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Pinellas County art advocate dies after COVID-19 battle

Ruley is remembered by the community
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Posted at 11:49 PM, Jan 18, 2021
and last updated 2021-01-21 22:57:34-05

PINELLAS COUNTY, FL.  — Scrolling through photos of Suzanne Ruley, her personality shines through. Her family said they only come in three styles: happy, goofy and chill.

“She just kind of enjoyed life so much and helped everyone around her enjoy life at the same time,” said her husband, Matthew Ruley.

She was a passionate advocate for the arts in Pinellas County, with a heart for helping others. She’s now left a legacy of service behind after she died from COVID-19 last week.

“She had such a big heart. I mean that’s a hard one to replace. It’s a perfect person to try and help out with the different charities she had. I mean there were other things but I really loved her for that, that was so cool. And it was so fun to be in her orbit because you never knew what was going to happen yet but it was going to be something interesting,” Matthew Ruley said.

Ruley worked as the director of development for the Pinellas Community Foundation, helping raise funds for the nonprofit.

The organization’s CEO said she was a bright star in the world of philanthropy, responsible for raising millions of dollars for Tampa Bay charities.

“She was kind, giving, and made each person she spoke to feel cared for and needed. Her unique abilities blended creativity, analysts, and humor- the perfect mix for uniting the passions of donors with important charitable causes,” stated Duggan Cooley, the CEO of the Pinellas Community Foundation.

Before that, Ruley worked as a cultural affairs specialist for the City of Clearwater, helping craft its first public art policy. She worked as director of development at RCS, helping raise funds for the homeless and survivors of domestic violence. She served on the board of Ruth Eckerd Hall before working there, helping bring in funding and she also helped lobby for arts funding in Tallahassee.

“Suzanne was effervescent. She always had the most positive attitude. She was avid in pursuing to be the best in her profession. She worked hard to obtain advanced degrees in fundraising and community building. She was funny. She was a valuable person to many people in the community,” said Robert Freedman, a retired president and CEO at Ruth Eckerd Hall.

“She always found time to give advice to people. She was not afraid to ask for advice,” said Freedman’s wife, Leslie.

They recalled her work putting together a grant for a program that allowed teens to talk about their real-life experience, so the program could be filmed, her professionalism and ability to have fun during a trip to Clearwater’s sister city in Japan, and watching the Ruley’s perform a two-person show.

“It was fun and Suzanne was great in finding these very obtuse songs from Broadway and performing them for people so they could learn about them,” Freedman said.

Suzanne and Matthew met while doing a musical in St. Petersburg 28 years ago.

“We would do cabaret stuff of just she and I and a three-piece band and we started roping the kids into the act as well and it was fun,” he said.

She had a degree in painting and drawing from Carnegie-Mellon, and a masters in arts administration from Goucher College. Ruley said Suzanne moved to Pinellas County from New Jersey, to help care for an aunt fighting cancer.

They built a home full of music, art and helping others, with their two children they adopted from Kazakhstan, Alyona, 17, and and Andrey, 15.

One of her drawings hangs on their wall.

“What she was trying to draw at the time was sound. And so she chose an opera singer in the 18th century to be the middle of this thing and I think the picture looks a lot like her as well. I think she kind of used herself for the singer,” he said.

Matthew Ruley said she became sick about a month ago, but was still texting and helping from the hospital. She even ordered a Christmas tree and dinner for her family from her ICU room, making sure they still had a holiday.

It’s not the only story of her thoughtfulness.

“Whether it was offering a place at her Christmas table or buying a table at a gala, Suzanne gave generously and often, anonymously. Her own acts of giving set an example for others. Once she offered a PCF staff member a plane ticket to visit her brother. She also cashed in airline miles to take a staff member to Scotland with her so they could learn together at a conference,” stated Cooley. “Our community is a better place in part because of Suzanne’s dedication and generosity.”

Ruley said his wife would likely be embarrassed by the spotlight, speaking to just how genuine she was.

He said the last day she could communicate with him was Dec. 21, but when he was able to visit, he tried to have her listen to things, hear their kids on the phone and call friends.

They celebrated their 25th anniversary a week before her passing. He arranged for about half a dozen people who were at their wedding, including bridesmaids, the girl who caught the bouquet and a best friend from kindergarten.

Last week, Ruley died after her battle with COVID-19.

“She really was so bigger than life and were people of faith as well and we understand I keep saying she got to see God first and I’m jealous,” he said.

Ruley said the healthcare workers at Mease Countryside and Largo Medical Center were his heroes.

“It should challenge us to pick up and carry on where some of these people were to do them honor because we as as society still have to move on we have to we can’t stop and let’s do it in honor of those that weren’t able to do it and let’s move beyond any bickering on it and let’s just put everybody together and move forward,” Ruley said, of the virus.

Now, the community remembers a large legacy, of someone who made the arts community more vibrant and the world a kinder place.

"All the things she was into were about others. The artwork, was meant to be seen. The performance was meant to be heard. The funds and the funders she put together was meant to serve others not her and so she really was somebody that was that selfless," Ruley said.

Her memorial will be held at Calvary Baptist Church in Clearwater, Feb. 13th at 2pm.