Good Life

Q&A: Paul Ruskin, Penn State’s Office of Physical Plant

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Paul Ruskin’s not going to spend his retirement quietly.

In June, Ruskin will leave 16 years as communications and public affairs coordinator for Penn State’s Office of Physical Plant. During his 38 years at the university, he also worked in the agriculture and communications colleges.

Passionate about the environment and energy sustainability, he commuted to work by bike and, while at OPP, made a hobby out of turning off unused lights around campus.

Now, he plans to operate a giant radio telescope, dig for Roman ruins and maybe even count sharks — not surprising for a man of adventure who once explored the Yukon River and appeared in a Sean Connery movie.

Why are you retiring?

I’ve got other things to do. I’ve got five grandkids, and they never see me and they would like to see more of me. My daughter keeps saying, ‘When are you going to come visit?’

And OPP is such a busy place. I keep waiting for our construction to peak and go down, but it just keeps going up and up. This is the busiest summer ever. We have the natural gas line, the Columbia (Gas) natural gas line, coming through campus. There’s construction and road work everywhere on campus, and I’m the fellow that takes all the concerns about that. I won’t call them complaints. I’ll call them concerns. I’m going to duck out from that.

What are some of the things you want to do?

The first thing I’m doing is signing up for radio astronomy training (at the Green Bank Radio Telescope). This is the largest movable object on the face of the Earth. ... Surprisingly, it’s not that far away. It’s in West Virginia. It’s an easy half-day drive from here. I have been trying to do this for 10 years. I signed up before, then got tied up and never got to it. It’s like half the size of Beaver Stadium, and it moves. It’s the same height as the Washington Monument. I’m going to take a weeklong training course. I’m going to work with radio astronomers, learn about radio astronomy. I’ll be able to operate a functioning radio telescope. I’ll take shifts in the control center.

And after that?

I am volunteering with Earthwatch and I’m going to do volunteer science expeditions. And the first one I’m going to do is: I want to excavate the Roman fortress at the end of Hadrian’s Wall. Hadrian’s Wall goes across Great Britain, and at the eastern end, north of London, there’s a fortress that scientists are working on. And I would join the expedition, work under the chief scientist and do archaeology.

Is that something you’ve always had an interest in?

Well, actually, I was an anthropology and archaeology major when I was an undergrad at Penn State. And my wife and I met as pit partners in 1967. We were on the salvage archaeology team at Penn State University at the Raystown Dam. Prior to the flooding of the Raystown area, we were sent in as Penn State students, and my wife and I dug 17 feet into the ground in a 5-by-5-foot pit.

... And when you’re in a 5-by-5-foot pit all summer long, you get to know somebody pretty well. We came back and told our friends ... I introduced her as what I dug up last summer, and she introduced me as what she dug up last summer.

So it’s a way to get back to our roots, and renewing our joint interest in archaeology.

That sounds fun.

I’m skeptical about this retirement. I can’t believe you get paid for doing nothing. Once I see the finances are working out, my goal is to do one scientific expedition a year. ... I’m a diver. I’m one of the founding members of the scuba club on campus. So I still have diving skills, though I’m getting rusty. They do shark counting in Belize. You go down to Belize and go diving, and do surveys, wildlife surveys as part of a scientific expedition. ... I’ve got lots of hobbies. I cross-country ski, downhill ski. I kayak. I swim. I snorkel. Fossil collecting. I’m interested in geology. I’ve got a lot of hobbies and I need time to do them.

What did you do before Penn State?

I graduated from Penn State and went into American Armed Forces radio. I basically did what the movie “Good Morning Vietnam” is about. I was an Air Force broadcaster for American Forces Radio and TV, proudly called AFART — I love that. I worked first at Medina Air Base (in Texas), running a TV studio as a producer and director, making training videotapes for the Air Force.

I spent a year in Texas, then I spent a year in Alaska. ... I spent 13 months in Galena, Alaska. It’s a remote air base. Our purpose was to attack the Russian bombers if they came in to bomb Fairbanks. ... After the (first) winter ended — I had only been married a couple of years, got married in ’69 — my wife was living here on campus in Atherton Hall. She was a Ph.D student in neurobiology. I called her and said, ‘Drop the Ph.D research. I’ve got an adventure ready. I’m smuggling you up to Alaska without telling the Air Force.’ I snuck her in at my own expense. I flew her into Galena on a private civilian plane. Dressed her up in Indian paraphernalia. And I built a lean-to out behind the base, and we moved into my lean-to, and we basically camped out in the woods and lived together for a while.

