Dieringer Middle School Head Teacher/Principal (1959-1989)
Dieringer Education Foundation Hall of Fame Award
At the end of a particularly successful career, people might say that we fought the good fight. That certainly rings true for Dieringer Hall of Fame Award winner, Ruggles G. Larson. Ruggles has literally fought many good fights throughout his fascinating and inspirational career.
Ruggles’ story begins in 1934 when, at the height of the Great Depression, he joined the Larson family then residing on a farm some six miles from Thief River Falls, Minnesota. As one of three children, Ruggles was soon expected to help provide and he recalls his first real job.
“My older brother and I were told to hunt gophers because they caused a lot of damage on the farm. Gophers always had two holes, and my job was to carry the bucket of water. My brother would tell me to dump the water into the gopher hole. Then he would be at the other hole with a baseball bat. When the gopher was flooded out, he would pop his head out and my brother would hit him over the head. Since he was older my brother had the better job. We got two cents for each gopher tail we brought to the creamery and that money was pretty important.”
Ruggles remembers his first days of school as 1 of 13 students in a one room schoolhouse and the reason he developed skills that would serve him later in the service and as a teacher.
“I was actually the best student in first grade. Of course, I was the only student in first grade in that school. I loved math, and when I was supposed to be reading, I would secretly be doing the math problems that the second and third graders were doing. That helped me do pretty well in math but that’s also why reading was tough for me.”
In 1945 the family sold the farm and moved to Tacoma where Ruggles’ father went to work repairing naval ships at Todd Shipyard. That move also opened the door to another passion for Ruggles: boxing.
“I got into boxing in junior high and kept at it through high school at Lincoln. I guess that’s because my older brother boxed, and I did pretty much everything he did.”
Ruggles’ love affair with boxing continued into college where he made the Washington State College team as a 132-lb freshman. Struggling with his grades, he again followed in the footsteps of both his father and older brother by joining the Marines in 1952.
“Since I was pretty good at math and had taken typing and bookkeeping classes in high school, I was assigned as a disperser at Treasure Island near San Francisco rather than being stationed with the “Frozen Chosen” in Korea.”
This assignment also gave Ruggles the opportunity to continue boxing through both the service and AAU competitions. Ruggles doesn’t like to talk about his accomplishments, but his overall amateur record was 119 wins, 23 losses and 3 draws which is testimony to his skill and tenacity.
Coming out of the service three years later and recently married to wife, Nancy, Ruggles qualified for the GI Bill which provided incentives for veterans wishing to continue their college education. After a short stint at the College of Puget Sound, Ruggles transferred to Western Washington College in Bellingham where he received his degree in education.
“I had been boxing professionally during college but Nancy suggested that it probably wouldn’t be a good idea for me to show up for my student teaching assignment with black eyes, so that was the end of my boxing career.”
Ruggles accepted a teaching assignment at the tiny Dieringer School District in September of 1959 and was assigned to teach math to fifth and sixth graders and PE to all of the middle school aged students.
“Jack Adams was the principal at the time and I think there were about 110-120 students in the entire school which had grades K-8. I enjoyed teaching there but thought it would be better to work at a bigger school, so I transferred to Kalama, Washington. I soon realized that I missed the Dieringer kids and faculty, so when Jack Adams called to say there was an opening at Dieringer, I felt very fortunate I was able to return.”
Back for good, Ruggles and Nancy bought a large five-bedroom Victorian home in North Tacoma in 1967, where they still live today. That home became famous to a generation of Dieringer boys that played on teams coached by Ruggles.
“I decided to have the boys on the basketball team spend the night but realized after I had invited them that I’d have to feed them. We didn’t have any money then, so I remember telling them to eat before they came. I knew I’d still need to feed them something later, but luckily I noticed that a new restaurant on sixth and Pearl had just opened and there were coupons for two-for-one hamburgers in the newspaper. I had my daughters go up and down the neighborhood asking people for their old newspapers so we could have the coupons. Later that night we all piled into the car and drove to that new restaurant, McDonalds!”
Getting to know this special man also meant getting to know his offbeat sense of humor. The basketball players visiting that night as well as many others over the years would learn of the great Snip Hunt.
“The eighth graders were in on this, of course. What I had them do was take the sixth and seventh graders down to the woods below the house and give them gunny sacks and sticks. Then the eighth graders showed them how to beat the bushes with the sticks to chase out the snips. No talking was allowed. After they got the younger kids going with the sticks, the eighth graders snuck back to the house where we would all wait two or three hours till the younger ones finally figured out they had been tricked.”
Ruggles advanced to head teacher and ultimately to principal of Dieringer Middle School in 1972, and the vision that would make him one of the most beloved staff members in the history of the district began to evolve.
“I had been thinking about a way to get every student involved and excited to be at school and the pieces started coming together. The idea was to reward kids with points for all the good things that they did at school like good grades, citizenship and participation in extracurricular activities. Then we would give students certificates as the points added up and they reached different levels to keep them motivated. If a student reached a certain point total, they would receive a gold cup at eighth grade graduation. The Shamrock was the school mascot so we eventually called it the Shamrock Point System.”
The fact that North Tapps Middle School continues to use the “Bulldog Point System” 50 years later provides evidence of the brilliance of Ruggles’ ideas and his insight into the motivation of middle school students.
Throughout Ruggles’ career he continued to serve as a positive role model in the area of physical fitness. Before it became vogue, he recognized the value of a healthy body and its benefits to learning. Among his many other innovations were wide ranging lunchtime intramural activities which included chess, checkers, shuffleboard, 3 on 3 basketball, flag football and, of course, boxing! But perhaps one of Ruggles’ greatest ideas was the community Fun Run which began in 1977 and continued through 1988.
“We had our fun runs on Saturday mornings and started holding them on Driftwood Point. As they got bigger and we wanted a longer run, we moved over to Lake Tapps Elementary. I think the biggest field we ever had was 101 participants including U.S. Senator, Slade Gorton. And students received ribbons and earned Shamrock Points for participating.”
During his time as principal, Dieringer Middle School was consistently the highest performing school in Pierce County on standardized tests. Students went on to great success in high school and most to rewarding careers. Retiring in 1989, Mr. Larson can become very sentimental as he considers the past.
“As I look back on my Dieringer career, I’m most appreciative of the great students, families and teachers that I was able to work with over the years. Dieringer really is a special place and even though I knew it then, now I’m even more convinced.”
Ruggles didn’t stop inspiring us when he retired. He has continued his fitness regime at an exhausting pace completing 749 road races including 26 marathons to date. Additionally, he has completed in 51 Senior Olympic Games held in California, Oregon, Hawaii and Washington receiving a staggering 352 medals along the way.
As a fitting tribute to a life of dedication to fitness, in 2012 Ruggles was presented with the Doug McArthur Lifetime Achievement Award for participating in and helping others to participate and enjoy athletics. This is an incredible honor which Ruggles downplays in his typical, self-deprecating manner. He is also curator of the Larson Memorabilia Library which is located in his attic and contains countless pictures and information about Dieringer academic and athletic achievement.
In addition to keeping track of Dieringer history, Ruggles and Nancy happily track the progress of their 5 children (4 girls and 1 boy) and 13 grandkids. No one is sure if there are any boxers in the bunch, but one thing is sure: There’s bound to be some “fight” in those Larson offspring!
In November 2010, Ruggles G. Larson was named the first recipient of the Dieringer Education Foundation Hall of Fame Award. Held at the former Dieringer Middle School, over 150 former Dieringer students, parents and faculty members were on hand to recognize Ruggles for his outstanding service to the students of the Dieringer School District.