FROM READERS: Faculty award winner says MU was window to a larger world

Tuesday, October 29, 2013 | 6:00 a.m. CDT

Ruth Brent Tofle is a professor and chair of the MU Department of Architectural Studies. She won the 2013 Distinguished Faculty Award Friday, Oct. 18 at the 46th annual Faculty-Alumni Awards Ceremony, held in the Reynolds Alumni Center. 

You might find it odd that the words of Confucius played a significant role in my life. A half a world away and centuries ago, Confucius said, "I live in a very small house but my windows look out on a very large world." You see, my story is about coming from the small river town of Washington, Missouri and the powerful influence of experiences and mentors.

In my traditional American hometown, my mother was a grade school teacher and dad was a “jack of all trades” using his self-taught skills to support us. When his farm machinery dealership capsized, he used those machines to demolish buildings. Dad paid me a penny a brick to hammer off the mortar from the bricks of those old buildings so they could be used again. I think he overpaid me. But, I learned first-hand the lessons of sustainable design and business. Moreover, he taught me the value of getting your hands dirty with hard work.

Money was tight. There were times when I shook the savings from my piggy bank to help pay family bills. But, education was highly valued by my family and I was ready to assume loans to get a college degree in my first love, art. Concerned about how I would make a living in art, my mother took me to see a local sign painter.

Coming from this small-town German background to mighty MIZZOU, I had my first experiences outside the cocoon of my supportive community:

  • I gasped at the larger-than-life casts of Greek and Roman sculptures in Jesse Hall. They were NAKED!
  • I listened while a larger-than-life man taught me American History. Arvarh Strickland, also new to MU, was the first African American person I had ever met.
  • I attended a lecture presented by the ground breaking architect Buckminster Fuller.

The progressive chair Dr. Kate Ellen Rogers, who arranged the Buckminster Fuller lecture, also encouraged me to reach further and do graduate work at the University of Minnesota.

The dress I wore to my final Ph.D. defense was purchased from the Salvation Army. With my newly minted Ph.D., I received an academic job offer from a small women’s college. Their faces dropped like concrete when I showed up with a pregnant belly. The job offer was promptly rescinded.

Dean Bea Smith took an interest in my professional advancement. She reviewed my Fulbright Fellowship proposal to go to the Peoples' Republic of China. The opening line of my proposal was: "I live in a very small house but my windows look out on a very large world."

That was 1988. With a map, compass and very few words of Chinese, I traveled on a city bus on my own through Beijing. I saw a country so different from mine—and yet so similar to my upbringing. The people re-cycled and re-used everything. They worked hard, sacrificed, and treasured their history.

I used the same quote by Confucius to get to Morocco and Tunisia in 1993 for another Fulbright Fellowship. In a group of academics in Tunis, we rode a speeding bus down residential streets and made hair-pin turns to make sure no one was following us. We arrived at our destination and we were met by large body guards at the door. We were kept waiting and waiting. Finally, the man who walked through the door was … Yasser Arafat. Speaking perfect English, he shook my hand. This was one month before he would shake the hand, for the first time, of Yitzhak Rabin.

These are my stories making the point that Mizzou was my window to the larger world. Those experiences and images shaped my values, my work, and who I became.

  • Our university celebrates diversity in its faculty.
  • A museum of Greek and Roman sculptures inspires.
  • Lectureships present great visionaries like Buckminster Fuller.
  • Foreign travel exposes us to ideas that may also be valuable back at home.
  • Mentors nurture young minds taking them to the other side of the earth—and beyond.

I am deeply honored to be selected the 2013 Distinguished Faculty member by the MU Alumni Association and consider this to be a team prize with many colleagues who participated in this achievement. I'm a small-town Missouri River kid, a wife, a mother, a teacher and I love Mizzou.

This story is part of a section of the Missourian called From Readers, which is dedicated to your voices and your stories. We hope you'll consider sharing. Here's how. Supervising editor is Joy Mayer.

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