Frederick Ruffner Jr., titan of reference books, dies at 88

Posted Aug. 24, 2014, at 5:45 p.m.

Frederick Ruffner Jr., an inveterate collector of information who founded Gale Research, an empire of directories, dictionaries, biographies and bibliographies that stocked reference libraries for decades, satisfying urgent curiosity and waiting for questions not yet asked, died Aug. 12 at a hospital in Detroit. He was 88.

The cause was respiratory failure, said his son Peter Ruffner.

Frederick Ruffner was widely regarded as one of the foremost publishers of his kind — the sort for whom no name, fact or bit of data was too obscure to be collected for future use.

He founded his company — Gale was an old family name — in Detroit in 1954. Ruffner was working at the time as a marketing manager for a firm that sold firefighting equipment and set out in search of a directory of trade associations that might expand his contacts.

When he found in circulation no volume sufficiently current for his needs, he decided to compile one himself.

“It seemed to me this was a basic kind of book,” Ruffner once told the (Fort Lauderdale, Florida) Sun Sentinel. “In my ignorance, I quit my job and hung out my shingle as a publisher. I knew zero about publishing.”

Working alongside his wife, with headquarters on a card table in their home, Ruffner typed and edited the first edition of the volume now known as the Encyclopedia of Associations. While perhaps lacking the glamour of many a bombshell bestseller, it proved highly useful for professionals across industries. To Ruffner, it demonstrated the commercial value — as well as the utility — of carefully curated information.

He followed his first directory with hundreds of other titles, including the Code Names Dictionary, the Acronyms, Initialisms and Abbreviations Dictionary, and Picturesque Expressions, a collection of sayings. Gale Research became particularly known for its series of literary reference guides, including the Dictionary of Literary Biography, Contemporary Literary Criticism and the venerable Contemporary Authors.

“The firm publishes no large general dictionaries on the scale of the Oxford English dictionary,” Philip Bradley, a librarian, once wrote the journal the Indexer, “nor smaller ones like the Concise Oxford dictionary. What they do produce are works on specific subjects, and their importance lies to a great extent in the magnitude of their contents and the fact that they are up to date.”

The company grew to employ hundreds at the central location in Detroit and at satellite offices, said Peter Ruffner. In 1985, Ruffner sold his company for $66 million to International Thomson.

With his son Peter, he later started Omnigraphics, a Detroit-based company that publishes reference series on topics including health, culture and finance.

“I find reference books are stimulating,” he told the Miami Herald. “You know, Samuel Johnson was a reference book editor. He defined a lexicographer, a compiler of dictionaries, as a harmless drudge.”

Frederick Gale Ruffner Jr. was born Aug. 6, 1926, in Akron, Ohio. He served in the Army in the Pacific during World War II and received decorations including the Bronze Star Medal, his son said. In 1950, he received a bachelor’s degree in business from Ohio State University.

Ruffner was a longtime resident of Grosse Pointe, Michigan and Fort Lauderdale. His philanthropic and civic work included support of libraries and other cultural initiatives, including the Literary Landmarks Association, which dedicates historic literary sites.

He subscribed to 300 magazines and maintained a warehouse that housed his personal reference library. “In case I ever want to look something up,” he said.

His wife of 55 years, the former Mary Evans, died in 2010. Survivors include two sons, Peter Ruffner of Detroit and Rick Ruffner of Grosse Pointe and three granddaughters. A grandson died in 2014.

Ruffner recalled being enchanted as a boy by “The Swiss Family Robinson,” the classic tale of survival after a shipwreck. However, his grown-up tastes did not run to fiction.

“If I had to be marooned on a desert island,” he once told Forbes, “I’d like the Manhattan Yellow Pages to read.”

 

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