Former Lakeland mayor Joe P. Ruthven, whose family business led a Polk County boom in warehouses, died at age 92 Saturday. His death comes two months after those of his wife, Judy, and his daughter, former North Carolina Sen. Kay Hagan.
LAKELAND — Joe P. Ruthven, who led efforts to build a performing arena in Lakeland, helped revitalize the blighted downtown area and spurred a boom in warehouses, died Saturday at 92.
Ruthven served on the Lakeland City Commission from 1968 to 1971 and as mayor in that final year, when he energetically promoted the building of what was first called the Lakeland Civic Center, now the RP Funding Center. He continued working at his family business until about two years ago.
Former Lakeland Mayor Howard Wiggs described Ruthven as a mentor in politics and business.
“I believe that, along with half a dozen others … that Joe Ruthven was an economic pioneer for Lakeland,” Wiggs said Monday, “because when you look at his roots and how he built his business, a small business became larger and larger. It was an example that many people would say, ‘I could do it the way Mr. Ruthven did it’.”
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Ruthven’s death came less than two months after his wife, Judy Ruthven, and his daughter, former North Carolina Sen. Kay Hagan, died on the same day.
“We’ve been fortunate,” said Greg Ruthven, Joe P. Ruthven’s younger son. “We’ve got our faith and our friends. We have a lot of friends. I feel really good about Dad.”
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The Ruthvens, the family-owned business founded six decades ago, now owns 87 properties covering about 4 million square feet.
“People have no idea how many jobs Dad has helped create,” Greg Ruthven said. “He didn’t create them from owning the business, but he built the building where the business resides.”
Ruthven was born to a farming family in Chesterfield, South Carolina, on July 9, 1927, and as a youth began helping his father to grow such crops as cotton and corn. In a story told by Greg Ruthven, his father’s older sister, Margaret, suggested that he spend a semester at a college.
When his father asked if he might be interested in attending the University of South Carolina, Joe P. Ruthven was plowing behind a mule.
“My dad said, ‘I looked at the back of that mule and said, ‘Yes sir, I believe I am’,” Greg Ruthven said. “And that’s the last time he saw that mule.”
Ruthven’s educational plans were interrupted by World War II. He enlisted in the Navy at 17 and spent the war stationed at Norfolk Naval Base.
Returning home after the war, Ruthven spent just three days on the farm before resuming his studies. He later told a reporter he knew that if he stayed any longer his father would get him established again behind a mule in the fields.
While pursuing a business degree, Ruthven met Jeannette Chiles, a Lakeland native and sister of Lawton Chiles, a future Florida senator and governor. They were soon married.
Coming to Lakeland
Ruthven took a management training program with BFGoodrich, and he and a partner, Eugene Black, decided to open a tire store. Plans to purchase a site in Gainesville fell through, Greg Ruthven said, and the pair instead began their business in Lakeland, opening a store on Memorial Boulevard.
Around 1960, a business colleague suggested that Ruthven build a warehouse so that he could stock tires not only for his store but for surrounding counties. Ruthven constructed a warehouse twice as large as he needed, storing tires in half and leasing the rest.
Ruthven eventually decided to specialize in warehouses, shedding businesses in retail, mobile home lots and shopping centers, Greg Ruthven said. The company has been based since 1975 at a century-old home on Lake Morton, formerly the Lakeshore Hotel.
Greg Ruthven and his brother, Joe L. Ruthven, eventually joined the company. Joe P. Ruthven’s nephew, Matt Ruthven, is now vice president of sales and leasing, and Greg Ruthven’s son-in-law, Brandon Clark, is vice president.
Greg Ruthven said the company still follows his father’s example, such as having after-hours calls forwarded to a home number rather than going to a recording.
Ruthven served on the city commission at a time when commissioners rotated into one-year terms as mayor. In the late 1960s, the commission considered plans to build a modern performance center to replace the aging Mayhall Auditorium on Lake Mirror.
Gene Strickland, Lakeland’s retired city manager, said Ruthven championed the idea. He recalled traveling to Monroe, Louisiana, with Ruthven to tour an arena that served as the template for the Lakeland Civic Center, which opened in 1974 and soon drew such musical acts as Led Zeppelin, Boston and Journey.
The complex’s name later changed to the Lakeland Center and then the RP Funding Center.
“It just so happened that Joe’s turn came right at a crucial point when we were trying to think about building the Lakeland Center, and that entire year he was energized in promoting the Lakeland Center,” Strickland said. “I just happened to be a young assistant city manager, and I went with him on all his speeches and supported him and carried a slide projector. It was a great year, and it got me really close to Joe.”
Greg Ruthven said his father politely handled phone calls from residents angry that the construction plans required demolishing the mostly black Moorehead community. He said his father joined the late Willie Speed, a teacher and coach at Lakeland’s all-black Rochelle High School, in speaking to local organizations and urging racial comity during a tense period as Florida’s public schools integrated.
Strickland echoed that.
“It was a time when other cities were having some drama and some tenseness in relationships,” he said. “We were moving forward, and he was part of that, too.”
In the 1980s, Ruthven helped lead a campaign to revitalize downtown Lakeland, which had been devastated by the departure of old department stores. Wiggs said the effort generated $2 million, which led to improvements in infrastructure and the eventual revival of the area.
Wiggs, Lakeland’s mayor from 2013 to 2018, said Ruthven called him the day after he was elected and invited him to visit his office. Ruthven offered political advice in a long and friendly conversation.
“You see so many politicians who forget where they came from or start to think they’re more important than their constituents,” Wiggs said. “Joe’s guidance throughout my time was predicated on that very thing — ‘Don’t ever rise above who you are, and don’t ever think you’re more important than your constituents’.”
Ruthven’s first wife, with whom he had three children, died in 1982. He married Judy Story in 1986.
Ruthven became a pilot, flying small aircraft, and bought a partial stake in a small jet that he didn’t pilot, Greg Ruthven said. He and Judy had a vacation home in Sedona, Arizona, where one of their neighbors was Sen. John McCain.
An image of Joe P. Ruthven and his daughter, Kay Hagan, standing with McCain among many photos, most of them depicting family members, is displayed on the walls of Ruthven’s spacious office overlooking Lake Morton. Greg Ruthven said his father ended every business meeting by taking visitors for a tour of the family photos.
Greg Ruthven said he at first questioned the wisdom of that ritual, suggesting his father instead show off photos of the company’s warehouse properties.
“It took me probably six to nine months to realize people enjoy hearing about your family,” Greg Ruthven said. “So now I take everybody in his office. It finally dawned on me he was right and I was wrong, which was the case a lot of times.”
A service will be held Jan. 4 at 11 a.m. at First Presbyterian Church in Lakeland.
Gary White can be reached at [email protected] or 863-802-7518. Follow on Twitter @garywhite13.