Bob Rucker, in son Malcolm’s words, “crossed the finish line” on December 5, 2019 in the adobe home he had built with his own hands in Santa Fe. “He seemed happy.”
And well he deserved to be. He had managed his death as he’d lived his life—on his own terms. Last year, after battling various forms of cancer for some 15 years, he chose to abandon the well-worn path between Santa Fe and MD Anderson in Houston. He had beaten back the disease multiple times and finished what he most wanted to do in life: taking care of his wife Barbara. He had crafted them a house from scratch where she flourished with elegance, grace and a steady stream of hand-loomed scarves and shawls; he had nursed her carefully and patiently through a year of ALS; and he had left to USAID a legacy of designs for economic policy reform which set a standard for clarity and collaboration. He’d won the fight.
He was always his own man. Born in a small town in Kansas in 1941, he left home while still in high school and worked his way through Oklahoma State and UCLA. He married Barbara Layton three weeks after spotting her on the OSU campus. Together with Malcolm, age 5, they joined USAID’s class of International Development Interns in 1969. Posted to India as a program economist, he worked on a tubewell project for Bihar, before heading for tours in Syria and Egypt. Fed up with bureaucracy, he left USAID to return to UCLA and then launched his nearly life-long project of perfecting the house on the Little Critter Ranch just south of Santa Fe. He advised the New Mexico Energy Commission on policy before coming back to USAID in 1984 as an economist in Jakarta, where he produced his classic work on employment. Working closely with a senior economist, Boediono, later Minister of Finance and Vice President, he orchestrated a design process that brought together key members from across the government and academia in a series of seminars which captured their imaginations. It laid the groundwork for a program of collaboration and consultation which continued for three decades—supported first by USAID and later picked up by the World Bank and USAID.
It was an approach which Bob used repeatedly–including counterparts key to project implementation in the design of programs. And he did it with the same patience, creativity, and attention to detail that he used in crafting his house in Santa Fe. You couldn’t hurry him. His work took time. He was meticulous and his projects built to last.
Along the way, he developed his own methodical style of brewing coffee, watched humming birds under the portola, indulged a love for green chili burritos at the San Marcos Café, and thrashed at his computer, looking out the windows on the scrub land and mountains beyond, dreaming of how to make things better. He shot off enlightened and instructive e-mails advising on how to shape up our political institutions—one suggested that feeding certain politicians to the Komodo dragons might help. He signed off on these notes as ET, El Terrible, and began embracing the role of monk-curmudgeon sending messages from his den on righting the world. Towards the end, he said, as he surveyed the lists on his post-its, “there’s still much to do, but now I don’t have to do it.” He found comfort in that. He’s left the charge to us.