those qualities but, overriding that, he cared. He cared for each citizen and his actions were always motivated by that care. Whether it was ensuring that staff timely responded to citizen concerns or building a new library, he cared.
Ira was a private person dedicated to the public good. He endured the sacrifices of public life to do public good. He helped transform Redwood City. But, I will most remember Ira as a great friend, with a wonderful sense of humor, who was fun to be with in serious times and not, who I knew cared about me and his community. Rest in the peace you so deserve Ira.
Jim Hartnett is the former mayor of Redwood City.