On a night when Gilbert was at its most divided, the town unified behind one man.
Benny Ruiz received two standing ovations Nov. 15 at the Public Safety Training Facility’s packed Atlas Auditorium as the Gilbert Town Council recognized Ruiz’s retirement from the Gilbert Fire and Rescue Department. That was the same night residents blistered council members over several issues, but a town video about Ruiz and his own comments about service brought the house down.
Ruiz was one of the town’s original 18 firefighters when it established its own department in 1993. He had served as a volunteer firefighter coming out of high school at Gilbert High in 1980, then as a reserve firefighter for Rural Metro when it took over duties from the volunteer department.
Starting in 1985, Ruiz also worked for the town’s sewer and later water departments before getting a full-time job with fire and rescue. He continues working today as a parks and recreation contract employee, staffing the front desk at the Public Safety Training Facility.
Over the course of his 42 years as a firefighter and 37 years as a town employee, Ruiz earned a reputation for his friendliness and the way he embodies the town’s #GilbertKindness moniker.
“I’ve felt it truly, the kindness that I get, that I receive,” he said. “And my father and mother always say, ‘Show it and give it. Do what you can for them also.’”
Ruiz has done that by the account of people who work for the town.
“I can’t even remember the first time that I met him, but I feel like I’ve known him for 20 years,” Mayor Brigette Peterson said. “I think it’s only been about eight. When people are like that in your lives, you know they have a special place.”
Ruiz was born in Tempe but raised in Gilbert just east of downtown. He and his seven siblings lived in a house of maybe 1,000 square feet, one bedroom for the boys, one for the girls and one for his parents. His family instilled hard work and service from a young age.
“If I had an uncle or an aunt, or a grandma or grandpa, whoever, my relatives, (and) something needed to be done, we did it,” he said. “We served, and then we served our neighbors. That was something that we did. Dad would say, ‘Hey, you see that? What’s going on over there? They might need help.’ So I do that. I do that to this day.”
Ruiz’s time at Gilbert High included a championship run with the baseball team in which he was the winning pitcher in the semifinals, though he was regularly a second baseman.
After graduating from high school, his best friend, Dave Rodriguez, pulled Ruiz into checking out a Gilbert volunteer fire department drill. The town had about 5,000 people at the time.
“I go to the drill, and I fell in love with this place,” Ruiz said. “This was awesome — this whole pulling hose and putting a fire out and just teamwork, just like baseball, right? I love this. Next Monday I go and I said (to the volunteer chief), ‘Hey, chief, I want to be a firefighter.’ And he goes, ‘Why?’ ‘Cause I love it. I want to serve, you know?’ So it was either be professional baseball player or be a firefighter.”
While volunteering with the fire department, Ruiz worked different jobs — at an iron works, doing some roofing and then some flooring. Finally, he got on July 15, 1985, with the two-person sewer department.
It was a time when Gilbert was preparing for a population boom as developments like Val Vista Lakes and The Islands were coming in. Public Works was expanding, trying to keep up, laying sewer lines. And maintaining the current sewers was dirty work.
“We had aeration ponds back then, and I used to row out in the sewer in my boat,” Ruiz said. “That was my job to take the aeration propellers and clean them off because they would get gummed up.”
After a couple years, he switched to the water department, where he read meters and did whatever else needed to be done.
“It was a promotion because no more smell,” he said.
He continued his fire service while working for the town, which let him go to calls as needed when he was at work. Ruiz said they used to get calls for service by air horns when he started with the volunteer department, then later got notified by pagers.
"I was out in the field, and I would respond to it,” he said "I wasn’t charging the town to do it; I was just helping out. And that was really cool that the town was allowing us to do that.”
Then came the opportunity to work for Gilbert when it started its own department. Ruiz jumped at the chance. He told Chief John Garcilaso during the interview he just wanted to help people in the town he grew up in. He also told Garcilaso he wanted his job.
“He looks at me and goes, ‘Well, that’s nice, but we need workers. Are you a worker?’ ‘I am. I’m a worker, Chief.’”
Ruiz even went out on the newly organized department’s first call, a fall injury at a trailer park, with his friend Rodriguez and Adam Hellman.
His kids once questioned him why he always stops when he sees someone in trouble by the side of the road.
“’Because I’m serving,’” he told them. “’That’s what you do. That’s what we’re supposed to do. We’re supposed to help people.’ I think they get it because I know they serve others, too.”
Ruiz fondly remembers the early days of the department when it was just the 18 employees.
“We had our family there, our fire department family,” he said. “If one of our firefighters needed somebody to help them move out, we got on it, and we helped move them. If one of our firefighters was sick, or if something bad was happening, we would get a food train together to go help them out. If they needed their yard cleaned up, we would do that.”
But he said nothing really bad happened in the early years. Until it happened to Ruiz.
In 2015, his 27-year-old daughter, Maggie, was killed when she fell off her motorcycle at Val Vista and the U.S. 60 and was run over by another car.
“My fire department family and my immediate family and my church and the town, everybody helped me out,” he said. “They came and did everything they could. My best friend, Dave Rodriguez, Chief Rodriguez, I remember him being there right away at the house. And no matter what I needed, we were gonna get it. ‘Whatever we need to do, we’re going to take care of you to get you through this.’ And they did.”
Then, a year later, it unthinkably happened again. This time it was 26-year-old daughter, Miranda.
“I lost my second heart,” Ruiz said. “She had double pneumonia. And they (his families) were there again. Without them, without everybody, I don’t know where I’d be in my life. I don’t know if I would be here.”
He still carries with him how people helped him out.
“To this day, I still will have somebody tell me how wonderful my daughters were,” he said. “So there’s a bond with a small town or even with the town of Gilbert. We’re connected somehow. We know somebody, or we know somebody who knows somebody. We’re all affected by things.”
Peterson’s daughter knew Miranda Ruiz.
“To have to see him go through that was just heart-wrenching,” Peterson said. “He’s always a warm faith and a warm hug, no matter where you run into him.”
Heading to retirement
Ruiz said it was his body that let him know it was time to retire from the fire department. Years of lifting heavy boxes, of being hit by falling ceilings, of hitting his head ducking into a fire truck in a hurry have taken a toll on him. He has had both hips and a knee replaced and three vertebrae fused in his neck.
But the town gave him a chance to do what he does best: interacting with people. The front desk of the Public Safety Training Facility is a contract job for now, but he plans to put in for it when the job opens for a permanent hire.
“I think I still got a few more years in me to serve others, and I really love this position,” Ruiz said. “I really like greeting people and inviting them into this facility. And we can sit and talk or I can get you to wherever you need to get to as soon as you can. You tell me. I’ve got most of the day to take care of stuff.”
His continued presence is welcome around the facility.
“A lot of people, they have a bad day upstairs, they come right down to talk to Benny,” said Jennifer Snyder, digital marketing and public information officer for Gilbert Fire and Rescue.
That’s important to Ruiz, another way to serve.
“I just love talking,” he said. “You know, I hope that I help instill that this (the town) is ours. Let’s be proud of it. Let’s take ownership of it, and let’s make it better for others. Because honestly, we have to take care of our exterior customer and our internal customers also. We have to make things work, to make everything good. We need communication. We need all those things to have a town. And it’s hard. It is hard.
“I hope that we can keep that going. Keep up the family.”