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A County Manager Takes an Unforgettable Trip to Paris

Mike Ruffin and his wife Robbie had finally taken the trip they had been planning for years: a whirlwind tour of European cities—London, Amsterdam, Rome, Venice, Florence, Innsbruck, Munich, Heidelberg, Boppard, Lucerne, and a final two nights in Paris. On their last night, Friday, November 13, they dined at a neighborhood restaurant and went back to their hotel, but not before a short walk to the Eiffel Tower and a cruise down the Seine River.

This was the sort of trip that many dream of and one well-deserved by this career public servant. Mike Ruffin retired in 2014 after more than 13 years as Durham County Manager and nearly 40 years in local government. An alumnus of the UNC School of Government’s Master of Public Administration program, he also served as manager of Spalding County, Georgia; and the Town of Nashville and Cabarrus and Person Counties in North Carolina.

Retirement didn’t take, however, and Ruffin soon returned to work in late 2014 as manager of Davie County, North Carolina. His vacation from the Davie County manager’s office landed the couple in a Paris hotel after a lovely dinner stroll and river cruise.

While Robbie was at the hotel's front desk arranging for their departure, Mike was packing in their room to leave Paris early the next morning. He received a text from his son, a law enforcement officer back in North Carolina. “Are you OK?” the message asked.

That exchange with his son and another with his daughter, also in North Carolina, was how Ruffin heard that Paris was under terrorist attack. By the time he got downstairs to Robbie, the hotel had been put on lockdown. The news started coming in, and the couple discovered that the restaurant where they had just eaten dinner was very close to one where a massacre occurred.

They made a connection that earlier had been only a passing observation: as they were walking from the restaurant to their hotel, Ruffin noticed a line of SUVs and personnel carriers going in the direction they had come from. “Something’s going on,” he said then, but it hadn’t occurred to him it was an incident of the magnitude later reported.

On the evening of November 13, a series of coordinated terrorist attacks rocked Paris and its northern suburb, Saint-Denis. The attacks were among the deadliest in France since World War II, killing 130 people and injuring more than 350.

During his time in Durham, Ruffin had limited but memorable experience with heightened security. After 9/11, Durham was among those cities that experienced a rash of Anthrax scares, and the county's emergency operations center was activated during that time to coordinate communications and actions of the various emergency management functions.

There’s a saying in the disaster recovery field that every major event starts and ends at the local level. Ruffin agrees. “The response to the Paris event appeared to be nationally rather than locally controlled—for instance, we saw national spokespersons rather than the mayor of Paris on TV.” But, he added, “you can’t get more local than this neighborhood where people’s friends were killed. This was a restaurant where neighbors went for a glass of wine and cheese; people knew each other. This was a neighborhood that was traumatized."

The Ruffins and their tour group were finally able to get a flight out of Paris. After intensive customs scrutiny at the Philadelphia airport, they just made their connecting flight and arrived safely back in North Carolina on Sunday, November 15.

“I can remember the days when you just walked onto a plane with no security at all,” said Ruffin. “The lives of my children and grandchildren will be very different. Their sense of liberty will be different; it’s unfortunate, but it’s how things need to be now."

And what did this county manager bring back to his community from the experience? “Everything that happens to you in life brings a lesson,” he said. “So I’m asking myself, what can I take from this to be a better person and a better manager?” Ruffin said he will meet with his Davie County emergency management director to hear from him about the county’s plans “should there be an incident here like that in Paris."

 

As Durham County manager, Mike Ruffin led an organization with 1,800 employees. Under his leadership, Durham County was recognized for innovative services and outstanding financial and debt management and economic development. His administration was a major player in the resurgence of downtown Durham including the American Tobacco Campus and the Durham Performing Arts Center. He is a graduate of East Carolina University and a past member of the East Carolina University Board of Visitors; earned a Master of Public Administration from UNC-Chapel Hill; and is a certified mediator having trained at the University of Georgia’s Carl Vinson Institute. He holds life memberships in the International City/County Management Association and the North Carolina City and County Management Association.

By Gini Hamilton, published November 24