Simply Ruth: Campus reflects on losing an icon

Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Simmons’ upcoming departure has sparked diverse gestures of appreciation.

She has been compared to Jackie Robinson, Santa Claus and Morgan Freeman. She has been called a “badass.” She is remembered for her red power suit and the hugs promised to first-years at Convocation. And while President Ruth Simmons is the leader of the University and a revered academic, to many she is known simply as Ruth.

During her tenure at the University, Brown’s 18th president has developed a undeniably cult-like following, inspiring apparel and posters bearing her visage for sale on the Main Green. The adoration is nothing new — “We love Ruth” T-shirts date back to her 2001 inauguration.

When Simmons announced Sept. 15 that this would be her last year at the University’s helm, the community lamented the loss of its venerated leader.

“She is an icon at Brown, and we will lose a mascot,” said Sarah Weingarten ’15.

Painted as an icon

Simmons’ beloved status is reserved for few. “My friends at other schools don’t know their presidents,” said Michael Quinn ’13.

But at Brown, those who do not know Simmons are few and far between. Indeed, many students not only know her but also worship her. A 2009 Brown Noser article parodied her cult status with the fake headline “Lock of Simmons’ hair auctioned for 500 flex points, pony.”

Though he has had minimal interaction with her, Todd Baker ’15 called Simmons an “untouchable legend.” Baker compared Simmons to a female Morgan Freeman.

Some students take this cult worship to another level. On a whim, Danny Sobor ’15 designed a poster bearing a stern image of Simmons with the label “T(Ruth)” below the face. He made 15 copies of the original design and planned to sell them for $5 each.

The next day, Simmons announced her resignation. When Sobor sold his posters on the Main Green, he quickly ran out.

Sobor said he believes the University is “zealously in love with Ruth.”

Up close and personal

Simmons has shared personal time and information with students. It is this “open and friendly nature” that makes her so loved, said Julia Stevens ’15.

Simmons said in a 2006 interview with The Herald that she personally maintains her email address. “It comes directly to me. Nobody else reads it,” she said at the time.

Sobor, who emailed Simmons offering her one of his posters, said he got a personal response from her the next day.

But Simmons also remains a distant figure to some. “She hasn’t touched me in any way,” Nick Catoni ’14 said. “There is no iconic image of her in my mind.”

Time with Simmons is usually booked weeks in advance, though she said she likes “spontaneity when it comes to students,” according to a 2008 Herald article. She once went to a home-cooked meal at 111 Brown Street with students who invited her.

“If I do it, it should be good for Brown,” Simmons said in 2008 about deciding what student events to attend.

Next steps

When Simmons resigns her post June 30, 2012, she will leave big shoes for whoever comes next. “People will definitely find things to complain about” when the next president arrives, Quinn said.

Gail McCarthy, a dining services worker in the Sharpe Refectory who has somewhat of a cult status of her own, said Simmons “has been truly wonderful and will be missed by all.”

Many students hope the University’s new leader will carry on Simmons’ traditions, even if the new president does not garner the same adoration. Christopher DeCola ’12 said he is looking for someone like Simmons to take her place.

“I would like someone who could be very Ruth,” he said.