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William Ruger Jr., CEO and Community Champion, Dies at 79

  • William B. Ruger, Jr. (Courtesy Sturm, Ruger & Co., Inc.)

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 9/18/2018 11:51:16 PM
Modified: 9/18/2018 11:51:28 PM

Newport — William Ruger Jr., who worked for more than four decades for Sturm, Ruger & Co., the firearms manufacturing company his father co-founded, and who became a major benefactor in Sullivan County, died on Saturday at his home in Newport after a brief illness. He was 79.

Ruger, known to many as “Bill Jr.,” ran the gun manufacturer as CEO for six years after his father, William Ruger Sr., retired in 2000. And while some have praised him for steering the business through a difficult time in the company’s history, Ruger also was known as a supporter of his Upper Valley employees and of Newport-area cultural institutions.

“He was always community-oriented, always involved in the community,” said former Newport Selectboard member Gary Nichols, who retired four years ago from a career at the Ruger plant in Newport.

Nichols on Tuesday recalled Ruger devoting time and money to both the Newport Opera House and the town’s historical society.

Ruger, who also had a home in Bar Harbor, Maine, maintained an extensive car collection in a refurbished building known as Ruger Mill on Sunapee Street and served on several boards, including that of St. Paul’s School, from which he graduated in 1957.

The executive and engineer also cared deeply for the large workforce employed by Ruger and Pine Tree Castings, a subdivision of the firearms manufacturer, Nichols said.

“He was a nice gentleman, always a gentleman,” recalled Ella Casey, former executive director of the Newport Area Chamber of Commerce. “You would never know from him walking down the street that he was anything but a regular Joe.”

Ruger was born on June 4, 1939, in Greensboro, N.C., to Mary Thompson Ruger and William Ruger Sr., who co-founded Sturm, Ruger & Co. in 1949, according to an obituary posted online by the Newton-Bartlett Funeral Home in Newport.

He joined the family business in 1964, about three years after graduating from Harvard, and then worked his way up over 42 years from manufacturing and engineering positions to the top job in 2000.

“He was a character, to put it mildly,” Stephen Sanetti, who took over as CEO after Ruger retired, said on Tuesday.

While his father focused primarily on the company’s firearms, Sanetti said, William Ruger Jr. devoted much of his focus to safety and employee issues. Ruger knew that hundreds of workers in Newport depend on the manufacturer to feed their families and felt committed to their welfare, he said.

“He was very proud to be a major employer in New Hampshire,” Sanetti said, adding that working conditions and salaries always were important subjects.

Sanetti said Ruger also was known for his quick wit, extreme intelligence and sardonic sense of humor. Ruger was a “foundation of arcane information” and was well-versed in architecture, art and trains, he said.

To some area politicians, Ruger was a “Yankee Republican” who supported conservative candidates for office after leaving the company.

While the Newport plant has long been a favored campaign for Republican presidential candidates, Ruger told the Valley News in 1998 that he didn’t “get into politics.”

But he did favor conservative policies and advocated for relaxed gun control laws and right-to-work legislation, which would outlaw contracts that require union membership as a condition of employment.

“To the extent that any state wants to attract industry, and sometimes, even to retain it, it is fairly important to have a right-to-work law,” he said during a 1998 interview with the Valley News.

In the two decades since, New Hampshire has rejected several attempts to pass right-to-work bills, including a 2017 push that was supported by Republican Gov. Chris Sununu.

Although Ruger initially attempted to keep a low political profile at the company, his father was friends with Republican officials, and William Ruger Sr.’s funeral was attended by then-Reps. Charlie Bass, R-N.H., and John E. Sununu, R-N.H..

After retiring, Ruger supported Republican candidates by holding fundraisers and donating space on Newport’s Main Street to serve as a headquarters of the Sullivan County Republicans.

“I’d say we’re worse off without him,” said Steve Cunningham, a former state representative from Sunapee and chairman of the county Republican committee.

Cunningham received support in his own bids for office from Ruger, whom he described as fiscally conservative but “not an activist.”

“He was very interested in politics and we met, I think, through politics,” said Neil Levesque, executive director of the New Hampshire Institute of Politics and Political Library at Saint Anselm College.

Levesque, a former staffer for Bass, said Ruger was better known among friends for his encyclopedic knowledge, classic car collection and skills as an engineer.

“Bill Ruger had a famous name, obviously, but he was a one-of-a-kind person,” Levesque said, adding Ruger was one of the foremost authorities of automobiles in the country.

“He knew the mechanisms, the engineering, the styles and the background of every kind of automobile that’s ever been made,” he said.

Ruger’s antique car collection once included more than 40 vintage vehicles, including several Rolls-Royces and Bentleys. He also was instrumental in the creation of the Ruger, a 1970 touring car named for William Ruger Sr. that was never mass produced.

His mansion in north Newport housed an eclectic mix of antiques and works of art. Ruger purchased Northville Farm in the 1980s. The property once was owned by Long Island Railroad tycoon Austin Corbin, the founder of Corbin Park, the fenced-in game preserve that sprawls across more than 20,000 acres and encompasses five Sullivan County towns.

Both Ruger and his father were members of the Blue Mountain Forest Association, the exclusive group that managed the park and controls who visits.

“Sometimes people speak harshly of Corbin Park, for reasons that often elude me, but you have to bear in mind that it is an amenity, an attraction to the area that might be apt to do something like say, ‘This is a good place to start an enterprise.’ ” Ruger told the Valley News in 1998.

“Apart from that, it seems to me that it provides a perfectly beautiful conservation reserve at no public expense,” he added. “Indeed, it pays taxes.”

This summer, Ruger agreed to add to the conservation land surrounding the park by selling about 3,200 acres in Newport, Croydon and Grantham to the state.

The $3.25 million purchase, which will be paid for by a mix of state and federal grants, was approved by the New Hampshire Fish and Game Commission in July.

Ruger is survived by his sister Carolyn Amalie Vogel, of Harrisville, N.H.; six nieces and nephews; and twelve grand-nieces and grand-nephews. A brother, James Thompson Ruger, who went by Tom, died in 1993.

Calling hours will be held on Friday from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. at the Newton-Bartlett Funeral Home, 42 Main St., in Newport. Funeral services for Ruger, like his father, will be held at 11 a.m. on Saturday at Corbin Park, according to his obituary.

Tim Camerato can be reached at tcamerato@vnews.com or 603-727-3223.




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