Joe P. Ruthven, Former Mayor and Warehouse Pioneer, Dies at 92

Joe P. Ruthven, a civic leader, former mayor and pioneer of Lakeland’s now-burgeoning warehousing and distribution center industry, died Saturday at age 92.

Memorial services will be at 11 a.m. Saturday, Jan. 4, at First Presbyterian Church, 175 Lake Hollingsworth Drive.

Less than two months ago, on Oct. 28, his wife of 33 years, Judy Bloodworth Story Ruthven, died on the same day as his daughter, Kay Hagan of North Carolina, a former U.S. senator from that state.

One of his two sons, Greg Ruthven, said that the two things his dad would like most to be remembered for was starting the warehousing and distribution center industry in Lakeland and for the large number of jobs created through that effort.

“I can remember when phosphate and citrus were king in Polk County,” said Greg Ruthven, who is now president and director of the firm his father founded, The Ruthvens. “Then, we had two back-to-back freezes and the phosphate industry was moving out. Unemployment was up to 21 percent. Dad kept pushing warehousing, warehousing, warehousing.”

“People don’t realize how many jobs there are in the close to 100 buildings and four million square feet of industrial, warehousing and office space Dad developed,” Greg Ruthven said.

Joe Ruthven in 2017. (Photo by Scott Wheeler for The Ledger, used under a Creative Commons license.)

The companies that provided the employment moved to Lakeland and Polk County because of the buildings he built, his son said. And the companies have stayed because of the personal relationships Joe Ruthven built with his tenants, he said.

“Dad was a Southern gentleman. He believed in helping our tenants. He was never a win-lose guy. He wanted the tenant to win. If the tenant got the better end of a negotiation, he would say, ‘Don’t worry about it; if the tenant does well, we will do well.’ ”

His dad was proud that the jobs in the Ruthvens buildings were keeping food on the table for hundreds of families who otherwise might have had to move or rely on welfare, Greg Ruthven said.

Not only was Joe Ruthven the founder of Lakeland’s warehousing industry, it was largely through his efforts that the city built the Lakeland Center, now known as the RP Funding Center, said Gene Strickland, a former Lakeland city manager. Joe Ruthven served on the Lakeland City Commission from 1968 through 1971.

Strickland said that in 1971, when he was assistant city manager and Joe Ruthven was serving a one-year term as mayor, “we were selling the need to build the Lakeland Center. I went with him all over the city to clubs, churches, anywhere that would have us. He would speak and I would take notes and be backup.

“He was a dynamic leader, a salesman, and he had charisma with the crowd,” Strickland said, recalling Joe Ruthven as a mentor to him and numerous others.

During the decades before Tampa and Orlando built their now-larger entertainment venues, the Lakeland Center was one of the largest convention and concert venues in Florida and attracted some of the biggest names in rock and the music industry.

Although Joe Ruthven served only one term on the City Commission, he made long-lasting contributions, not only economically but also to race relations in the community, Strickland said During Ruthven’s term on the City Commission, communities throughout the South were going through upheaval as they worked to integrate schools.

An editorial in The Ledger in late 1971, said, “Racial problems at Lakeland High School drew the mayor into the news as an intermediary. His Youth and Adult Community Relations Committees opened unprecedented links of communication between races in the city, the school got a new principal, and the year ended on a note of optimism.”

The early years

“He came to Lakeland in 1957 with $5,000 and a pickup truck,” Greg Ruthven said. “He’s asked me time and again to figure out how many times that $5,000 turned over and I would tell him that I am good in math, but not that good.”

Joe Percy Ruthven was born on July 9, 1927, into the family of sharecroppers Joe and Agnes Ruthven in Chesterfield, S.C., the third of five children.

Growing up during the Great Depression gave him a strong work ethic, a trait that carried throughout his life as he continued reporting to work at the family office until past age 90.

He was fond of saying that he kept motivated during his young adulthood by knowing that if he was on the farm at home his dad would have him behind the plow looking at the tail end of a mule.

He graduated from high school just before his 16th birthday.

