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She Is An Aggie Tradition

published: May 29th 2010
by: Kylene Helduser
source: Texas A&M

Texas A&M University’s Jack K. Williams Administration building is one of the most identifiable landmarks on campus—the expansive lawn and driveway, the massive front façade and the iconic columns all evoke the power and prestige of the University. It’s an icon on campus. But what most Aggies don’t know is that another icon of Texas A&M, Mary Ruth Patranella, spends every day working tirelessly from Suite 113 in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences offices, housed in the Administration Building. Her name might not be as recognizable as Rudder, Williams or Kunkel, but many agree that she is no less valuable. So exactly who is Mary Ruth Patranella?

She’s a woman unlike any other and has dedicated her entire career to Texas A&M. First hired in 1939 in what is now the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, she has maintained a career at Texas A&M for more than 60 years. And now, at the age of 89, Mary Ruth could possibly claim the longest career of any employee at Texas A&M University.Impressive, no?

Currently serving as the assistant to the dean, Mary Ruth has held multiple positions over the years in the College of Agriculture, racking up plenty of awards, admiration and of course, a highly coveted reserved parking space in the process.

Humble Beginnings, Humble Attitude

Mary Ruth Patranella’s involvement with Texas A&M began in her teenage years, as she was seeking a career niche following graduation from Stephen F. Austin High School in Bryan, and trade school classes in typing and bookkeeping. Like many who employ their Aggie connections to get their first job, Mary Ruth utilized the relationship with her neighbor D.W. Williams, who at the time owned the ranch next door to Mary Ruth’s family in Edge, Texas. “I buttonholed my way into getting a job at A&M,” she jokes. “My Daddy convinced Mr. Williams, who was head of Animal Sciences at the time, to give me a job working in the Poultry Husbandry department (now Poultry Sciences). He reluctantly gave me the job, even though he said I was ‘under qualified’.”

If Williams were around to reflect on Patranella’s long tenure at A&M, he just might have to eat his words.To say that Mary Ruth’s inauguration to Texas A&M was humble is a gross understatement. Her job in Poultry Husbandry was to count eggs in the basement incubator of the old Poultry House (which no longer exists) for $2 a day, five and a half days a week. Patranella, a delightfully simple woman, explains in a soft yet authoritative tone that being at the low end of the totem pole never bothered her. She was quickly promoted to chief of the #10 feeding and breeding station, which meant she would begin work in the secretarial realm.

Soon, her talents and extraordinary work ethic were noticed by Dr. H.O. Kunkel, dean of the College of Agriculture at the time. “When I was working in Animal Science, I used to run errands over to the administration building all the time,” she explains. “It was nothing out of the ordinary when I was asked to run an errand over to Dean Kunkel’s office one day. When I delivered the papers to Dean Kunkel, instead of him thanking me, he asked ‘Would you like a job working as my assistant?’”

She quickly accepted the offer, and since then has worked (directly as assistant or indirectly) for every dean of agriculture in A&M history: “Kyle, Patterson, Kunkel, Arinsin, Hyler, Murano and Hussey,” she lists in chronological order, as quickly and as certainly as someone would recite a phone number.

‘The Times Have Certainly Changed’

Throughout her six decades at A&M, Patranella has experienced a growing campus and surrounding community in the most personal way. The Williams Administration Building has remained mostly unchanged since its construction in 1932 (at a cost of $362,000), but she notes that everything else around her “daily hub” has changed. “When I first started working here, there was nothing on this side of campus except for this building, Scoates Hall and pasture,” she said. A long-time resident of the local Bryan-College Station community, she notes that cattle used to graze on either side of what is now University Drive, a major artery in the local community.

Besides the aesthetics of the Texas A&M campus, she has witnessed the changes within her beloved College of Agriculture. With recent scientific advances in agriculture, the college now focuses much more on science than production. According to Patranella, the animal industries building originally housed meat lockers, and a killing and cutting floor, which allowed the University to provide meat to the only dining hall on campus and to local markets. “It is amazing to see the advances that have been made in the study of agriculture,” she said. “I would never want to go back to the way things were. There has been so much progress in the college, which is why I think agriculture is the best college at Texas A&M. Agriculture now includes life sciences and renewable and natural resources, biotechnology; it’s just grown so much.”

Perhaps the most notable change was the admission of women to Texas A&M in 1963. During the time preceding the decision, Texas A&M conducted the Century Study, an old-school version of modern Vision 2020) strategic plan. Admitting women was one of the discussed in reference to propelling A&M into the modern day academic world. Patranella, surrounded by women working mostly in secretarial positions, never understood why many administrators were so reluctant to make a decision that seems so obvious nowadays. “They had a bunch of committees that were making the decision and voting on it,” she said. “Dr. Williams told me one time that he would ‘never want to go back to the old days,’ and obviously he was right.”

