Sharing the adventures of reading: Susan Ruzek honored through book gifts to Woodson

Published 12:57 pm Thursday, April 18, 2024

Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...

Kirsten Hayford recognized the room at Woodson Kindergarten Center as soon as she walked past it on Wednesday. 

It was the room that her mother, former Woodson Kindergarten teacher Susan Ruzek, made into a haven for reading.

“That was the magic Tree House room,” she said. “That was all mom. That was all her idea to hook the kids. That is the best example of her passion.”

Email newsletter signup

With help from a Hormel Foundation grant in 2008, the room signified the importance of reading to Susan; a place where kids could develop their skills.

On this particular Wednesday, the family of Susan Ruzek, who passed away suddenly on Christmas Eve morning last year, strengthened that connection to reading and the family’s matriarch by handing out copies of “Miss Bindergarten Celebrates the Last Day of Kindergarten” to every student at the school.

“The book couldn’t be more appropriate to what took place today,” Susan’s husband, Dave Ruzek, said. “The whole idea was to honor Sue.”

Susan worked in the Austin Public School District for 37 years and a majority of that was at the kindergarten level. She was among the original teachers at the Woodson Kindergarten Center when it opened, coming back after retiring in 2008 to operate the Tree House.

“She was involved in establishing early reading resources,” Hayford said. “That was the magic Tree House.”

But reading wasn’t specific to her students. Both Susan and Dave were passionate about ensuring reading was a part of their home as well. They established in their children, and the grandchildren that followed, the importance of reading. 

The family accumulated a small library’s worth of books at home and both Susan and Dave, understanding the importance of reading, would guide their children through the printed word.

“Reading was just really one of those fundamental things,” Dave said. “If you can get kids to read it just opens up some horizons.”

Hayford remembered, though, that it wasn’t just reading for reading’s sake. Susan was remembered as pulling the words off the page and giving them life as she read.

“She had the ability to make reading fun,” she said. “That was what we all just remember. There were always books and there was always an adventure to be had.”

The idea of continuing that legacy of reading came to the family not long after Susan’s memorial in early January of this year. The family asked that memorials in Susan’s name be given to one of a number places — The Austin ArtWorks Center, the Austin Education Foundation or donor’s choice.

As the memorials started coming in, the family recognized that many of them were undesignated and so the Ruzeks began looking at what to do with the money. The idea loomed large in front of them.

“What if we were to buy books for all the kindergartners at Woodson,” Dave said.

Dave, himself, is no stranger to the act of providing books. The Austin Noon Kiwanis, which Dave is a part of, had a book distribution through a program sponsored by the Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation (SMIF).

SMIF would provide groups like the Noon Kiwanis club with the books and these groups would distribute the books to places like Head Start or Title One programs. Dave said he approached Lisa Deyo, owner of Sweet Reads Books and Candy, who helped coordinate the idea of a Miss Bindergarten book using the undesignated memorial funds together with a large memorial from Susan’s friend Mary Kay Ulness, who was also on hand Wednesday for the distribution. 

But Dave also said it wouldn’t have been possible without other partnerships and thanked Community Education Director and Woodson Site Administrator Jen Lawhead, Lisa Bellrichard and the rest of Woodson staff for helping the Ruzek family plan and carry out the book project.

Along the way, work with the book publisher helped the family line up 362 books in total — one for each student.

“It was fantastic,” Dave said. “We went to 16 classrooms, anywhere from the green turtles to the blue otters to the red owls. It was just a great feeling. It was just a special day. It was a nice tribute.”

That tribute was rewarded by the reactions from the kids themselves, who lit up when the book was placed in their hands.

It was a reaffirmation for the family of Susan’s own joy of giving books to others, witnessed often at Christmas when Susan would wrap up individual books and give them to her students.

“Joy is the only word we could come up with,” Hayford said. “It’s so hard to put into words. We finally saw first hand what mom was so passionate about. We finally understood. It was a gift to them that will hopefully encourage them to keep reading.”

Yet, at the same time Dave chuckled when he tried to guess how Susan would have reacted to Wednesday’s distribution being in her name.

“I’ll be honest, she would have been honored, but she really would have questioned why we went through the fuss,” Dave said Susan would have loved the kids getting books. “But she would have been thrilled with it.”

There was one other thing that made the day special and highlighted the connection and influence Susan had on Woodson. 

Many of the memorials and well wishes to the family came from Susan’s former students and some are still at Woodson today — as teachers. 

“It was neat to see it come full circle,” Hayford said. “This passion for a very difficult job.”

However, Wednesday was summed up for Dave in remembering something his wife said so many years ago when she was honored along with John O’Rourke as the Rotary Club’s Educator of the Year.

It was a singular line that summed up Susan’s love for the students in her care.

“In no other job do people want to hold your hands as you walk down the hallway,” she had said.