PITTSBURG — Jeff Ruffin’s three-decade career in the FBI all began back home in Alabama where his grandmother made sure he knew that “education was the key to success.”
“I’ll help you get there, then I’ll sit down.”
“That was a very tough slogan,” Ruffin said. “Of course, I didn’t know the meaning, it took me half of my life to learn the full meaning of it.
“As I matured, the meaning of that became clear.”
Education and hard work was part of the model she created.
“The ultimate part of that, after she did all of the helping — the strong discipline, the organized way of life, right and wrong, morals — that was my grandmother, that’s how she taught us,” Ruffin said. “Having a tough life herself, she saw that education was the key to success.”
The end of her motto “then I’ll sit down” was to instill in her grandchildren that “even though you become successful — do what it takes, get the medal — then reach back and help somebody,” Ruffin said. “It’s your responsibility now to show others get there.
“She was particularly talking about the black minority race from that standpoint with having that civil rights mentality.”
“That’s what built the drive in me,” he added.
Ruffin and his brother were raised by their grandparents, Rufus “Booker” and Hattie Ruffin. They grew cotton on their family farm for a living in Lisman, Alabama.
His family was considered poor and that brought on belittlement by his classmates, Ruffin said.
“The way I got back, I was considered a ‘bookbug,’” he said. “Mentally and education-wise I excelled all of the students in my class, that was the weapon I had to equalize the field, it made me strive to be more literate.”
With that attitude he read everything he could get his hands on, he said.
“Consequently, that gave me a sense of dreaming,” Ruffin said. “I’d read about Birmingham and what that’s like, the big city and fancy cars.”
As he worked in his family’s fields he would start dream of what his future could be.
He graduated high school ranking second in his class.
Who was ranked first? His cousin who surpassed him by a tenth of a point.
“I never forgave her for that,” he joked.
Ruffin’s grandmother was also a gospel singer, music had to be part of her grandchildren’s life.
So, Ruffin and his brother joined the high school band. Ruffin played the saxophone and his brother played the clarinet.
“Music is what generated scholarships that enable us to go to college,” he said. “We ended up going to historical black school Alabama State University in Montgomery, Alabama.”
With approximately 56 cents in his pocket, off to college he and his brother went.
Unemployed, the brothers sought a job. Still without jobs a few weeks in they came to a conclusion that they might need to go home.
They decided to go talk to their band director. What they didn’t know was that there were other students who had the same problem.
“Unbeknownst to us, he’s encountered that problem before so he made a few calls on our behalf, and we ended up in the cafeteria,” he said, adding it took care of their food expenses too. “We had so much food we were able to share with our other cohorts.
“My grandma had this faith, if you believe in God to the extent that you allow him to manage your life then everything will work out for good.”
That job sustained them until Ruffin got another job as an assistant store manager.
Ruffin studied the “hardest subject in school,” he said.
“I always wanted to be a corporate vice president of some company” he said. “In my research of that, I found out every corporate vice president generally came from the finance department.
He graduated high school ranking second in his class.
He graduated with a 4.0 GPA.
TRIAL BY FIRE
Ready for a career, Ruffin said one of the big banks in New York City interviewed him and hired him.
“For about two weeks I was getting ready to go to New York,” he said. “I was like ‘hey I’m getting ready to go to the Big Apple,’ but at the same time I was dreading it.
“I’m a poor country boy from Alabama and here they are, going to throw me into the lion’s den in New York City.”
Prepared to go live in New York City, he suddenly received a letter from the Justice Department, the FBI. The letter said that they had looked at his credentials and wanted him to call.
“When I saw it, I thought ‘this must be a joke’ because there were no minority agents in the South that I knew of,” he said.
Out of curiosity, he called the number and sure enough it was legitimate.
Right out of college he was “dead broke” so he had to find a way to get to his interview in Birmingham. Ruffin and his friends managed to scrounge up money for a Greyhound bus.
In the meantime, one of his friends had tried to discourage him from going.