Through the Thick and Thin

Along with changing times, Mary Ruth has also experienced almost all important happenings at Texas A&M and serves as a wealth of knowledge for those interested in all things Aggie. “There have certainly been good and bad things I have been through with A&M,” she said.

Most notable was the 1999 collapse of Aggie Bonfire, in which 12 Texas A&M students were killed. “That was by far the worst thing that has happened in my career here,” she said. Because the collapse happened in the early hours of the morning, Patranella and many others didn’t learn of the tragedy until the following morning. “You can see the bonfire site from my office window, it’s so close. So they had to bus us into work from the opposite side of campus during the whole cleanup process. We watched the whole situation progress from my office window.”

She also recalls the death of former Texas A&M President Gen. Earl Rudder, in 1970, as a day she will never forget. “At the time the administration offices were in this building, so Gen. Rudder’s office was right down the hall from mine,” she said. “All of a sudden we heard people in the rotunda yelling for an ambulance because President Rudder was in trouble. It was so tragic..” The role that Rudder played in transforming Texas A&M from a small land-grant institution to a major power player in academia is not forgotten by Mary Ruth. “And on a personal note,” she adds, “he was a great colleague.”

On a lighter note, Mary Ruth has also had the opportunity to experience some of the positive impact Texas A&M can make on a life, and for her, a family. “Since I worked for A&M and we lived in Bryan, it was an easy decision as to where my children would end up going to college,” she said. Her children—Pat Patranella, Kay Patranella Perrone, Jan Patranella, and Mark Patranella—found their calling at A&M. Like their mother, they continue to make an impression on Texas A&M. And her four grandchildren—Ashley Patranella, Brent Umstead, Sam Umstead and Mason Patranella—also decided on A&M for their collegiate career, with three attending at the same time and the youngest grandson enrolled at A&M now.

‘Everyday Is a New Challenge. I Find I Have Not Heard It All Yet’

Considered the backbone of the College of Agriculture, Mary Ruth Patranella has accomplished a rare feat in modern times. Having had the same employer for over six decades (minus about eight years when she was focused on raising children), her extraordinary work ethic has not gone unnoticed. In 1982 she was awarded the Distinguished Achievement Award for Texas A&M Staff, and in 1996 she received the President’s Meritorious Service Award. She is humble about the honors she has received, claiming that someone more deserving should have won the awards. “I think it is much better to receive esteem from friends and co-workers. The awards are nice, but I hold the opinion of my colleagues higher,” she said. “I’ve saved a lot of cards, letters and things from everyone. I’ve saved a lot.”

For Patranella’s outstanding contributions to Texas A&M, the Women’s Former Student Network of Texas A&M University recently honored her at a luncheon and announced that the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences has endowed a bench with a plaque on the A&M campus to honor her service. And her colleagues had plenty to say about her that earned her this award.

Dr. Fuller Bazer—a Regents Fellow, Distinguished Professor and O.D. Butler Chair, Department of Animal Science; and Interim Head, Veterinary Integrative Biosciences—said, “If you are looking for a person who exemplifies the ‘Spirit of Aggieland,’ Mary Ruth Patranella is that person.” He described her as the “ultimate team player, who has unparalleled loyalty, respect, commitment, and dedication to her colleagues and to Texas A&M University in general.” Dr. Bazer called her “a highly valued friend to many generations of faculty, staff, and administrators at Texas A&M,” and he affectionately referred to her as the “Google” of the college—able to provide context and background for the events of the past 50 years.

Dr. Ed Hiler, who was dean of the college for more than 12 years, said, “She is one of a kind. Her high productivity and unmatched longevity are indeed legendary. Her secret, I believe, is that she loves her work and has fun doing it.”

Dr. Dick Creger, a longtime executive associate dean, characterized Mary Ruth in this way: “She is the most loyal and dedicated staff member I have had the privilege of working with over the past 50 years. She is a great, kind, and intelligent woman who has raised four highly successful children and is now concentrating on doing the same for her grandchildren.”

Perhaps such admiration from co-workers is what keeps Mary Ruth Patranella cranking out over 40 hours a week, but she says that it’s the daily challenges on the job that keep her sharp and on her toes. “Well, maybe I should think about cutting back soon, but I really think I’m better off being active,” she said. At 89, Mary Ruth is surprisingly on the go outside of the office as well, remaining active in her church, spending time with family and enjoying the ranch in Edge.

Mary Ruth Patranella’s lifestyle and career, for that matter, are truly unique—and no, she’s won’t be cleaning out her desk anytime soon. “This way someone will always know where to find me!”

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