Arts patron, philanthropist Francien Ruwitch dies at 86

04/03/2014 11:36 AM

04/03/2014 11:38 AM

Rob Ruwitch remembers an amusing bit of repartee his parents had engaged in many years ago.

Dad was Lee Ruwitch, a media pioneer who had helped launch WTVJ, South Florida’s first TV station. Mom was art patron and philanthropist Francien Ruwitch, whose gifts helped endow the University of Miami’s Lowe Art Museum and Florida International University’s Frost Art Museum.

Francien Ruwitch, who died at 86 on March 26, “was driven by culture and art and the importance of art,” her son said. “My father and her had a running joke. She would be, like, ‘Lee, it’s an investment.’

“My dad would be, ‘Fran, if it’s an investment, sell a piece and make a profit.’

“And mom would be, ‘No, we can’t sell this piece of art.’

“This piece of art was her child,” Rob Ruwitch, 49, said. And her son’s development was paramount.

“The neat thing about my parents, I will always cherish, is they always included me. We went to China in 1981 because my dad was in the newspaper business — he owned the Daily Business Review — so we would travel on National Newspaper Association trips. We went to South Africa in ’82. It was very important and I think it was probably a push from my mother to include me in dinner parties and outings and she would take me to the theater.

“She was involved in the Coconut Grove Playhouse. I remember seeing Zero Mostel in Fiddler on the Roof and the great theatrical performances that played at Coconut Grove. She started on the board and I took her board seat at one point. It was important to get culture,” he said.

And culture could take many forms.

Rob recalled an early childhood memory, attending a rock concert at the defunct Miami Baseball Stadium in the fall of 1977 with his mom. The show was headlined by a then-hot Peter Frampton with the J. Geils Band and Rick Derringer on the bill. Yep, mom, who loved her fashionable hats, coiffed hair and silk outfits, rocked out with her son to the Frampton Comes Alive guitarist.

Culture mattered. So did a shared fondness for fishing. Ruwitch once held the women’s record in the 1960s for catching the biggest bonefish in the Abaco islands in the Bahamas — a whopper topping 10 pounds. She laughed with a Herald art critic when she told her story: “The water was bubbling like champagne with bonefish and poor Lee didn’t catch anything.”

“That’s her character,” her son said this week, chuckling. “She still had that twinkle in her eye at the end and that’s something special.”

Resplendent in dress and demeanor, Ruwitch loved abstract art and, in 1997, she and her husband, who died in 1999 at 85, founded the Francien and Lee Ruwitch Education Endowment Fund at the Lowe Art Museum. The endowment supported programs for students in grades K-12, providing funds for art teachers and school buses for field trips.

“Education was a passion for my husband and it is for me,” she told The Miami Herald in a 2001 profile. In 1986, the couple set up the Francien and Lee Ruwitch Charitable Foundation to support the art museums at UM and FIU, WPBT-Channel 2, the American Cancer Society, the American Heart Assocation and the Children’s Home Society.

“She knows you need to have an educational system that will really highlight the arts when a student goes through school,” said former FIU museum director Dahlia Morgan in 2001.

Ruwitch wasn’t exposed to art in Memphis as a child but a move to Miami in 1950 altered her life. She was entranced by South Florida’s “heavenly” colors. She married her husband in 1958 and the couple had their son, Robert. “There were no museums in Memphis and I didn’t even know art existed,” she once said.

“My mom was a homemaker, not a housewife,” her son said of those early days in the family’s Pinecrest home. She would quip that she wasn’t married to the house, she was married to her husband. And she was on the go and made sure her son, now an entrepreneur who runs a plastics company he started with his father, learned from her example.

“There is so much positive we have to take out of this and that is her legacy to the fine arts in this town,” her son said.

This passion was born decades earlier when a friend signed Ruwitch up to volunteer at the Lowe. She soon became president of the Lowe’s Friends of Art.

Years later, then a noted art collector herself who had moved to Coral Gables, Ruwitch, on the recommendation of her friends Martin Margulies and his curator Katherine Hind of The Margulies Collection, discovered Ralph Provisero, a Miami artist. Ruwitch bought one of his sculptures at his studio. Her goal was to install Provisero’s sculpture on UM’s campus in honor of her late husband and the task was completed in 2008.

“She was a really sweet person; she had a loving soul,” Provisero said. “She treated me like family and she adored my son. Every time we got together she talked about the kids and her grandson who she adored. She was just a loving person and it is a loss to not have her around anymore.”

In addition to her son, Ruwitch is survived by her grandson Zach, sisters Mary Morricoli and Ellen Kesterson, and daughter-in-law Emily.

Services will be held at 11 a.m. Monday at Temple Beth Am, 5950 SW 88th St., Kendall.

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