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  • Writer's pictureDawn Smith

Ellen Ruffin, de Grummond Curator, Announces Retirement

Updated: May 23, 2023

By: Dawn Smith, David Tisdale

In keeping with the tradition of The University of Southern Mississippi’s (USM) de Grummond Children’s Literature Collection’s founder, Ellen Ruffin built relationships that continued growing Lena Y. de Grummond’s vision for a world-class repository of some of the genre’s best at the school’s Hattiesburg campus.

Ruffin, curator of the de Grummond Children’s Literature Collection since 2006, will step down from the position when she retires at the end of May from the university. An associate professor in USM University Libraries, she has served as the principal investigator for grants from the Sunshine Arts Foundation and the Ezra Jack Keats Foundation and is also one of the editors for A de Grummond Primer: Highlights of the Children’s Literature Collection, the first book-length project about the Collection. She began her work in libraries in the Mississippi Delta as a literacy coordinator with the Sunflower County Library System.

An active member of the American Library Association, Ruffin has served on numerous committees, including the Newbery Medal Committee, the Children's Literature Legacy Award Committee, and the Schneider Family Book Award Committee, among others. She also serves on the board of advisors for the Mississippi Book Festival.

Providing leadership for all aspects of the continued development and management of the de Grummond Children’s Literature Collection, in 2012 Ruffin played an instrumental role in the Ezra Jack Keats Award moving from the New York Public Library to the de Grummond Collection, which is the repository for all of Keats’ works. The Award is presented each year during USM’s Fay B. Kaigler Children’s Book Festival. Ruffin established the de Grummond Lecture, also presented each year during the Children’s Book Festival; past lecturers have included many notable authors and illustrators in children’s literature, including Lois Lowry, Sophie Blackall, and Richard Peck.

Ruffin praised Lena de Grummond, noting the story of her arrival in Hattiesburg after securing her doctorate at the same time as her son. Both came to USM to take faculty positions, with Lena teaching graduate students in the university’s School of Library Science.

But she wanted to do more, leading to the beginning stages of what would become the de Grummond Children’s Literature Collection and an impact reaching far beyond the Hattiesburg campus.

“She was quite impressed with the commitment and determination of her students; many were teachers by day and would drive to campus at night for their classes,” Ruffin said of her predecessor. “And she wanted to make this experience (their graduate education) more than a textbook.

“So, she began writing authors and illustrators and asking them to send pieces of their work. And of course, she would always say, ‘If it's something you're going to throw away, send it to us. If it's sketches, if storyboards whatever shows the production of a book, a children's book, please send it and then she would always end with and if you've already thrown it away, send the trash can.’ She had humor. “But the amazing thing was she wrote 300-400 letters a week – unbelievable - and she wrote longhand because she wanted to get things back in longhand, and she did.”

One of the first letters Lena de Grummond received in response to one of her many solicitations was from H.A Ray, the creator of Curious George, telling her of his intention to send the collection some of his original work. At the very bottom of that letter, also part of the Collection, is a drawing of Curious George with a portfolio under his arm, and a little signpost pointing to Hattiesburg, with George trudging off in that direction.

When the de Grummond Collection was founded in 1966, the Reys were among its earliest contributors. Featured on the cover illustration of the collection's catalog is that same drawing of Curious George bringing his books and pictures to Hattiesburg, with the title “Curious George Comes to Hattiesburg: The Life and Work of H.A. and Margret Rey.” More Curious George materials were added over the years, and in 1996, upon the death of Margret, the remaining literary estate was given to the Collection.

“So, most of the letters would come back illustrated and very personal,” Ruffin further noted. “She developed quite a correspondence with her authors and illustrators with their contacts.”

Over the years, Ruffin made that same kind of connections with contemporary authors and illustrators resulting in gifts of original materials, as well as books given by generous donors, adding to the Collection, and contributing to its positioning as one of North America’s leading research centers in the field of children’s literature.

Ruffin facilitated financial gifts of approximately $1 million to support collection purchases and programming. She established a relationship with The Jewish Museum in New York City, which made it possible for pieces from the Ezra Jack Keats and Curious George collections to be on loan for exhibits in New York as well as around the world. In 2017, Ruffin traveled to Japan for the opening of a Curious George exhibit that toured six different cities, covering every geographic area of Japan, and welcoming more than 149,000 visitors over a two-year period.

Not surprisingly, Ruffin argues for the legitimacy of children’s literature, not just from the perspective of those authors and illustrators whose work makes up the collection, the popularity of the Kaigler Children’s Book Festival, and the premier standing of the Eza Jack Keats Award - but from her own experiences.

“I read fairly voraciously as a child, and had friends in those books,” Ruffin said, her voice tinged with emotion. “I saw how things in my world were relevant. If I read something in a book, I wanted to see it in the world. If I saw something in the world, I wanted to find it in a book.

“Children can connect, learn, and gain compassion and understanding and imagination through books. And I don't discount the significance of adults in that dynamic too, because Captain Kangaroo read ‘Make Way for Ducklings’ to me.”

University Libraries Dean Dr. John Eye described Ruffin as “a constant source of energy, passion, and leadership during her time with the de Grummond Collection.”

“Her efforts to develop relationships and grow the Collection have contributed to the Collection being one of the top research centers in the country,” Dr. Eye continued. “She is leaving de Grummond with the promise of a bright future, and while she will be missed, we wish her the best in her well-deserved retirement.”

And like Lena de Grummond before her, Ruffin leaves a remarkable legacy punctuated with the personal touch that the Collection’s founder would surely applaud.

“The best part for me has been the relationships, all kinds of relationships, not just with famous people, but people who have their own stories, who are connected to their own books that they treasure and give to us with such earnestness,” Ruffin said. “That's hard to overlook. So, I wake up every morning feeling grateful for this wonderful career.”

Part of the USM Foundation’s Give Wing: The Campaign for Southern Miss is to permanently endow the Curator of the de Grummond Children’s Literature Collection. A $2 million curatorship endowment would provide $80,000 annually in discretionary funds to support the Collection for things like development of exhibits and collection acquisition. To donate in honor of Ruffin, please visit the donation website for more information.

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