“I Don’t Want the Disease to Define Me.” -Chief Kevin Ruder
By Brandi Makuski
Police Chief Kevin Ruder will wear his dress uniform for the last time on Friday.
Ruder is retiring after 27 years in the Stevens Point Police Department, and while he’s accomplished a lot in that time, he’s not stepping down because of his age.
Chief Ruder has early onset Parkinson’s disease.
Ruder was diagnosed with the disease- a chronic progressive neurological condition that affects muscle and movement- one year before being promoted to police chief in 2009.
“I noticed some of the symptoms in late 2007, but I was just about to be sent for training to the FBI academy, and I had three teenagers, so I just attributed it to nerves,” Ruder said.
Ruder went to his doctor, at the prompting of former Police Chief Jeff Morris, and was diagnosed with the condition that now makes his hands shake. The initial shock, he said, was almost devastating.
“I was shocked with the diagnosis, and immediately thought of Michael J. Fox with the exaggerated movements and so forth,” he said. “But the progression has been very slow, and it’s been less of an encumbrance to me and more of an annoyance someone else notices.”
Ruder said the symptoms were manageable for a long time, and his superiors, as well as the Police and Fire Commission and the mayor’s office, were aware of his diagnosis before he was promoted. He also shared the news with fellow officers.
“As I told officers then, don’t judge me; I will be the very harshest critic of myself,” Ruder said. “If I don’t feel like I’m able to perform my duties, I’ll be the first one to say something.”
Ruder said the disease never slowed him down, and he even saw it as a kind of motivator to make the police department the best it could be. An addition of a new forensic crimes officer, a new municipal court and Recognition Coin program, Ruder also coordinated the Guns & Hoses exhibition softball game, which last year raised more than $40,000 for the Never Forgotten Honor Flight.
Now in its second year, Ruder said the program has been so successful the fundraising can expand to additional veteran support programs locally. He plans to continue his involvement in the Guns & Hoses event for as long as he can.
“I’m not going away from Guns & Hoses…that’s my baby,” he said, adding that instead of playing on the police department’s team this year, he’ll call color for the game. He also plans to travel on the Honor Flight as a guardian in the future.
In late 2014 Ruder said his symptoms were getting tougher to manage, and with that came an adjustment to his medication. The new dosage left him feeling “very fatigued”, and it was the sign he knew was coming but had dreaded for years.
“That’s when I knew,” Ruder said. “I always knew I’d have to leave at some point. It was very difficult but I knew the time was coming.”
The decision now in hand, Ruder said he knew it was time to let the citizens of the city he’s served know about his condition.
“I tried to keep this to myself, because I don’t want to be known as the chief with Parkinson’s,” he said. “I didn’t want it to define me. I wanted to define myself. That I’m tell you know is good; I want to be a resource, or help and support in any way I can, and help people understand the different peaks and valleys of a chronic illness.”
Ruder plans to continue volunteering at Woodland’s Church, where he’s a member, and possibly working with local support groups or other organizations that help those afflicted with Parkinson’s and similar conditions.
“I always tried to make positive change,” he said. “As long as I felt like I was able to give as much as I possibly could, I would. I hope it says to people who to get a diagnosis like this; don’t let it be your death sentence. That’s a worst case scenario, which is what I did at first.”
Faith and family got him through the dark times, he said, but for Ruder, “family” also means his fellow officers.
“I basically put it into God’s hands,” he said. “But my family, they more than anything got me through it. My wife, Dawn, was there every step of the way. And my family here, too. (Former chief) Jeff Morris was a great, great mentor and good friend. I’m fortunate to have many great friends.”
The number of friends will be evident on Friday, when Ruder with be honored with the department’s flag ceremony, where city officials say they expect heavy attendance.
The idea of legacy isn’t lost to Ruder, but he hopes it’s marked by “the fact that the police department and community worked together.”
Ruder said he wants idea of cooperation and professionalism to radiate through the department, and at times has been jokingly referred to as “Chief Mother Theresa” because he’s often reminding others they don’t need a badge to give back to the community.
“You never know what you can do on any particular day that may end up being a game-changer for someone else,” he said. “Whether it’s holding the door for somebody, or thanking a veteran for their service, whatever the case may be. Any chance you can make a positive impact on somebody’s life…I’ve always tried to do that.“