Ruth Garfinkel '78
If there's one statement that defines Ruth Garfinkel '78, it's "I can do that."
Garfinkel, a Johnstown native who's lived in Pittsburgh for 55 years (the last 18 in Shadyside), built a successful, fulfilling career by taking on challenges that others might have passed on, simply because they believed they weren't qualified. But that never stopped her.
"I had the strength of my Robert Morris skills behind me," she says.
Garfinkel moved to Pittsburgh during her senior year in high school, graduating from Taylor Allderdice High School in Squirrel Hill. After graduating, she went to the University of Pittsburgh for one semester before dropping out due to family issues. She needed a job, though, so on the advice of a friend she signed up for a one-year secretarial skills course at Robert Morris downtown. "I took typing and shorthand," she says, "and I even had a charm teacher. She told me to lose 5 pounds and to smoke my cigarette in the middle of my mouth. That's how it was back then."
Garfinkel finished number one in her class and ended up taking a job with Duquesne Light as a secretary. Then one day she got a call that Chief Judge Wallace S. Gourley of the United States District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania was looking for a secretary. "I didn't even know what that meant," she says. She interviewed for the job, however, and ended up working there for six years.
After becoming pregnant with her first son, Marc, Garfinkel decided to put her career on hold for a while. She always wanted to finish her degree, though, and by 1974 she was ready to go back to Pitt and pick up where she had left off studying business teacher education. "They really didn't have much for me, though. So I took a look at Robert Morris, and it turned out to be the most embracing opportunity for me."
Garfinkel says Robert Morris went out of its way to help her. "I was an adult student with young children at home and needed flexibility in my academic schedule. The Robert Morris administration and faculty were very helpful." When she took her professional semester, she wanted to teach close to home at Fox Chapel High School, even though Robert Morris had never partnered there before. So they made it happen. "They even allowed me to take courses at Duquesne and apply the credit towards my degree." In 1978 she earned her BSBA in Business Education.
"They did whatever it took to enable me to earn that degree," she says. "From that point on Robert Morris became such an integral part of my life."
Eventually Garfinkel took a job teaching at the Zoar Home in Shaler, a home for unwed mothers, a residential facility that provided one-on-one instruction to pregnant unmarried women and school-age girls. "In those days you couldn't stay in school if you were pregnant," she says.
Then, in the early 1980s, when the school program was forced to close due to a lack of funding from the Allegheny Intermediate Unit, the Methodist Church asked Garfinkel to stay on and start a private school and serve as its director. It was a lot to ask of someone with her limited experience. But she didn't let that stop her. "I said, 'Sure…I can do that!'" Soon she was hiring teachers for the first time and finding the supplies they needed, and in three months the new school, Encore Tutoring, was up and running. "I was even able to get the school licensed solely on the strength of my Robert Morris education."
In 1988, Garfinkel took on another challenge when the National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW), an organization with programs and projects that support women, children, and families in the general community, brought her on to handle most of the business operations. She ended up becoming the council's first executive director, which allowed her to go out and raise money for the organization. The whole time she kept leaning on her Robert Morris education. "RMU was always a part of my life here," she says. She retired in 2004 after more than 15 years of service.
One of Garfinkel's proudest moments came when she was presented with RMU's Heritage Award in 1994. The ceremony was held downtown at the then Vista Hotel. "I was very proud to share my Robert Morris story with my NCJW colleagues," she says.
Garfinkel's husband Alan, who was in private practice downtown, served as legal counsel for Robert Morris, which gave her the opportunity to get to know the university's upper administration. "We became great friends with President and Mrs. Edward A. Nicholson," she says. "We travelled the world together, went to board retreats, etc. As a result I was able to come to love Robert Morris even more by learning all the fine work it was doing." She has also gotten to know President Greg Dell'Omo and his wife, Polly, and appreciates what they have done for the university. "RMU's growth and success have been strong under his leadership."
Looking back over her career, Garfinkel says her success had a lot to do with serendipity. "I've had three of the best jobs anyone could ever ask for," she says. "It was like I had this little RMU angel hanging over me."
Today she and her husband are enjoying life in Shadyside, occasionally traveling across country to visit their five young grandchildren. Her son, Marc, is transplant surgeon and chief of surgery in Springfield, Ill., and her younger son, Asher, teaches film and writing at UCLA and online, and is the executive director of the Los Angeles Arthritis Foundation.
Garfinkel has been supporting RMU financially through annual gifts since 1994, and has been a member of the university's President's Council for the past five years. She is also a past member of the School of Education and Social Sciences' Board of Visitors.
She says she chooses to give back because Robert Morris gave so much to her and continues to do so for others today. "Plain and simple, RMU was and is a university that provides a quality education in a variety of disciplines with a focus on future employment for its graduates. It is a place that enables you to get a job. And that's something worth supporting."