After a while, the (local) Indian chief figured out what we were doing. ... He came to me and said, “I can provide you with a house. It’s $50 a month.” ... So we went to look at it. It’s this old shack, leaning at 12-degree angle, sitting off-kilter on the base. ... We spent the rest of the year living in this luxurious shack 100 feet from the Yukon River. We had many adventures. We would go off and take a boat and explore the Yukon, which is very dangerous. The river is frightening. It’s got huge whirlpools. It’s like a great living animal.

What did you do after Alaska?

I was stationed at Torrejon Air Base in Spain. We lived in Madrid for two years. ... I was doing kind of the same thing I’ve been doing at OPP: putting out public information, writing press releases, putting out newscasts. It was all great training for what I was to do later at Penn State.

You’ve also been in a movie, right?

I went to MGM (Studios in Madrid). I’m in the (1975) movie “The Wind and the Lion” with Sean Connery.

How did that come about?

I was getting out of the military. My wife was pregnant, and we were looking for what was my next professional gig. I got an agent and said, “Can you get me something behind the scenes, you know, camera work or something, assistant director of something?”

The agent called and said, “Sorry, you’ve got to go to Hollywood. It’s an eight-year apprenticeship. Can’t do anything. However, do you know how to act? I’ve got something lined up.” I said, “No, I don’t know a thing about acting.” She said, “Come on down to MGM. I’ve got you a screen test next Thursday.”

So I went down to MGM Madrid. The screen test was a bunch of people in the studio with the cameras rolling. I had to walk across a room and light a lady’s cigarette. ... I never smoked. I didn’t know which end you lit. So I yanked the cigarette, smashed it on the table and then gave her like a 15-second lecture on the dangers of smoking. All of a sudden, the room goes “Hooray” and I got a job. I got an acting part at MGM just from that little screen test.

... I was originally cast as Teddy Roosevelt’s young White House assistant, but I was too young. They recast me as a young cub reporter from back east. I was to interview Teddy Roosevelt, who was played by Brian Keith. I’m at Yosemite National Park, and that’s what’s in the movie. It’s not much, a 2-minute thing, but I have speaking lines. ... I’d ask questions and he would respond. Everybody at OPP passes the DVD around. They think it’s very funny.

How did you come to Penn State?

I got an offer from Paramount TV (while in Madrid). This director came over (on the MGM set) and I asked him, ‘Why are you asking all these personal questions?’ And he said, ‘Well, I’d like you to come work for us.’ And I got a job offer on the “Mannix” TV program in 1975.

All I had was his business card. I didn’t have anything else. (He had said), “Come see me. Come to Hollywood. Here’s my office. Come and see me and I’ll line you up.”

Got out of the military. My wife had our first daughter, born in Spain. ... Came back to Pittsburgh. Do I go to Hollywood or not? I had a growing family. All I had was a business card. I went to a conference at the National Association of Educational Broadcasters conference in Washington, job-hunting. During the interview processs, I sat down for coffee with somebody, and the guy was (former WPSX show host) Jim Walker. He grew up in State College, and Jim said, “Hey, do you know there are two openings at Penn State right now? Let’s apply.” One was for a producer-director, a behind-the-scenes person, and the other was the on-camera person. I got the producer, and he got the camera position. ... So March 1, 1976, I started work at Penn State. I worked for Dr. Cordell Hatch, who is now a professor emeritus. We ran the College of Ag’s TV studio.

At OPP, you promoted energy sustainability on campus. What stands out for you from your memories?

What I really like is that my hobby of turning out lights became institutionalized with Friday Night Lights Out. I always worried, “When I leave, who’s going to turn out the lights on campus?” I’m no longer worried about that because (of) the student groups and the (Penn State) Sustainability Institute. The awareness of sustainability has spread through the campus. What I had to do by myself, I know there are green teams that will carry out those duties. So it’s a comforting thing to know that my original, personal mission has now grown to encompass the culture of Penn State.