After 36 Years, Retired Alabama Driver Donnie Ruf Bids Farewell to Adoring Customers
On September 17, a group of local farmers, politicians, businesses and families gathered in the small town of New Market, Ala. to honor a beloved member of their community: the UPS man.
Donnie Ruf, a 36-year UPS package driver and member of Teamsters Local 402, hung up his brown uniform on August 31, ending a long career with the company. And while many veteran UPS drivers are treated to a company farewell upon retirement, Ruf had an entire community celebrating his years of service.
“I always say be the best you can be and good things will come back to you,” Ruf said. “I always made my deliveries with a smile and took the time to get to know my customers. I know their kids and grandkids. They would cook for me and gave me great gifts at Christmastime.”
“This has always been such a friendly little town – almost like the Andy Griffith Show – and I am going to miss delivering their packages,” he added.
In 2007, Ruf was inducted into the UPS Circle of Honor after driving for 25 years with a clean safety record. This year, he was recognized as a 35-year Circle of Honor driver. But driving a UPS truck is a far cry from what he initially set out to do for a living.
Ruf graduated as a marketing major from Auburn University in 1976. His plan was to go into sales but, coming from three generations of farmers, his roots beckoned him to work on the family farm while teaching at a local high school. Secretly, Ruf wanted to take his marketing background to New York and become a male model.
“That’s not the kind of thing you talk about as an Alabama farm boy in the ‘70s, but my dream was to get into the clothing business and open up a store back in my hometown after modeling in New York. I guess it’s pretty ironic that instead of a career in fashion I ended up wearing the same brown uniform every day,” Ruf said with laughter.
A few poor harvests on the farm – and a wife and two daughters to take care of – forced Ruf to again rethink his career. He barely even knew what UPS was but in 1980 he applied and got a seasonal job for the holidays in Huntsville. In the meantime, he held another job working with the Limestone Farmers’ Cooperative until he was eventually given a permanent full-time driving job at UPS.
A Teamster, A Legend
Over the next 36 years, Ruf saw a lot of changes in his community and at UPS.
“When I started everything was on paper – we had to record everything on the clipboard,” Ruf remembered. “We even had the ‘Sheet Writers Hall of Fame’ that I was inducted into for drivers who had perfect records. But I suppose the most significant change that has taken place in my career has been the required weight limit per package. In 1980 the maximum was 50 pounds. Today it’s three times heavier.”
And while UPS has grown into a major international company over the course of Ruf’s career, his own community has expanded as well.
“I ran four different routes. Two of them were in rural areas – nothing but fields and cow pastures. One area only had one house and now it’s being heavily developed,” he said.
But there has been one constant amid all of the changes Ruf has seen in the last 36 years: his proud membership in the Teamsters union.
“The Teamsters union has always been like a very, very valuable insurance policy to me. You hope you never need them, but if you do they will always be there and available for you,” Ruf said.
Other UPS Teamsters looked up to Ruf, too.
“We feel honored and proud to have such a legend like Donnie as a longtime member of our union,” said Joe Gronek, Secretary-Treasurer of Local 402 in Muscle Shoals, Ala. “Donnie carried the UPS and Teamster names with pride and is so loved in the community. I think that’s what being a Teamster at UPS is all about.”
“It is seldom you meet someone that had the type of customer service qualities that Donnie Ruf had. Donnie loved his customers and they loved him in return,” added Kitty Weston, a retired postmaster at the New Market post office.
‘Do Your Best’
When asked for his the most interesting memories as a UPS driver, Ruf has a long list of amusing anecdotes.
“I went to this lady’s house and she was terribly upset, so naturally I asked her if she was okay. She said she was having romantic issues. I knew her husband so I expressed my concern for them. Then she said it was not her husband who made her upset but her boyfriend of 20 years who was leaving her,” he recalled.
Ruf’s retirement plans include returning to work on the family farm, which his brothers David Jr. (deceased) and Leon had been tending to over the last 36 years. The farm, which has been in the family for more than a hundred years, specializes in row crops like corn, wheat and soybeans.
Beyond the farm, Ruf has amassed a large collection of southern antiques and is considering starting an online business to sell his wares. Then, it’s all about spending time with family, including his two daughters, Bonnie Ruf and Katie Ruf Blair, and his son-in-law, Justin Blair. Of course, with granddaughters Lola Marie Blair, 3, and Julia Elizabeth Blair, 1, Ruf has plenty of babysitting to do, too.
“As a UPS driver, I have had many opportunities to deliver to so many different people and to go to many places because the UPS name and uniform is respected,” Ruf said. “This job takes a lot of talent physically and mentally – it’s not for everyone. But we have a good union and if you do your best you can accomplish a lot at UPS.”