Frederick Gale Ruffner, Jr., who founded Gale Research Company with his wife Mary Evans Ruffner, died on August 12 following a long illness.
Born on August 26, 1926 in Akron, OH to Frederick Ruffner Sr. and Olive Ruffner, “Fred” was a voracious reader from a young age.
“Fred’s favorite book was The Swiss Family Robinson because the family started with nothing and every day made their situation a little better by virtue of personal ingenuity and perseverance,” Dedria Bryfonski, former CEO of Gale Research, told LJ. “It was an appropriate choice for a man who started with an idea and a shared desk in a downtown Detroit office building and eventually built the largest library reference publishing company in America.”
After returning from service in Japan during World War II, Ruffner earned a degree in business administration from Ohio State, and then moved to Detroit shortly after graduating, according to “Knowledge is of Two Kinds…” A Short History of the Gale Research Company and its Advancement of the Second Kind: 1954-1985, by media historian John Tebbel, edited and amended by former executive vice president and editorial director of Gale, James M. Ethridge.
In 1954, while working as a market researcher for the General Detroit Corporation, a fire equipment manufacturer, Ruffner found himself searching for a directory of industry associations. But none had been published since the U.S. Department of Commerce’s National Associations in the United States had ceased publication in the 1940s.
“It seemed to me this was a basic kind of book. In my ignorance, I quit my job and hung out my shingle as a publisher,” Ruffner told Florida’s Broward and South Palm Beach Sun-Sentinel in a 1991 interview. “I knew zero about publishing.”
Regardless of these self-effacing remarks, Gale Reference Company’s first publication, the Encyclopedia of American Associations, soon proved that Ruffner understood the emerging demand for current, highly specific reference information.
“His familiarity with libraries and their needs led to the creation of books designed to ‘fill the gaps on reference shelves,’” Bryfonski wrote. “Much of this content forms the backbone of electronic products widely used today.”
With a knack for finding untapped niches and for covering many topics more exhaustively than had been previously attempted, Ruffner’s new company thrived.
“The firm publishes no large, general dictionaries on the scale of the Oxford English Dictionary or Merriam 3, nor smaller ones like the Concise Oxford Dictionary. What they do produce are works on specific subjects, and their importance lies to a great extent in the magnitude of their contents and the fact that they are up to date,” wrote Philip Bradley in an April, 1988 profile of Gale in the British journal The Indexer.
In addition to the association directory—which was retitled as the Encyclopedia of Associations in 1961—several of Gale’s earliest titles went on to become lasting successes, such as the Acronyms, Initialisms and Abbreviations Dictionary (which launched in 1960 as the Acronyms Dictionary) and Contemporary Authors, which launched in 1962. In addition, Ruffner later proposed and ultimately published the indispensable Dictionary of Literary Biography, beginning in 1978.
According to Knowledge is of Two Kinds, Ruffner’s “knowledge of important old literary books and…his offbeat tastes” also facilitated his successful foray into the reprint business, beginning in 1966. He personally harvested thousands of old books from bookstores for evaluation, reprinting titles ranging from historical reference books such as Samuel Austin Allibone’s three-volume, 19th century Critical Dictionary of English Literature and British and American Authors to esoteric, offbeat titles such as Folklore of the Teeth, A Romance of the Shoe, and Curious Punishments of Bygone Days.
Gale “had slow and steady growth,” Ruffner recalled in a 2004 interview with LJ, “about five to six percent a year, and only one year in which there was a decline.” Through Ruffner’s tenure with his company, expansion was financed “nearly entirely with internally generated funds,” according to Knowledge is of Two Kinds. “With only two minor exceptions, there [was] never any outside capital invested in Gale.”
By 1985, Gale Research had grown from a husband and wife operation run from a home in the Detroit suburbs into one of the leading reference publishers for libraries in the world, with more than 400 employees occupying six floors of Detroit’s historic Penobscot Building, and additional offices in Southfield, MI, New York City, Minneapolis, and Fort Lauderdale, FL. On May 6, 1985, Ruffner sold his company to Toronto-based International Thomson Organisation Ltd. for $66 million.
But his work in publishing and libraries continued. Ruffner served as president of Friends of Libraries USA (FOLUSA)—an organization he had helped found in 1979—for the 1984 through 1986 term. In 1985, Ruffner and his son Peter founded the reference publisher Omnigraphics. And in 1986, Ruffner founded the Literary Landmarks Association, which today continues to encourage the dedication of historic literary sites via United for Libraries, a division of the American Library Association (ALA).
“In addition to his creativity and perseverance, another quality that marked Fred was his passion for libraries,” Bryfonski wrote. “He would frequently comment that ‘I visit a library every day. Perhaps I might miss a day once in a while, but the next day I might hit two or three libraries.’”
Ruffner was especially active in the library communities of Florida and Michigan, working closely with the Broward County Library System on a $32 million bond-issue referendum that enabled the system to build a new branch in downtown Fort Lauderdale that opened in 1984. He was founding president of the Michigan Center for the Book, served on the Detroit Public Library’s board of directors, and founded the Council for Florida Libraries, a now-defunct organization devoted to promoting and marketing libraries within the state’s communities.
“Fred Ruffner was a pioneer of the information age, providing America with tools to facilitate commerce and his publishing company made libraries an invaluable economic resource. His person was in every way as large as his legacy,” Fred Ciporen, publisher of Publishers Weekly, Library Journal, and School Library Journal from 1988 through 2003, wrote in a statement e-mailed to LJ.
Ruffner is survived by his son Frederick G. Ruffner, III, who founded the greeting card company Avanti Press in 1980, his son Peter E. Ruffner, who continues to lead Omnigraphics, and his granddaughters Zoe, Jessa, and Isabella. His wife Mary Evans Ruffner passed away on June 1, 2010.
A memorial service will be held September 20th at Grosse Pointe Memorial Church in Grosse Pointe Farms, Michigan.