Magazine Feature / People

Ruffatto Hall donor hopes building will prepare teachers to meet special needs

Mike and Joan Ruffatto were grateful to the University of Denver and its Learning Effectiveness Program (LEP). Finally, after years of battling the public school system on behalf of their daughter, Katherine, who has Lupus, they had found a group of professionals willing to accommodate her special needs rather than cast her aside.

“LEP ran interference for Kathie,” says Mike Ruffatto. “When you have Lupus, you don’t look sick, so LEP had to work with professors to help them understand why Kathie needed to work at a different pace.”

Joan, who had a background in both special education and in gifted and talented education, felt she could make a difference for other students and sought a job with LEP.

“Joan kept insisting on being given that opportunity,” Mike recalls. Joan was eventually hired full time and ended up with her own cadre of LEP students.

Both Joan and Kathie had such rewarding experiences that, upon Kathie’s graduation in 2005 with a BA in biology, the Ruffattos looked for a way to say thank you to DU. They learned that the Morgridge College of Education was launching a campaign for a new building.

“We agreed to help the Morgridge College of Education but also came to the table with the idea of including LEP within the same building as the college,” Mike says. “Our vision is that the physical closeness of the two will create cross-fertilization of ideas and turn out teachers better prepared to work with students’ different needs.”

With the University’s commitment to — and excitement for — this idea, the Ruffattos made the first major gift to the college’s new building: $5 million. The stunning new home for both LEP and the college will be named Katherine A. Ruffatto Hall after their daughter.

Tragically, Joan, who also had Lupus, passed away suddenly on Nov. 18, 2007, after the gift was made but before the building’s construction.

“Joan was an incredibly warm person who loved — literally loved — the LEP kids that she worked with,” recalls Ginger Maloney, then dean of the Morgridge College and now director of the Marsico Institute for Early Learning and Literacy. “It was very clear that both Mike and Joan were passionate about the possibilities inherent in a collaboration between the Morgridge College and LEP.”

“We want to arm today’s education students, tomorrow’s teachers, with more skill sets so that they can recognize a child with differences earlier and address them properly,” Mike Ruffatto says.

“Ruffatto Hall makes a statement about the priority and importance of education in the larger vision of the University,” says Interim Dean Jerry Wartgow.

For her part, Kathie is honored by the fact that her name will grace a building at her alma mater.

“The University of Denver saved me at a crucial time in my life,” she says. “If DU hadn’t accepted me, I don’t know what would have happened.”

She is now at American University earning a master’s degree in health promotion.

Mike says that his family name doesn’t grace any other buildings; this is the only gift they’ve made of this kind. But he does say that it comes with expectations.

“If you put your name on a building, you feel a vested interest in making sure that the University is exceeding your expectations,” he says with a grin. “I’m wedded to the University’s success now, so I don’t feel at all shy about giving kudos and suggestions where I think they’re due!”

Ruffatto Hall is scheduled to open in June 2010.

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