Leading with Love: Fund Honors Friend and Mentor Ruth Pittard
AUTHOR – Danielle Strickland
Adam Gerstenmier ’05 was one of seven finalists for a competitive fellowship during his time at Davidson.
After he didn’t get the job, long-time staff member Ruth Pittard told him, “You were the favorite candidate going into the interview and the least favorite coming out.”
Was it hard to hear? Sure. Was it exactly what he needed to hear? Yes.
“Apparently, I lacked real passion and a way to show it,” he said. “Nobody was better positioned to give me that feedback. Rather than ignore it, Ruth chose to have the conversation and was able to help me accept it with humility and also use it as a growth opportunity. I’ve never entered an interview again where I didn’t know what I wanted to say and without preparing for a whole range of potential questions. Failing that interview gave me the feedback I needed to succeed.”
Gerstenmier, who works for the United Nations and lives in Kenya, chose a life of service for the common good, in large part thanks to Pittard. He says few people have had more impact on his life.
Pittard’s “romp in education,” as she calls it, included a variety of roles, including positions in audio visual services, the now-named Alvarez College Union and student life. She was the college’s first director of the Bonner Scholars Program, a nationally recognized community service-based scholarship program that emphasizes love, compassion and leadership through the values of civic engagement, community building, diversity, international perspective, social justice, spiritual exploration and wellness. This year, the program celebrates 30 years at Davidson.
Pittard retired in 2005 as the assistant dean of community service after nearly 30 years with the college and currently lives in Black Mountain, North Carolina. To honor Pittard’s lasting impact on the Davidson community, Michelle Levin ’06 and Brika Eklund ’06 have established the Ruth Pittard Fund for Love in Action, in partnership with the college’s Center for Civic Engagement. The fund will support summer internship opportunities in perpetuity through the center. Anyone wishing to honor Pittard’s many contributions is encouraged to make a gift here.
Beth Maczka ’85, a former YWCA CEO who is now pursuing a master of theological studies degree at Vanderbilt University, recalls the ways Pittard worked in her life, creating opportunity and instilling confidence.
“As a freshman, I needed a job, and Ruth taught me how to thread the reel-to-reel projector to show movies in Love Auditorium on Friday nights,” she said. “She also stepped in when I was worried about raising money to travel to India the summer before my junior year. This was before there were dedicated scholarships for this kind of thing. Ruth gave me the first $50 toward my goal and convinced me to raise the rest—and I did.”
Laura Pepper ’07 holds tight to lessons learned from Pittard as well.
“She mentioned how she applied for new jobs every year, and a big part of it was so she could learn about other organizations,” recalled Pepper, who works for Duke Energy in Charlotte, North Carolina. “I remember Ruth talking about how these interviews often led to partnerships and connections with people. I still tell people about this because I think it represents such a beautiful perspective on life—seeing something for all its possibilities and always looking for ways to build community.”
These are the kinds of stories you get when you ask about Pittard’s impact as a Davidson staff member and every day since. She cares enough to have the hard conversations, and she always sees what something—or someone—could become.
Pittard calls Davidson the defining experience of her life.
“Every day, I experienced something that helped me grow and be joyous,” she said. “It’s a place where so much is possible, and that possibility exists because of the people. Students who appear at Davidson are some of the finest people I know.”
Bonner Scholars are required to complete 280 hours of community service per year. Pittard recalls one student who was logging his hours each semester as expected, but she suspected he might not truly be completing them. She wondered, but she never questioned him.
“Three years after he graduated, he knocked on my office door, and he was all dressed up,” Pittard said. “He said to me, ‘I finally finished my Bonner hours; I know you were worried about it.’ I replied to him, ‘I wasn’t worried, but I’m glad you were.’”
It meant the world to her that the culture of Davidson, and the Honor Code, inspired that student to finish what he agreed to, even if it was on his own timeline.
“Love is her default,” said Leisl Hagan ’05, an epidemiologist for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “She makes you want to be your best self because you deserve that. One day, without knowing her for a long time, I came across the word “ruthless” in something I was reading. I thought, ‘without Ruth,’ and that word had a whole new meaning that evoked something empty and superficial and uncaring. To be without Ruth—and everything she represents—would be the opposite of my best life.”
To date, the Ruth Pittard Fund for Love in Action has raised more than $65,000 toward a $100,000 endowment goal. A recent $20,000 match was established for the next $20,000, to catapult the fund to reach its goal in time for summer 2022 student awards.
“Service experiences are critical to a liberal arts education,” said Eklund, director of real estate at Self-Help, a community development financial institution founded by Davidson alumni in the Raleigh-Durham area.
“Students must have ample opportunities to step out of their own skin, to walk in the shoes of others and to be exposed to new opportunities to shape their futures,” she said. “Particularly in today’s seemingly endless negative environment, we hope this fund honors Ruth and encourages people to live with love.”
Aside from students’ academic and service-focused work, Pittard is masterful at building personal connections.
“She makes you want to be your best self because you deserve that. . .To be without Ruth—and everything she represents—would be the opposite of my best life. – Leisl Hagan ’05
“Ruth was in many respects a campus mom,” said Peter Tavernise ’90, an employee of Cisco Systems Foundation in San Jose, California. “Always there with a listening ear, a warm encouraging hug and the gift of wise counsel. What else does a young person far from home need most in the midst of so many accelerated challenges and changes?”
President Emeritus John Kuykendall ’59 sat at Davidson’s helm during much of Pittard’s tenure, and he brought the Bonner Scholars Program to campus.
“Ruth is like a utility infielder in baseball—a competent person you can put in any position and they’ll play equally well,” he said. “She was this omnipresent, caring person on campus. I served on the Bonner Scholars board for more than 20 years, and when we talked about leadership in terms of professional staff, Ruth was the model we wanted others to follow.”
For as much as students learned from Pittard during her years on campus, they have continued to learn from her actions long after. Always eager for new experiences, Pittard moved across the country to Whidbey Island in Puget Sound, Washington, following her Davidson retirement in 2005. She had applied to 15 internships with non-profit groups, and all she requested was room and board. She found her place as a volunteer with the Giraffe Heroes Project, bartered for housing and traveled around the area, sharing tips on holistic, sustainable living. Her unconventional internship was mentioned as part of a feature in The New York Times.
“I learned from Ruth to maintain a growth mindset at any age, to pursue your passion with open arms and to embrace fear head on,” said Levin, who is a manager at Google in Los Angeles and executive producer of Life in the Credits podcast. “I learned to be an active listener and, because of her, I became an executive coach to empower others in their pursuits of self-discovery and servant leadership.”
Gerstenmier, Eklund, Levin, Pepper and Tavernise were Bonner Scholars.
The Ruth Pittard of today is not much different from the Ruth Pittard at Davidson College. She lives in a tiny, solar-powered home and works to make her community better. You can find her standing and waving with four friends in the center of town every Wednesday from 4 to 5 p.m., holding a sign that says, quite simply, “LOVE.”
“How fitting for a woman who truly embodies that word,” Maczka said.