Featured Photo by Destiny Mizell
Story by Destiny Mizell
Johnny Ruhl, 73, has dedicated the past 15 years of his life to teaching, offering guidance and lending a listening ear to Middle Tennessee State University students.
On most days, Ruhl can be found sitting beneath a willow oak tree in front of James E. Walker Library. Students have likely noticed him, even if most don’t pause to take a closer look. He’s the guy with the long, gray beard seated in a corner of the commons area between the library and the Business and Aerospace building. He stays there for around nine hours a day, five days a week whether it’s sweltering or snowing outside.
The only cushion to soften the quad’s red brick is a piece of sheepskin that was once much whiter. Beside him, his Bible rests just below his right palm in a light gray cover. His backpack sits up about a foot away with an embroidered leather sign that reads in red lettering, “If you have any questions about Christianity, please ask.”
Rather than sitting in the free speech circle outside of the Student Union Building, the Middle Tennessee State University alumnus is allowed to be in the heart of campus because he’s an instructor. He teaches a one-credit-hour backpacking and hiking course in the physical education department. After observing how others approached students with their beliefs, Ruhl found students respond better when they have a choice in the matter. He works at MTSU solely so that he can invite students to learn more about his faith in a relaxed setting.
Ruhl strives to be the person he wishes he had in college by sharing Christ’s teachings with those on all walks of life. He exercises this at MTSU, where he studied animal science and minored in horse science in 1968.
“The Bible says to start in Jerusalem and then go to Judea, Samaria and the other parts of the world. This was my Jerusalem. It’s where my journey started,” Ruhl said.
As a youth during the Civil Rights Movement and the height of the Vietnam War, Ruhl began to reject the Christian values and beliefs he was raised with. Dissatisfied, he left Murfreesboro to search the world for the truth.
He welcomed a nomadic lifestyle while seeking answers. The travel didn’t intimidate him; he had lived in 16 states before he turned 18 because his father was in the military.
During his odyssey, he stayed in New Mexico working at a home for the mentally handicapped in lieu of military service during the Vietnam War. After, he lived in Germany for over five years studying other religions. Ruhl also hitchhiked 40,000 miles across the United States, learning about the “human mysteries” he encountered.
Everywhere he traveled, he looked for an explanation for his “wicked” life. Ruhl only found reason and salvation when he studied Christianity once more, thus finding the truth he needed.
As a transformed man, Ruhl trained horses for most of his adult life using his knowledge from MTSU.
He has also taught at Outward Bound, a 23-day wilderness school dedicated to bringing out the self-reliance and capabilities of others, for seven years. There, he took groups into a wilderness area east of the Mississippi River without technology or means of rescue. Outward Bound supported his wanderlust; Ruhl ran marathons in other states, rock climbed in Colorado and paddled the entirety of the Everglades.
No longer trekking the world for answers, he now lives on a farm in Canon County 19 miles away from campus. He follows a “simple life” there without modern luxuries and electricity; all he needs is his faith.
A teacher at heart and a follower of Jesus, Ruhl felt called back to MTSU to share what he learned on his mission to find answers.
Ruhl only spent half of a semester off campus when COVID-19 closed the university after spring break in 2020. Aside from that, he’s always there when the campus is open.
It deeply pained him to be away from the students in those unprecedented times, he said. To keep busy, he tended to his farm and found comfort in writing hymns that correspond with scriptures and music.
During those dark times, Ruhl spent a lot of time reading and studying the Bible — a daily practice for him — as well. With consistent studying, he’s developed a knack for referencing scriptures on the fly. He tries to memorize passages pertaining to subjects MTSU’s youth may relate to or ask about.
Many students have approached him over the years for different reasons, and Ruhl intently listens to each of them without judgment. After, he spends time answering their questions and guiding them toward grace as requested.
A handful of students sit with Ruhl regularly, engaging in Bible study or catching up, while others visit when they can. He describes these opportunities as church, sharing that “church is the gathering together of believers.”
Regardless of the interaction’s purpose, though, every student leaves a lasting impact on him.
“The Bible says, ‘iron sharpens iron,’” Ruhl said. “Whenever I have left talking with a student, I’ve learned something as well.”
On especially wintery days, Ruhl — bundled up to the point that his only recognizable feature is his silver, wire-framed glasses — waits lengthy intervals for students to come inquire. He may be freezing and alone, but he never wants to miss a student in need.
“Johnny is a man who puts others first and will help you no matter your beliefs,” Lee Holman, a junior and special education major at MTSU, said.
For him, it is his duty to spread the word of Christ to all. He will spend the rest of his life listening, educating and serving as the person he needed when he studied at MTSU.
To contact Lifestyles Editor Destiny Mizell, email firstname.lastname@example.org. For more news, visit www.mtsusidelines.com, or follow us on Facebook at MTSU Sidelines or on Twitter at @Sidelines_News.