Marjorie writes about local community heroes and Ithaca's treasures—people, places, programs. These gems are unearthed here in Community Connections.

Andy Ruina

Andy Ruina

Andy Ruina is a certified do-gooder. Growing up with parents Edith and Jack, who believed in fairness and opportunity for all, Andy has not allowed an astounding professional career to blunt his efforts toward peace and justice for all. In a family called to both academia and government service, Andy grew up around the Brown University campus until his parents moved to the Urbana-Champaign campus of the University of Illinois. Andy’s first personal encounter with academia was his attendance at the U of I Nursery School. Government service took the family to D.C. until Andy’s father left for a year at MIT, and the family tried out Lexington, MA. They all headed back to D.C. (government service), where Andy started junior high and then back to Cambridge for another stint for Andy’s father at MIT. 

Andy left behind Cambridge and academia to spend a year in Israel before starting college at Brown University, where Andy’s journey had first begun.

After completing his Engineering degrees (ScB. 76, ScM. 78, Ph.D. 81) at Brown University (including a year of Ph.D. work in California), Andy was ready to find a job. He pulled out a high schoolers’ guide to colleges and looked for universities located in the countryside. Although Andy didn’t know Ithaca, he had been to the Catskills, so he figured Ithaca was probably green and spacious too. And so it was.  

Cornell’s Theoretical and Applied Mechanics Department had someone interview Andy in a lab in California, and he accepted a visiting professorship for one year at Cornell. Andy arrived in an old pickup truck on Monday, Aug. 25, 1980. Luckily for Ithaca, a tenure track position opened up that first year. Andy and his lovely family have woven their lives into the social fabric and the academic world that we cherish in Ithaca.

“Theoretical and APplied Mechanics in Cornell’s Engineering School is curiosity-driven research,” Andy explains.  Judging from the titles of his projects, he has done lots of curious research, all aimed at improving the lot of living creatures and our environment.  

If one peruses Andy’s colorful website, it’s obvious his amazing energy has not diminished over the years. Last semester, Andy taught classes (online) to his Cornell students in Applied Dynamics, Robot Seminar and Bisteercycle. He carved out an hour for a talk he gave to colleagues at Johns Hopkins on walking robots and he lists Robotic Bike Team, Robotic Sailboat Team, Moonbuggies, and Animal Coordination as some of his other projects. When queried about these exotic topics, Andy responds, “I like math and classical physics.” 

But as one climbs up the front porch to Andy’s home, one can see that Andy’s wide-ranging academic pursuits have not blunted his social justice work: The Bryant Avenue Sewing Group, which Andy dreamed up, has been making face masks—over 4,000 so far—for health providers and also migrant farm workers who have little access to sanitation, supplies, healthy meals or safe homes while they work on farms in upstate New York, providing the food we eat. Among all the juggling, Andy offers a stranger help fixing her sewing machine (And he takes it apart, solders a new part and leaves it on his porch for the amazed owner).

Older folks in town will remember Andy arriving all over town on his bike 30+ years ago, talking about the utility of biking in place of driving our cars everywhere.  After lots of biking and lots of enthusiastic talking, Recycle Ithaca Bikes (RIBs) was built up. “I spent about five years of Saturdays fixing bikes or fixing up the shop.” 

Anyone who meets Andy never forgets him. Some of the community members he has worked with are impressed to learn he is a professor. Academicians look puzzled when they learn that the community bike shop where their kids love to hang out for bike instruction and parts was boosted by Andy’s ability to win people over. Whatever the project, Andy’s enthusiasm, energy, articulate and persuasive defense of the environment, self-sufficiency, and reuse trumps inaction and cynicism. 

Andy and Saskya van Nouhuys, his amazing partner, are the parents of two lovely daughters—Annemieke (Mieke) and Prachi. Despite the ongoing confusion and craziness, their work is still made possible this summer because, for the first time in 23 years, they can’t go to their home away from home on the Åland Islands off the coast of Finland, where Saskya’s research on wasps and butterflies becomes their focus. This summer, due to policies of our fearless liar, that’s probably not going to happen. 

So many of us who share Ithaca with this family will go about our lives enriched by Andy’s efforts, and will surely spot him when he is rushing off happily for one of his do-gooder adventures.

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