A newsmaker you should know: His nickname could be 'Mr. Historic Harmony'


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John Ruch has a mission: to teach everyone about the rich heritage of Historic Harmony -- especially those who live only a few miles away.

Mr. Ruch is president and CEO of Historic Harmony, the history preservation society that owns and operates the eight-property Harmony Museum in Butler County.

"Just within the last few months, I met a woman from Evans City who has never been to Harmony," he said. "I'm always inviting people to come discover us."

Mr. Ruch, 73, of Zelienople, has his own history working in historical preservation. For more than 40 years, he has served in various capacities with local and statewide historic organizations, including as president of Historic Harmony from 1984 to 1990 and his latest stint from 1995 to present.

Mr. Ruch and his wife, Shelby, first discovered Harmony in 1972 when they were living in Middlesex and went to Danfest, a pioneer festival where crafts are demonstrated.

"... Our No. 1 son was only a year old and decided that was the day he was going to start walking," he recalled. "I came away from that with two thoughts -- that my son had blisters on both of his feet and that Harmony was a really interesting place with a lot of potential."

The blisters on his son's feet went away, but not Mr. Ruch's interest in Harmony. Although a busy work schedule in public relations with PPG and a young family kept him too busy to do volunteer work at the time, the visit planted the seeds for what would later become a long-standing role with Historic Harmony.

In 1976, Mr. Ruch was transferred to Manhattan and the couple bought a house built in the 1700s in New Jersey.

"It was the only kind of house we could afford because it was so expensive to live there, but it needed a lot of work," he said.

For the next 6 1/2 years, the couple worked on the house, learning a great deal about old houses and renovations, Mr. Ruch said.

When he was transferred back to the Pittsburgh area in 1982, Mr. Ruch had "had it with old buildings" and didn't want to be involved with anything to do with history.

His disinterest in old buildings didn't last long, though, because in 1983, he not only attended a meeting of Historic Harmony, he soon found himself elected president of the nonprofit organization.

"I think they liked my experience with old buildings," he said with a laugh.

According to Mr. Ruch, the organization was founded to take possession of a local cemetery and then was rather dormant for years. The town core and Harmonist cemetery were designated a National Historic Landmark District in 1974, the first in the state outside of Philadelphia. In 1991, the organization became a 501(c)(3) nonprofit and today, it hosts several events each year, although the Dankfest that first attracted the Ruch family no longer exists.

"I started early on in wanting to raise the professionalism of how we do business and expand our museum and displays," Mr. Ruch said. "After I retired, I was able to spend even more time working on things."

Mr. Ruch retired in 2001 from PPG, where he was manager of corporate public information. His wife is a retired journalist.

In addition to his work with Historic Harmony, Mr. Ruch is vice president of Friends of Old Economy Village; founder and former board member of the Western Pennsylvania Museum Council; and a member of Butler County's former Washington 1753 Commemoration Committee, now Washington's Trail 1753. He is also a trustee with The Friends Meeting House and Cemetery Association of Randolph Township and was a founding board member of the Butler County Tourism and Convention Bureau.

For his work in historic preservation, Mr. Ruch has received the Zelienople-Harmony Area Chamber of Commerce Distinguished Community Service Award and Zelienople Historical Society Angel Award.

Historic Harmony recently welcomed more than 5,000 visitors to its annual Christkindlmart, a celebration fashioned after the Christmas Markets in Germany. Currently, it is preparing for the annual Sylvester Celebration in Harmony, an event that celebrates New Year's Eve based on German time and hosted by Harmony Borough.

"Both of these events keep growing. It is great to see people who come here for the first time," he said. "I still get such a big kick out of introducing people to Harmony."

neigh_north

Kathleen Ganster, freelance writer: suburbanliving@post-gazette.com.


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