DES MOINES, Iowa — John Ruan, one of Iowa's most powerful businessmen who built a national trucking company and led a redevelopment of downtown Des Moines, died Saturday. He was 96.
Ruan had Parkinson's disease and had been in declining health for several years.
"John was a remarkable individual and he made a world of difference," said former Iowa Gov. Robert Ray. "John was a visionary and when he set his mind to something, he found a way to do it."
The company Ruan founded in 1932, Ruan Transportation Management Services, now has annual revenues of more than $860 million, with 4,700 employees and operations in 48 states. He also owned BTC Financial Corp. which owns Bankers Trust, Iowa's largest independently owned bank.
Although he focused most of his life on building his business, Ruan devoted much of the past 20 years to the Des Moines-based World Food Prize, an award created by Nobel Peace Prize winner Norman Borlaug. Ruan endowed the prize in 1990 when its first sponsor withdrew.
"Mr. Ruan's legacy is perhaps seen best through his efforts to fight hunger," said Gov. Chet Culver. "Working with another visionary, Dr. Norman Borlaug, he brought the World Food Prize to our state, the result of which has benefited millions of people throughout the world."
Ruan also donated millions of dollars to medical causes, including multiple sclerosis research, and was among the national Republican Party's most generous and reliable fundraisers.
Ruan was born Feb. 11, 1914, in the small southern Iowa town of Beacon. His father was a doctor, and Ruan intended to pursue a medical career but had to drop out of Iowa State College after one year because he had no money for tuition.
He traded in a family car for a truck and began his business at the height of the Great Depression in 1932, hauling gravel for a road builder. He quickly expanded and over the years came to oversee one of Iowa's largest companies.
Michael Gartner, former president of NBC News and former editor of the Des Moines Register, said he came to know Ruan well.
"What a story, a guy who had to drop out of college after one year, he buys a dump truck while still a teenager, goes to southern Iowa and lives in a tent at night and hauls gravel by the day," said Gartner, now a Des Moines businessman.
While Ruan was a brash and powerful public businessman and force in Republican politics, Gartner said there was another side he came to know.
"There was the private Ruan, who was incredibly kind and thoughtful," said Gartner.
Ruan's decision to sponsor the World Food Prize was a key to the success of the organization, which brings the world's top food researchers to Des Moines every year for several days of workshops and speeches.
"John knew what the prize could become," said the organization's president, Kenneth M. Quinn. "He knew it would be the centerpiece to help solve world hunger and bring glory to Iowa."
Gartner said Ruan was a man who evolved beyond his business.
"He suddenly changed and his whole mission was to feed the world," said Gartner.
Ruan also led a renovation of downtown Des Moines in the 1970s and 1980s, building the 36-story Ruan Center, the Marriott Hotel and 14-story Two Ruan Center. He pushed for construction of the city's skywalk system, connecting most downtown buildings, and a downtown convention center.
"Downtown Des Moines is totally different than it was when John started investing in it," said Ray.
Suku Radia, president and CEO of Bankers Trust, said Ruan's life story was hard to overstate.
"In John Ruan's day, they called them self-made men," Radia said. "His spirit did not come from seminars or books, but rather life experiences and belief in himself and the people around him."
Ruan is survived by wife, Elizabeth Ruan, and sons John Ruan III and Thomas Ruan, all of Des Moines.
A private funeral is planned. A public memorial service will be held later.
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