Remembering David Ruth: The man behind Rice’s national media relations success

In the art of attracting national and international attention to Rice University, no single person has had a bigger impact on the university’s growing news media footprint than David Ruth, Rice’s inaugural director of national media relations. Working behind the scenes, Ruth pitched and persuaded countless reporters and television producers to write stories about Rice, to quote Rice faculty experts and to cite Rice research.

David Ruth stands with the podium used by President John F. Kennedy during his "We choose to go to the moon" speech in Rice Stadium. Photo by Jeff Fitlow.

David Ruth stands with the podium used by President John F. Kennedy during his “We choose to go to the moon” speech in Rice Stadium. Photo by Jeff Fitlow.

In the early hours of Oct. 14, surrounded by his family and a dog aptly named Moxy, Ruth passed away after a battle with cancer. He was 50.

“David Ruth truly transformed Rice’s national media visibility,” said Rice President David Leebron. “He helped assure that a wide public across the world knew of the great things achieved by our faculty and students. He was a joy to work with and will be terribly missed. Our entire community extends our sympathy to his family.”

Born on Feb. 4, 1969, in Robbinsdale, Minnesota, Ruth married Tamara Paige on Dec. 30, 1993. He is survived by Tamara and their son, Ian, as well as his twin brother, Alan (wife Jessica); sister, Jane (husband Jeremy); mother, Nora; and three nephews and four nieces. He was preceded in death by his father, William.

Ruth received his broadcasting certificate at Brown College in Minneapolis and also studied journalism at the University of Minnesota. He started his career as a radio disc jockey at KDWB-FM, followed by stints at stations in St. Cloud, Minnesota; Eau Claire, Wisconsin; and Deadwood, South Dakota. He then worked as a producer at KSTP-AM, the ESPN affiliate in Minneapolis-St. Paul, followed by a job as executive producer and radio host on KFAN in Minneapolis. It was there he produced a radio show for Jesse Ventura. Ruth was by his side when Ventura shocked the political world by winning his campaign for Minnesota governor. Ventura hired Ruth as deputy press secretary and remained his friend long after both of them left state government.

Ruth also served as director of communications on the gubernatorial campaign of Tim Penny and as press secretary for U.S. Sen. Dean Barkley. He jumped into network television as a senior producer at MSNBC, founded his own public relations company, “Ruthless Media,” and eventually returned to politics as communications director for the Minnesota Democratic Party before beginning his career in higher education. He was working as associate director for national media relations at the University of Minnesota when he met Linda Thrane, currently the vice president of public affairs at Rice.

“David drew the short straw and had to write a story about me when I joined the University of Minnesota as vice president of university relations,” Thrane said. “We always joked that he wanted to know my age, my salary and my weight — and he got none of the above.”

David Ruth. Photo by Tommy LaVergne.

A staff photo of David Ruth. Photo by Tommy LaVergne.

When Thrane accepted her current role at Rice, she knew right away whom she wanted working alongside her to elevate the university’s media presence.

“David had a nose for news and gumption and, when I took my current job at Rice, I went to work right away to bring him here and get that combination working for this university,” she said. “And he didn’t disappoint.”

Ruth joined Thrane at Rice in 2007 as associate director of national media relations. A few years later he was promoted to director of national media relations. Arriving before dawn every morning, he obsessively monitored breaking news and pounced on opportunities to pitch Rice faculty experts to reporters covering the story of the day.

His mantra was “the harder I work, the luckier I get,” but Rice’s media relations success had little to do with destiny and everything to do with diligence. The university’s mentions in the media increased by more than 50% after Ruth’s first year on campus and grew exponentially over the course of his 12-year Rice career.

“David was a real media pro,” said Doug Miller, director of media relations at Rice. “He didn’t just think outside the box, he blew the walls out of it. His main job was generating national media attention for Rice, and he was very, very good at it. When he first started working at Rice, the university got fewer than 9,000 media hits a year. Last year, we shot past 115,000. That’s huge, and it’s a testament to what David contributed to Rice University.”

Ruth also handled media relations for and was a passionate supporter of Rice Athletics, devoting countless hours to the press box in Rice Stadium and Reckling Park. He accompanied the Rice baseball team to Cuba in 2016, where he handled media relations for the team’s tour. The following year, Ruth provided media relations support for the Rice football team during a week of activities in Australia, including a game against Stanford.

After Ruth was diagnosed with cancer in March 2018, his dedication to Rice never wavered and he worked until less than a month before his passing.

“In the very last weeks of his life, he spent most of his time at home,” Miller said. “But he still worked the phones and email, cajoling reporters to do stories about Rice. The man just wouldn’t quit.”

“David used to fret about having media coverage of Rice hit a plateau,” Thrane added. “Thanks to his drive and initiative, it never did. We will honor him by continuing his legacy of generating wide-ranging and positive media coverage of the incredible people and scholarship of this university.”

A celebration of Ruth’s life will be held Oct. 18 at 10 a.m. in Ray Courtyard next to the Rice Memorial Center on the Rice campus. Those unable to attend are invited to share their memories at ruevents@rice.edu. Ruth will also be remembered with a moment of silence at Rice Stadium during the Oct. 26 football game against the University of Southern Mississippi.

About Amy McCaig

Amy is a senior media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.