William Ruland, who came from a long line of Mattituck farmers going back before the colonial era and who lived a life of exemplary public service, died Tuesday night of pancreatic cancer. He was 72.
In many ways, Mr. Ruland was a throwback to a time when people with historic roots in a community volunteered to serve it with the goal of making a difference and improving the lives of fellow citizens.
Those who worked with him knew him, first and foremost, as a gentleman who believed deeply in serving his community in any way he could be helpful. What he accomplished in public life, which was considerable, was never about him, but always about others in the town in which his forebearers found a home well before the American Revolution.
Mr. Ruland lived out his life on his family’s historic Main Road farm, where he could often be seen riding his tractor.
“I served with Bill for 12 years and for eight of those years he was my deputy,” said Supervisor Scott Russell. He recalled talking with Mr. Ruland a few nights ago and “it was clear to me that Bill was saying goodbye.”
Mr. Russell added: “He delved into community service like no one else. He took on very large roles when he saw what the community needed. He never put himself first. It was always about the community.
“When I made him my deputy, I needed someone who could serve as a mentor for me,” he added. “He brought class, honesty and integrity to that position. But he was my mentor more than my deputy.”
When Mr. Ruland lost his bid for reelection to the Town Board last November, Mr. Russell said, “He never stopped serving as my mentor and my confidant. Bill set a high standard that we must strive for. It may be impossible to reach, but we must strive nonetheless.”
Last month, the Mattituck-Laurel Civic Association honored Mr. Ruland by naming him its 2020 Citizen of the Year. Members of the association knew he was fighting cancer and that, as in all things in life, the clock was ticking. The evening turned into a heartfelt tribute to a man whose impact on his community will be talked about for years to come.
That night, Anne Smith, the former Mattituck-Cutchogue School District superintendent and the MLCA president, said this about Mr. Ruland: “Bill inspires and reminds us to be stewards of our future. His history lessons, commitment to the agriculture roots of our community and leadership as past president of the Mattituck-Cutchogue School District Board of Education, his work as councilman and deputy supervisor on the Southold Town Board demonstrate his love for our community.”
Mr. Ruland’s biography mirrors the history of a small, New England-style town on the North Fork in which the earliest English settlers found the finest farm soils anywhere in the region and stayed on the land for generations because they deeply cherished it. Community service was an outgrowth of that love of place.
He was a member of the Mattituck-Cutchogue school board for 24 years, 13 as president and chief financial officer. He served as a town councilman and deputy supervisor for 12 years, was a former director and vice president of the Long Island Farm Bureau and treasurer of the Long Island Cauliflower Association.
At the MLCA event, Lee Ellwood, a former Mattituck-Cutchogue school superintendent, said he had known Bill, as Mr. Ruland was known, for 50 years, and taught him English when Mr. Ruland was in the eighth grade.
“Your whole life has been with the community, for the people of the community and your family,” he said. “So I thank you for all the outstanding deeds you have done for others … It is my honor to be a friend all these years.”
Reached Wednesday morning after word of Mr. Ruland’s death had rippled through Mattituck and Southold, Doug Cooper, a fellow Mattituck farmer, said the news deeply saddened him. “We went to school together,” he said. “We met in kindergarten. We were always in the same grade and we both came from farm families. We had a lot in common.
“Bill was a heck of a good guy,” he added. “He was filled with good, common sense. He was down to earth. Back in our youth we had a beach buggy club. We’d get an old car, cut it up and shorten the frame, and ride on the beach. Bill was the president of our club. He was destined for public service, and he was always a gentleman.”
Suffolk County Legis. Al Krupski (D-Cutchogue), who served with Mr. Ruland on the Southold Town Board, said, “He valued the community and wanted to be a part of it. He was a pleasure to work with. He knew the details. He took it very seriously. He was very thoughtful and insightful.”
While Mr. Krupski’s family farm is in Peconic, he has deep ties to the Mattituck farming community through his mother, whose maiden name was Sidor. The Sidor family farm is north of the Ruland farm on Oregon Road.
“I knew him before our time on the Town Board,” Mr. Krupski said. “We bought straw from him. He knew Mattituck very well and served it all his life.”
At the MLCA tribute, which was done via Zoom, Mr. Ruland was, at times, overcome with emotion. Toward the end of the meeting, he said, “To be honored by one’s community, there’s just a feeling that’s almost indescribable. Having been born and raised here, it means even more. To the civic association and its officers and members and friends, thank you from the bottom of my heart.”
At that point, Mr. Ruland’s voice started to crack and he wiped away tears with a tissue. Then he said, “Can’t hold it together.”
Graveside services will be held Sunday, November 29, at 3 p.m. at New Bethany Cemetery in Mattituck. The service will be officiated by Pastor David Cook of Calvary Baptist Church.