In honor of two great men

They weren’t just well-known physicians

It’s our fate to open the newspaper or hear from a friend that someone we know has died, and, suddenly, the mind goes to memories of that person and interactions with them.

In the last month, two of the most admirable physicians Bloomington has known have passed on: Jerry Ruff, about a month ago, and just this week, Jean Creek.

I was fortunate enough to know both men to an extent and to limit my descriptions of them by their titles doesn’t do them justice. They were exemplary people whose legacies stretch the definition of ‘lives well-lived.”

Dr. Jerry Ruff

I’m fairly certain I met Dr. Ruff first, after becoming frustrated with symptoms of allergies, and I liked him before I even met him. He’d transitioned from pediatrician to allergist, and as I sat in his waiting room for the first time, I found myself walking around the room and reading his gallery of witticisms, puns, and sometimes, succinct pieces of sage advice.

His son, and longtime Bloomington city council member, Andy Ruff, laughs about his dad’s penchant for mirth and meaning. “He had a great sense of humor. He liked to have sayings and slogans and things – usually meaningful in some way. (Although he also loved the cartoon, “The Far Side.”)

“I remember growing up, the last door you walked out, there was a poster up there with a picture of a guy with his head unscrewed like a light bulb. It said stop – have you forgotten anything?”

I’ll transition from Dr. Ruff to Jerry now, because it just felt normal to call him by his name. He was the first guy to see you on the street or in a crowd and rush over to say hello or chat about something.

He was consistently cheerful, in his physician’s role, his running singlet or assuming his father and community activist duties. He was just so gosh-darned good-spirited he brightened the day for everyone around him.

I posted on social media after learning of his death that son, Andy,  once got so irritated with The Herald-Times that he canceled his subscription to the paper. Someone at the front desk called me back in the newsroom and said Jerry Ruff was there to see me.

Grinning, he said he just stopped in to buy Andy a subscription to the H-T for his birthday. Jerry thought Andy needed to read the paper whether he agreed with its coverage or not. “It’s a gift now,” Jerry said. “He can’t cancel a gift, can he?”

Funnier was running into Jerry somewhere and complaining that they make you feel like a criminal if you buy Sudafed these days. Jerry said he still had some samples – he’d bring them by some time.

A few weeks later I get a call from the front desk, asking if I knew there was a package up there for me. I didn’t, so walked up front and sitting on the counter was a cardboard box, labeled prominently in permanent marker: “Mike Leonard’s Drugs.”

“Jiminy, how long has that been there?” I asked the receptionist. “All day,” she said. “Everyone who comes in gets a laugh out of it.”

So did I.

“He was the Energizer Bunny, that’s for sure,” Andy recalls. “He was always doing something and never seeming to get tired. When we were kids, he’d throw birthday parties for us and he’d organize competitive games. He made competitions out of everything. Trying to win was part of it but it really wasn’t as much about winning as doing the activity.”

That doing also manifested itself in exercise and running. He was on the winning team for the second and third Little 500 races at IU, and continued to work with cycling teams for years. When he turned to running, he did it with a passion, running 53 marathons, scores of other races and fun runs, and organizing the popular statewide racing series, the Mag-7.

“Even when he was practicing as a doctor, he ran to work every day. Rain, sleet, snow. He’d run to work, have clothes there, clean up, put in a full day, and run home,” Andy recalls. “He modeled that for his kids. The whole time I was a city council member I rode my bike to meetings. I liked the environmentally responsible part of it but I got my exercise in, too.”

There was a huge part of Jerry that emphasized responsibility to family, patients and community. For years, he was the go-to doctor for Bloomington public school athletics. “When a kid needed a physical or something and couldn’t afford it, dad would always see them for free. He didn’t want to see a kid not be able to play sports because he couldn’t afford a physical,” Andy says.

It was the kind of thing he not only modeled but taught his children verbally. “He said you’re not put here in this world to acquire and expand your own personal kingdom,” Andy says. “He said you’re mainly here to try to make a difference and do some good.”

That was Dr. Jerry Ruff.

Dr. Jean Creek

I don’t recall the reason I first met Jean Creek. I worked with his daughter, Julie, at The Herald-Times and I interviewed him at his home for reasons I don’t recall.

I knew his background. He was a family practice physician who later became an internist. He had been Herman B Wells’ doctor for nearly 30 years, the team doctor for IU football and basketball teams, director of medical education at Bloomington Hospital and a clinical professor of medicine for IU’s School of Medicine Bloomington program.

He’d also been a co-founder of Internal Medicine Associates, a physician-led, multi-specialty provider, not because he wanted to be a businessman, but because he didn’t. “I remember him saying, ‘I spend hours on the phone every day trying to talk to a non-medical professional about a patient they’d never examined,” Julie recalls.

Like most physicians, he was tired of penny-pinching health care companies denying coverage for procedures that he knew were entirely appropriate and necessary.

He also said to me something I’ve recited often in conversations. To paraphrase, it went something like this: ‘The whole medical profession is upside down,’ he said. “The best and the brightest go into the narrowest and most high-paying fields. They might develop expertise in  one specialty surgery, do that three days a week, and make a ton of money.

‘General practitioners have the worst hours and make the least money and they have to know a lot about a lot. Wouldn’t it make more sense to have the best of the best be at the intake level where their intelligence would be best used?’

It was, to me, an extraordinary example of his honesty and intelligence. He also decried the cost of a medical education and the daunting debt levels he saw students amass getting their college and medical school educations. It bothered him. A lot.

But that was just one aspect of what Maslow would call a self-actualized man. He had a rule that he’d take a month off from his practice every year – two weeks to go back to school and stay on top of the latest protocols and procedures in medicine, and two weeks to travel with his wife, Donna, and after her death, Donna’s sister, Doris, who had also become widowed, and the two married.

And of course, there were children Julie, Jeff, and Teresa, and those annual excursions into the Canadian wilderness for canoeing, fishing and communing with nature. “The funny thing was that no one wound up in the water more than Pop,” Julie recalls.

An Evansville native, Creek once recalled to me how he spent a summer in Bloomington when he was nine and his school teacher parents were getting their required master’s degrees. Daughter Julie says “He was the most intellectually curious person I ever met” and that curiosity started early and ran deep. That summer in Bloomington, the nine-year-old boy discovered that he could sit in the window well at Owen Hall and watch doctors perform autopsies and work with corpses. That, he said, and other things pointed him toward medicine.

Creek grew up playing trumpet and as a high schooler, he was recruited to play in “a dump” nightclub on the Ohio River outside of Evansville with veteran musicians. It paid so well, he explained, that he made more money than his father, and graduated from IU debt free.

“I always called him my True North,” Julie says. “It was more than just loving your father. It was everything – his knowledge, his compassion, his kindness. He led by example.” 🐝