Retired farmer who mailed NY Gov. Cuomo a mask is given a bachelor’s degree

A retired Kansas farmer who donated an N95 mask to New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo amid the coronavirus pandemic was honored with a bachelor’s degree from Kansas State University on Tuesday.

Dennis Ruhnke sent a single N95 mask left from his farming days and a note to the governor last month after his call for donations for the much-needed protective equipment.

A retired farmer given a bachelor's degree.
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“If you could, would you please give this mask to a nurse or doctor in your state?” part of the March letter by Ruhnke read. He also expressed his fears about the growing number of those affected by the virus and the vulnerability of his wife, Sharon, who has diabetes and only one lung.

Cuomo praised Ruhnke for his charitable move and shared his admiration for him on Twitter.

“I received this letter from a farmer in northeast Kansas. His wife is ill and he is aging,” Cuomo said in a tweet that included a picture of Ruhnke’s handwritten letter. “He sent me 1 of 5 N95 masks he has from farming to pass on to a doctor or nurse in New York.”

The governor says it’s “humanity at its best” and that he’s sharing it as “inspiration.”

Letter from a farmer who was later on given a bachelor's degree by Kansas University.
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Ruhnke made headlines for his generous act, and it led him to receive a notable distinction – a bachelor’s degree. K-State President Richard Myers and Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly conferred the degree upon Dennis – 50 years after he attended the school.

The ceremony was held in an open area on the third floor of the Statehouse, and Kelly herself delivered the commencement address. She said that she became familiar with Ruhnke the same way the rest of America did – through national television when Cuomo shared his inspiring story of kindness.

Governor’s Press Office photo

“He provided a dose of inspirational strength to America just as soon as we felt ourselves beginning to buckle under the crushing, prolonged weight of this crisis,” Kelly said.

Ruhnke, who started attending KSU in 1967 as an 18-year-old, was set to graduate in 1971 when tragedy hit – his father’s death. Though he was only two credits shy of completing the degree, he didn’t return for his last semester so he can tend to the family farm and care for his elderly mother.

About 10 years ago, Ruhnke inquired about finishing his degree, only to receive the disheartening news that he would have to start over because too much time has passed.

Farmer looks at certificate of a bachelor's degree as officials clap.
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“Although he never doubted he made the right decision for his family in 1971 he could not quite shake the disappointment of not finishing what he had started,” Kelly said.

It had been Ruhnke’s lifelong dream to finish what he started, and he finally got it. Myers explained that the degree was the “real deal “and not an honorary “tribute”. Ruhnke had decades of experience in agribusiness – that and his kindness make him more than qualified to receive it.

Ruhnke waited half a century to receive his well-deserved bachelor’s degree. And he never thought one seemingly minor act would lead him to get it. It truly changed his life.

“It would not have happened had I not mailed in that one N95 mask to Gov. Cuomo,” he said during the ceremony.

His message to everyone who is moved by his story is to “pay it forward” and continue helping those in dire need during this global crisis.

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“Many of those who wrote to me to thank me asked me how they could help – just pay it forward as much as you can afford to do so to honor all those who have lost their lives to the [coronavirus] and also to honor the first responders who in some cases even lost their own lives in the line of duty. The ultimate sacrifice,” he said.

Sharon said that this move wasn’t out of character for her husband. According to her, Ruhnke has “always been generous, giving people food, advanced paychecks and even room and board.”

Congratulations on getting your bachelor’s degree, Dennis Ruhnke!