Feb. 11, 2003
By Mack Lundstrom and Mike Zapler
Former Mayor Al Ruffo, who was instrumental in transforming San Jose from an agricultural town into a modern city and also helped form the San Francisco 49ers, died early Monday of natural causes. He was 94.
Ruffo, who served on the San Jose City Council from 1944 to 1952, was an influential land-use attorney who built a lucrative real estate practice. He also was remembered as a tireless civic activist -- he was still fighting well into his 90s to block the new downtown City Hall -- and a thoroughly decent man who never flaunted his importance.
``He was an extraordinary person in the history of the valley,'' said former Mayor Tom McEnery. ``He was there ushering San Jose in its first steps from a garden city to a remarkable place called Silicon Valley.
``He had an impact on the community over an extraordinary span of time, but I don't think you could find anyone who had a mean-spirited or unpleasant encounter with Al Ruffo.''
Services are pending.
Ruffo's genial pressure for growth, both while on the council and then through decades of lobbying, fueled the city's economic ascent. But it also made San Jose one of the nation's primary examples of urban sprawl.
The transformation of Albert John Ruffo from puny Tacoma teenager to midcentury San Jose power broker was just about as spectacular as San Jose's growth during his first five decades in the valley.
``When I started high school, I was only 4-foot-11 and weighed 95 pounds,'' he said in a 1996 interview. But by his senior year, he had boxed and wrestled his way to 135, and a neck size of 18 1/2; hauling bread boxes six nights a week didn't hurt.
Played for Buck Shaw
When he moved to California to attend Santa Clara University in 1927, Ruffo played football, making All Coast teams as a guard for legendary coach Lawrence ``Buck'' Shaw and the Broncos.
In the classroom, he earned degrees in electrical engineering, literature and political science, before obtaining his law degree in 1936.
Ruffo survived the hardscrabble Depression years by working three or more jobs. He had married his Tacoma sweetheart, Marianne Gagliardi, in the summer of 1937, and they started a family that grew to a daughter and four sons.
Marianne Ruffo recalled meeting Al Ruffo, years before they married, at a dance in Tacoma, Wash., honoring the children of Italian immigrants who had received a college degree or other scholastic recognition.
``I was 15 and he was 22,'' she said. ``He asked me to dance and said, `You're going to make a nice wife for somebody someday.' Well, it would have been 66 years in June, and I can't complain. It's been a very good life, lots of ups and a few downs.''
After graduating, Ruffo coached the Santa Clara University freshman football team, then assisted Shaw with the varsity as line coach. He taught mathematics in the engineering department, and collected legal fees when he could. His first jury trial won $10,833.33 for a client injured by a furniture truck.
In San Francisco, Ruffo and former Bronco teammate Tony Morabito became partners in a lumber delivery business.
The depletion of professional football rosters during World War II gnawed at Morabito, a gridiron fanatic, and near the war's end, Ruffo set up the legal framework for Morabito's professional San Francisco 49ers.
The franchise was set to open in the All-America Football Conference in the fall of 1945, but play didn't start until 1946. In the interim, Morabito's choice for coach, Buck Shaw, moved to the University of California-Berkeley for one year and took Ruffo along as an assistant.
Ruffo wasn't an original investor when the 49ers started, but he did assist Shaw as a coach for a couple of years. Later he bought a piece of the team and remained a part owner for 24 years. Ruffo handled the legal details when Morabito sold the team to Eddie DeBartolo Jr.
The war also offered Ruffo his opportunity in governing San Jose. Political boss Charlie Bigley had controlled a majority of the seven-member city council for years when military service gave his foes an opening in 1944. Six seats were up for election, and the Progress Committee was organized to try to elect a slate.
``I got invited to a luncheon without any idea what they wanted,'' Ruffo said in a 1993 interview. Ernie Renzel, Ben Carter, Fred Watson, Jim Lively and Roy Rundle also were invited. ``They asked all six of us to run,'' Ruffo said. ``None of us were willing to accept.'' None had held elective office.
Political turning point
But little by little, campaign manager Harvey Miller and his committee persuaded all six, and they were swept into office. It was a turning point in San Jose politics.
Ruffo served eight years on the council, two as mayor. During his council tenure the council hired City Manager Dutch Hamann, the man most often associated with San Jose's sprawling growth. While on the council, he voted to move City Hall out of downtown.
Ruffo's politics spawned his career in land development as San Jose gobbled up real estate all the way to Morgan Hill.
In 1979, a three-month study by San Jose State University Professor Terry Christensen and former Mercury News Political Editor Phil Trounstine ranked Ruffo one of the city's 10 most powerful people.
The study and its contributors said the evidence was clear: Ruffo had been involved with every major land-use project in the city for the previous 25 years. He was president of the then-law corporation Ruffo, Ferrari & McNeil, a Democratic friend and adviser to former Gov. Edmund G. ``Pat'' Brown, a mentor for Assemblyman John Vasconcellos and state Sen. Jerry Smith, both former lawyers in the firm.
Ruffo had been a trustee and chairman of the California State University board, trustee and regent of Santa Clara University, an adviser to St. Mary's College and Dominican College.
He was a leader in such groups as the Red Cross, Hanna Boys Center, O'Connor Hospital and the San Jose Rotary Club.
The unnamed sources quoted in the Christensen-Trounstine study were critical -- and complimentary -- of Ruffo's clout.
``Al Ruffo's claim to fame is to be a specialist on zoning, which in my opinion doesn't require any great skill, just affability and friendship with the council,'' said one attorney.
Another said, ``When business wants to interact with government, it looks to Ruffo. He's their translator.''
And a political leader said, ``He doesn't perceive himself as an elite. He'll still go down to the council and argue for his projects . . . and he works hard at it.''
He was still working at it through the '80s and '90s as he reached his own 90s, keeping regular hours at his law practice and marshaling an unsuccessful campaign to prevent City Hall from moving back downtown.
Sued city in '98
Ruffo sued the city in 1998, contending it had violated the provisions of Measure I. That 1996 ballot proposition authorized building a downtown City Hall only if it could be done without taking money away from other projects or programs.
``With the cost of the project flying from $214 million to at least $329 million and more to be sure, as usually is the case,'' Ruffo wrote in a letter to the newspaper in March 2001, ``I would like to see how the city can comply with Measure I? But as someone said, they will get around it some way.''
In a settlement last year, Ruffo forced San Jose to stop using redevelopment funds and won a promise to keep citizens informed of the project's cost and prove it would save taxpayers money even if the price shoots higher than $343 million.
Ruffo was also accorded honor after honor -- highest awards from San Jose State and Santa Clara University, including an honorary doctor of laws from his alma mater; recognition from the Boy Scouts; and induction into the Santa Clara County Sports Hall of Fame.
Nevertheless, indication of his status came from Junior Achievement, whose 1991 Hall of Fame had this class: William Hewlett, David Packard, Steve Wozniak, Steve Jobs, Tom McEnery, Jay Pinson, Cliff Swenson, Eugene Kleiner, Phil Boyce and Al Ruffo.
Albert John Ruffo
Born: July 1, 1908
Died: Feb. 10, 2003
Survived by: Wife, Marianne; four sons, James of Los Gatos, Stephen of Port Townsend, Wash., Patrick of Campbell, and John of San Francisco; 12 grandchildren; and 11 great-grandchildren.
Memorial: Rather than flowers, the family prefers donations to any charity in Al Ruffo's name.