“He liked to tell the story,” Greg Ruthven said, “that he was out plowing when his dad came to the field and asked, ‘would you like to go to the University of South Carolina for a semester?’ He looked up from the plow at the ass-end of that mule and said, ‘Yes, sir, I believe I would’.”

When Joe Ruthven was old enough, he joined the U.S. Navy and he was in boot camp when the Japanese surrendered, ending World War II. He served his enlistment period at Norfolk Naval Base.

ALSO: Ledger article and photo gallery

After his discharge, he met his first wife, Jeannette Chiles of Lakeland, while both were attending the University of South Carolina. He earned his business degree and they married on Sept. 4, 1949. 

Together, they had three children – Greg, who is now president and director of The Ruthvens , Joe Lawton Ruthven, a retired vice president of and current member of the board of The Ruthvens, and the late Kay Hagan, who was an attorney and a U.S. senator representing North Carolina.

He spent a decade working for the BF Goodrich company before he and his partner, Eugene (Blackie) Black, came to Lakeland in 1957 to open OK Tires on a lot provided by his late father-in-law, Lawton Chiles Sr., on Memorial Avenue.

Eventually the partners built a second store and needed some warehouse space. Joe Ruthven decided to build the warehouse and lease half the space to another company. By 1974, Joe was interested in going into real estate full time and his partner wanted to return to South Carolina, so they sold their tire business.

Jeanette Ruthven died in 1982. Joe married his second wife, Judy, in 1984.

Civic involvement

The year that Joe served as mayor, 1971, Look magazine recognized Lakeland as an All-American City, according to obituary information compiled by the Ruthven family, 

He also served as president of the Lakeland Chamber of Commerce and was recognized as a George Jenkins Award recipient; was chairman of the Lakeland Regional Hospital Board; and served on the Board of Trustees of Florida Southern College, where he received an honorary doctorate degree.

He was inducted into the Tampa Bay Business Hall of Fame and the NAIOP (National Association of Industrial and Office Parks) Hall of Fame.  

Civically, he had served as president of the Lakeland Lions Club, commodore of the Lakeland Yacht Club, was a long-time Lakeland Kiwanis member and was on the board of the Polk Museum of Art.

Joe Ruthven was a life-long Democrat and frequently helped with the campaigns of his late brother-in-law, Lawton Chiles Jr., who served in the Florida House starting in 1958 through 1970 and in the U.S. Senate until 1989. He was elected governor in 1991 and died while in office in 1998.

Ruthven was a private pilot and owned several planes during the 1960s and 1970s. After marrying Judy, the couple enjoyed boating and traveled throughout the Caribbean and up the east coast to Baltimore.

Survivors

In addition to his son Greg Ruthven and daughter-in-law Kim, he is survived by his son Joe L. Ruthven and daughter-in-law Karen, and the children of his late wife Judy, Jan Weinman (Richard), Craig Story (Sandy), and Suzanne Chesser (Fred). He is also survived by his brother William Ruthven, who lives in Lakeland.

His older sisters, Margaret Perry and Virginia Hough, predeceased him. His youngest brother Jerry Ruthven (Sara), who worked with Joe at the tire stores, died earlier in 2019.

Joe and Judy Ruthven shared 16 grandchildren: Maj. Niles Ruthven, USAF, Ret. (Janice), Cmdr. Zachary Ruthven, USN (Charlie), Dr. Jeanette Hagan-Wipf (Martin), Tyler Ruthven (Tyeliah), Tilden Hagan, Lauren Ruthven Clark (Brandon), Carrie Hagan Stewart (Will), Gregor Ruthven (Lindsey), Shawn Martz (Richard), Jason Weinman (Kelly), Ashley Frazier, Ryan Story (Jessica), Rebecca Ercoli (Jesse), Rachell Guiterez, Riki Story, Dale Chesser and 31 great-grandchildren.

The family asks that In lieu of flowers donations be made to Central Florida Speech and Hearing Center, 3020 Lakeland Highlands, Road, Lakeland, FL 33803, where he and multiple family members have served on the board of directors.

Lakeland skylineSupport Independent Community News. We rely on people like you to invest in the community by supporting this non-profit service. Please donate now.