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That's 'Just Something Dad Does,' Says Son Of Kansas Farmer Who Sent A Mask To New York Gov. Cuomo

Dennis Ruhnke holds two of his remaining N-95 masks as he stands with his wife, Sharon, at their home near Troy, Kansas, on April 24.
Charlie Riedel
Dennis Ruhnke holds two of his remaining N-95 masks as he stands with his wife, Sharon, at their home near Troy, Kansas, on April 24.

A retired Kansas farmer made national headlines for sending a letter and a single N95 mask to New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo. His son says the move is pretty classic, if you know his father.

New York has been hit hard by COVID-19. As a result, a lot of the news out of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s daily briefings has been grim.

A poignant moment happened during last Friday’s briefing, though. And it was all thanks to a letter from a retired farmer in Troy, Kansas.

Cuomo was seemingly so touched by Dennis Ruhnke’s letter that he read it in full during his briefing.

“Dear Mr. Cuomo,” the letter begins. “I seriously doubt that you will ever read this letter as I know you are busy beyond belief with the disaster that has befallen our country.”

Ruhnke then goes on to detail how he and his wife are in their 70s. She’s diabetic and has only one lung. He’s afraid for her.

In spite of that fear, he enclosed a single N95 mask with the letter. He had one left after keeping four for his immediate family.

“If you could, would you please give this mask to a nurse or doctor in your city,” Ruhnke writes.

After he finished reading the letter at his news conference, Cuomo appeared to be in disbelief. He gave a short speech about how moments like this helped make up for all “the ugliness.”

Courtesy of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo
Dennis Ruhnke said his only regret about sending this letter to Governor Andrew Cuomo is that he didn't improve his penmanship.

You know who wasn’t surprised by the story? The farmer’s son in Mesa, Arizona.

“Everybody is so surprised how someone can just do this for a city they’ve never been to, people they’ve never met. We have no connections to New York in any sense of the word,” Josh Ruhnke said. “But this is just something dad does.”

OK, Josh was a little taken off guard when he first saw the story on the internet. His dad hadn't told anyone about the letter, including his wife.

That's just the kind of guy Dennis Ruhnke is, Josh said. He gives.

When people call to say they ran off the road during a torrential rain or snow storm, he goes and pulls them out of the ditch.

He’s also provided free room and board to his farm hands when they’ve hit a rough patch financially. Once he even turned his office into a makeshift daycare so his mechanic could keep an eye on his kids through the glass windows while working.

He also takes care of his wife, sometimes driving her to medical appointments three times a week that last up to six hours.

Why did he send a mask to New York? Because that's where people were the most gravely stricken.

“He has always been a person that advocates to go where you can do the most good," Josh said of his father.

Dennis Ruhnke told KCUR he was extremely overwhelmed by the attention he'd received after Cuomo's news conference. He's not in the best health and his phone had been ringing constantly.

He was excited, though, that his letter might inspire someone else to do something nice.

“I’m extremely proud of him,” Josh said. “There probably isn’t any more proud that I could be than I am right now.”

Lots of other people are proud of him too.

“It's easy to be nice and kind and affable when everything is easy. You really get to see people and get to see character when things get hard,” Cuomo said. “I'll tell you the truth. Some people break your heart… On the other hand, you see people who you didn't expect anything from, who just rise to the occasion.”

Josh Ruhnke spoke with KCUR during a recent episode of Up To Date Special Coverage: Coronavirus In KC. You can listen to their entire conversation here.

Whether it’s something happening right now or something that happened 100 years ago, some stories don’t fit in the short few minutes of a newscast. As a podcast producer for KCUR Studios and host of the podcast A People’s History of Kansas City, I help investigate questions and local curiosities in a way that brings listeners along for adventures with plot twists and thought-provoking ideas. Sometimes there isn’t an easy answer in the end – but my hope is that we all leave with a greater understanding of the city we live in. Reach me at mackenzie@kcur.org.
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