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A Xavier Gem

A Xavier Gem
By Jacob Baynham

In more than half a century at Xavier, Ruby Heard watched buildings come up and be torn down, and saw new ones rise in their place. She served under eight presidents, and saw the Physical Plant, where she worked, change location five times. On Jan. 3, 2011, after 51 years on the job, she clocked in one last time.

Heard’s final day at Xavier was markedly different from her first, March 17, 1960. “It was like night and day,” she says—figuratively and literally. Figuratively because of the way she was treated as a black employee. Literally because back then, as a young woman on an all-boys campus, she was asked to work nights so she wouldn’t distract the students. She cleaned the offices of faculty and the president, and if it was difficult being a black woman in a predominantly white male school at the height of the civil rights movement, she didn’t let it get to her. “I met more nice ones than mean,” she says. “It’s still like that. Some people are nice to you, some are nasty. But it didn’t matter, because back then, I had a mouth. I still do, I guess, but I’m more cautious.”

Heard was born in Union Point, Ga., the second of seven children. Her father died when she was 2, and her mother struggled to feed the family on her meager earnings as a laundress. Heard looked after her younger siblings and, when she was older, sought work herself. “Back then,” she says, “you had to.”

In the mid-1950s, the teenage Heard left her family to live in Cincinnati with her aunt and uncle, and her cousin Pinkie. She took a job with Pinkie, making salads and bussing tables in the YMCA cafeteria. Three years later, Heard got a job at Xavier, where her aunt was a cleaner.

“It was who you knew back then,” she says. “Families would get family jobs.”

Racism, while not as visible as in Georgia, was still an uncomfortable reality. “In Georgia, it was open,” she says. “If the whites hated you, it wasn’t hidden. In Cincinnati, it was the same thing, but you had to figure it out yourself.”

Her first boss, however, didn’t discriminate: “He’d cuss anybody out,” she recalls. “It didn’t matter what color.” But in her early years at Xavier, Heard watched the University struggle toward racial equality. It started on the basketball court and the football field. Some schools wouldn’t play Xavier’s teams if they included black students. But the white students refused to play if their black teammates were sidelined. When Xavier admitted women in 1969, gender equality and racial equality built on each other.

There were more Jesuits at Xavier when Heard started, and she remembers them fondly. Some would give her and the other night workers fresh loaves of bread from the Rainbow Bakery, which stood where the Commons Apartments are today. During the holidays, they’d bring her a ham, or a turkey, a fruit basket and candy boxes.

Heard has trouble singling out her best day at Xavier—lunch outings with favorite colleagues stand out—but she immediately recalls the worst. On a Sunday night in 1995, her son was shot dead on a street corner by a 16-year-old kid. Heard had no money to pay for the funeral, so Richard Hirté, vice president for financial administration, let her borrow from her retirement fund. The shooter was arrested, and spent eight years in jail. “I wasn’t rejoicing,” Heard says. “He was a child. He got hooked up with the wrong people. I felt sorry for him. I just try to put the thought behind me and let it go. I pray for him.”

Her suffering didn’t end there. Heard lost another son to brain cancer, and on her first day of retirement, she drove to Christ Hospital to say goodbye to her cousin Pinkie, who lay dying. The two were like sisters, sharing everything for all their lives. “That wasn’t no blessing,” Heard says. “It was hard.”

Today Heard lives with her daughter and granddaughter in a ranch-style home on a quiet cul-de-sac in Colerain Township. It’s a 14-year-old neighborhood built on old farmland. Heard remembers driving out there with her uncle on Sundays, decades ago, to buy apples, corn and greens from roadside stands.

After such a long career, not working has been an adjustment. “It’s like a withdrawal,” she says.

“It’s like you’ve been on drugs for a long time and you get up in the morning and don’t know what to do with yourself. So I just walk.”

She makes three or four laps of the cul-de-sac every morning, and walks her great grandson to the bus stop, even if his mother can do it, even if he’s old enough to walk himself.

At her retirement party, Heard was given a scrapbook of memories, signed by longtime friends and colleagues and the students she cleaned up after in her final years at Husman Hall. Sitting on her sofa, she leafs through it on a recent winter day.

“I had them all spoiled,” she says. “You know how kids leave their rooms? Well I would go in and clean them.”

Around her, the house is cluttered with dolls and angels. A television murmurs in one room and two of her great grandchildren play in another. The plants from her son’s funeral sit by the window, now 16 years taller.

“I’m very proud that I had the chance to work at a place with benefits,” she says. “I can look back now and see that I was blessed.”

Xavier was blessed, too.

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