“Alabama, or wherever you are, no one is going to hire you in a prestigious job such as being a special agent in the FBI or any other place,” Ruffin said about the comments. “Because of that discouragement, I almost decided not to go.”
Thankfully for Ruffin, once he got to Birmingham, the building where he would have his interview was in view from the bus stop — he didn’t have any more money for traveling further into the city.
Although a kind person pointed it out to him when he asked where the building was, the receptionist at the building he was going to was not as kind. Ruffin said she was short with him and told him to go sit and wait, while it appeared that she was talking to what sounded like a friend on the phone for 10 minutes.
She asked him what he wanted and Ruffin told her he was there for an interview. Her response, “we don’t hire people like you,” Ruffin said the receptionist told him.
Soon, he would find out what the meaning “trial by fire” meant, little did he know he was already experiencing it.
Sure enough the supervisor showed up and took him to be interviewed by seven men who sat on the opposite side of the table.
“I was doing pretty good,” he said. “They were giving me different law enforcement scenarios.”
How well the questions were answered determined how well he would score. The scenarios were like stories and he had to decide the outcome.
“My grandmother used to be a great historical story teller about things that would go on where we grew up and our family history,” he said. “I used to listen really well, I used to prod at her, I made her tell me stories for seven hours straight.”
It was these stories that helped him answer questions, including one story which Ruffin said “floored him.”
“You’re in a position where nothing is obstructing, all of the witnesses are away, now you've got this clear cut path to take this guy out, now what are you going to do if he’s black?” he said. “The first thing that came to me was how law enforcement had been with black people that were wrongful, all of these things started coming, how was I going to answer that?
His answer must have been good because at the end of that interview the “tenor” changed, Ruffin said at this point he felt like the interviewers found “their guy.”
After the interview, Ruffin was then sent to take a law enforcement test. The test booklet was as “thick as a bible.” He had two hours to complete the test.
“I started reading this thing, and the memories of my grandmother from telling those stories started coming to me,” he said.
Ruffin prevailed and completed the test. He was sent back to the interview room to find out about the results. Ruffin said he ended up scoring higher than anyone who had taken the test at that point in time, they told him.
They offered him the job.
All of the sudden, the interviewers got up and sat on his side of the table.
“They said, well, we’re going to hire you, but we’re going to have to let you know this.
You are going to be hired with a trial by fire,’” he said. “What they meant by that, since I was the first black special agent [from Alabama], it was going to be like I was going to be in hell, they told me nobody was going to accept me … they are going to make your life miserable.”
Ruffin said he took what they said with “a grain of salt.” They told him that he was going to face hostility from day one. Ruffin spoke to his uncle and with his encouragement, decided to take the job.
So he reported to work, and the same receptionist was sitting at the desk. Everything was still the same.
His interviewers were right, he was to face a hostile environment for the majority, if not of all of his 33 and a half years in the FBI. From seclusion in the rear end of the office, being given a training manual instead of a structured training, belittling comments and asking unwelcomed race-related questions. He also struggled with receiving promotions.
This was to be his “trial by fire.”
Ruffin was eventually able to receive promotions and there were supervisors within the organization who recognized his efforts and noticed those who tried to undermine him.
Ruffin’s grandmother’s efforts and memories helped guide him through difficult times, he said.
His “trial by fire” ended when he left Alabama, he eventually traveled to different states and retired in 2004 from the FBI under the Treasury Department.
Ruffin decided to share his experience through a book he wrote entitled, “Escape Beyond Grandpa’s Fence: I’ll help you get there, then I’ll sit down.”
“I wanted it to be a book that would give encouragement in the end,” he said. “I wrote it on my background, adversities I went through and how education played a part, how my faith impacted all of that.”
Ruffin is currently working on several other books, sharing his life experiences. He also created his own private investigation business.
Ruffin eventually moved to Pittsburg where he currently serves as the Corps Sergeant Major with the Salvation Army and an assistant tennis coach for Pittsburg High School.
— Stephanie Potter is a staff writer at the Morning Sun. She can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @PittStephP and Instagram @stephanie_morningsun.