Iris Rugg began her career as a University of Saskatchewan employee 44 years ago back in 1979.
Iris Rugg began her career as a University of Saskatchewan employee 44 years ago back in 1979. (Photo: Submitted)

Celebrating a 44-year career on campus at USask

From seven presidents, nine chancellors, and dozens of deans, to visits from the queen, Iris Rugg has seen a lot during her time at the University of Saskatchewan (USask).

Her career as an executive administrator has spanned 44 years, making her one of the longest-serving staff members on a campus that has been such a big part of her family’s life.

“This has been home, and I don’t know where the time has gone,” she said. “But I am not surprised that I have been here that long, because I don’t know any place I would rather be. It is just a great place to work and I have thoroughly enjoyed it. I am not done yet, but it has been great … I always wanted to be on campus and I’ve always felt valued here.”

The longest-serving active permanent female employee at USask, Rugg was hired back in 1979, the year that former Prime Minister (and USask chancellor) John Diefenbaker was buried on campus. It was also the year that the Huskies men’s and women’s volleyball teams both won national titles to become the first double national champions in university history, and also the year that former Huskie All-Canadian star John Konihowski helped the Edmonton Eskimos win the Grey Cup in the midst of their record run of five straight championships.

Just how much has the Saskatoon campus changed over those past four decades? When Rugg started in 1979 enrolment was only 11,185, less than half of the record 26,000+ it is today. That rapid expansion of the student body has been reflected in the ongoing development of new spaces and places across campus to welcome the increasing number of students and researchers that USask attracts.

“When I first started here, in the College of Medicine, there was only an A and B Wing, and today I am in E Wing, so the Health Sciences (Building) has completely changed, and so has the rest of campus,” said Rugg, who has seen the university skyline redefined during her time. 

From the addition of a new Administration Building and the construction of the impressive Agriculture Building, the university has undergone a major facelift over her time on campus. Other major projects have included the Geology Building, Physical Activity Complex, Place Riel Student Centre, Gordon Oakes Red Bear Student Centre, and Merlis Belsher Place, along with the development of two national research facilities: the Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization (VIDO) complex; and the Canadian Light Source (CLS)—opened in 2005 with a visit from Queen Elizabeth II. 

For Rugg, expansion isn’t the only thing that has changed on campus over the past 44 years. When she started back in 1979, few people had access to early generations of computers or cell phones, while social media and Spotify didn’t exist, and Sony had just released the first Walkman—for cassettes.

“Apart from all of the landscape, the technology has changed so much,” said Rugg, who is now the executive administrative assistant to Dr. Shelley Kirychuk (PhD)—the fourth director that she has worked for in the recently renamed Canadian Centre for Rural and Agricultural Health. “When I started here in the College of Medicine, we were using electric typewriters and there was a big learning curve when we moved to computers. So the technology is one of the bigger changes that we have seen on campus through the years.”

Rugg began her career working in the dean’s office in the College of Medicine supporting the residency training program in 1979—one year after the queen attended the celebration of the expansion of the (Royal) University Hospital, where the majority of the college’s medical students completed their residency.

From there, Rugg moved on to work at VIDO, the centre of critical vaccine development and the study of infectious diseases from around the world, including COVID-19. Back in 1979 the year Rugg started at USask, the World Health Organization had just certified the global eradication of smallpox, while the last “naturally occurring” cases of polio in the United States were reported, two deadly diseases that research centres like VIDO were dedicated to developing vaccines to combat.

Rugg’s career to revere would later take her to the School of Physical Therapy, the College of Nursing, and a short stint in the president’s office on President George Ivany’s staff in the 1990s, at a time when current USask President Peter Stoicheff was just beginning to establish himself as a bright young faculty member in English department in the College of Arts and Science.

“I have enjoyed every role, and it has been great to be involved in the leadership that the university shows in so many areas,” said Rugg. “All of the things that I have done on campus have been rewarding.”

Rugg’s home-away-from-home become a family affair over the decades, with her husband James earning his law degree at USask in 1986 and still practicing in Saskatoon to this day, while daughter Jamie (geography, education) and son Tristan (geology) also earned degrees at USask. The family spent plenty of after-hours time on campus, taking in Huskie games and curling in the old Rutherford Rink, and taking their children to swimming lessons at the campus pools.

“My husband is a graduate and both of my children are, and maybe my grandchildren will be one day as well, so it has been a big part of our family,” said Rugg. “My son now lives in Calgary and often when he comes home, we will go for a stroll around campus. And that is one thing that hasn’t changed too much over the years is The Bowl. The campus has always been such a beautiful place.”

After starting in medicine back in 1979, Rugg’s career has come full circle back to expanded Health Sciences Building that is home to the Canadian Centre for Rural and Agricultural Health where she has worked since 1999. With Saskatchewan an agricultural world leader in wheat production and the birthplace of Medicare, Rugg is proud to work in a progressive centre that combines both agriculture and health.

“It is always growing and changing and there is always such interesting research taking place with the centre,” said Rugg, who was a part of the centre’s open house and name change celebration on Sept. 26. “And personally, I have just made so many friends here. It has been a great place to work. And it is the people and the friendships that I have made over the years that matter most.”

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