He’s been a banker, an insurance man and a journalist. Today, David Ruffin is a career volunteer.

He’s been a banker, an insurance man and a journalist.

Today, David Ruffin is a career volunteer.

The 55-year-old Rockford native hasn’t held a traditional job for much of the past 10 years, after an accident left him blind in one eye. But rather than collect the government’s disability payments for doing nothing, he opted instead to devote his time to projects that would make his community a better place to live.

“Pretty much, I spend my days volunteering,” he said. “I’ve been blessed — depending on how you look at it — with an income, so I want to give back to the community.

“It was a humbling experience, and it was a learning experience. I don’t know that I would say I want to do it over again, but I’m not bitter.”

And so, Ruffin sits on the board of directors for Crusader Clinic, is part of the recently formed African-American Historical Society and is a volunteer with Rockford for Alcohol-Free Teens.

But even before he became a full-time volunteer, Ruffin had a passion for sharing the rich history of the city’s black community. So for years, he has been the man in charge of producing three or four exhibits each year that feature the black community at Rockford’s Ethnic Heritage Museum.

It is, perhaps, an ironic job for a man who relies on his only functioning eye to see through thick, bifocal glasses.

After all, he is responsible for making those historical exhibits visually appealing — and admittedly does sometimes need help making sure a picture is hung straight.

Still, he has developed exhibits that caught the attention of visitors from throughout the area. He’s featured former Rockford Mayor Charles Box, pop singer Michelle Williams and a variety of local athletes who have gone on to play professional sports.

One exhibit, featuring the late Harlem Globetrotter McKinley “Deacon” Davis, won a certificate of excellence from the Illinois Association of Museums.

Most recently, Ruffin put together a special exhibit for Black History Month that honors Allen Chapel A.M.E., Rockford’s oldest black church. Through his research, Ruffin’s appreciation for the church founder, Peter Blakely, continued to grow.

“Peter Blakely was a slave,” Ruffin said. “He came up here through the Underground Railroad and he fought in the Civil War.”

In Blakely’s days — the late 1800s — there were about 200 black people in Rockford, most of whom worshipped in white churches. In the years since Allen Chapel church began, it has become a staple in the community.

That particular exhibit has been in the works since August, and Ruffin said most of his exhibits take months to pull together.

“A lot of the work I do is research,” he said. “Once you get that information, you have to locate items to create something that people will want to come see.”

For Ruffin, doing that — even with impaired vision — isn’t all that tricky when you have the right attitude.

“Sometimes,” he said with a chuckle, “I can see more with one eye than some people can see with two.”

 

Rockford Register Star

Histories wanted

In keeping with the spirit of this year’s Black History Month exhibit, the museum is asking the black community to submit their family history to be preserved in the library. These items should be on a CD/DVD, flash drive or book and will be available for future generations. To submit your history, contact David Ruffin at deruff1@hotmail.com or by calling the museum at (815) 962-7402.

If you go

What: Black History Month exhibit

Where: Ethnic Heritage Museum, 1129 S. Main St., Rockford

When: 2 to 4 p.m. Sundays in February. Group tours arranged upon request.

Other exhibits: The museum features the cultural history of the six ethnic groups that were prominent in southwest Rockford: black, Italian, Irish, Polish, Lithuanian and Hispanic.

Admission: $3 for adults; $1 for children 12 and younger

For more information:
ethnicheritagemuseum.org; (815) 962-7402