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July-August 2014

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In Memoriam: J. Rukin Jelks (1927–2014)

This is one obituary that I knew I would have to write very soon, but even when I received word of Rukin's (“Rukie” as he known to family and friends) passing, I could not help it—I cried for a long time. The very first day I met this man I fell for him big time: he was my “Marlboro Man” on a horse. He was funny, considerate, outspoken, forgiving, wise, rakish in his charm, and so much more. I could fill a page with this man's virtues. I know it happens, but when time and the ravages of that time catch up to us, it still comes as a surprise. Time, unfortunately, found Rukie when none of us wanted it to, on 17 January of this year.

Some of my best memories are of days spent at the ranch with Rukie and his wife of sixty-two years, Keri. That ranch, the Diamond C, located in Elgin, Arizona, was a place of beauty and serenity but most of all history. The Jelks family holds a spot in Arizona history. The places we pass by today during the weeks of the Tucson Show such as the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, the University of Arizona, the Oyster Club, Rillito Downs Racetrack (the first quarter-horse racing in the country), Kartchner Caverns—all are connected with the Jelks family name.

Rukie was born 21 October 1927 in Tucson, Arizona, and grew up on his dad's X-9 Ranch in the Rincon Mountains. As a young man he attended Fountain Valley School near Colorado Springs, Colorado, an independent, coeducational, day and boarding school for grades nine through twelve. He went on to the University of Montana where he earned degrees in anthropology and sociology and was a member of Sigma Chi. As a boy Rukie collected garnets in the arroyos of Tucson, and thus geology and minerals were always a part of his life. Rukie met Carolyn “Keri” Gillett while at university, and their first date was skiing at Big Mountain, Whitefish, Montana. (An interesting note on this date: a photo was taken of Keri and Rukie by a photographer there, and it ended up as a cover for Post magazine.)

Keri and Rukie moved back to Arizona, settling in Phoenix where Rukie worked for Hercules Powder Company. As a salesman “peddling dynamite,” as Rukie said, he drove some 30,000 miles a year and was familiar with all of the mines in Arizona and other states. The extensive travel with Hercules ended when their family began. He then joined a family friend in the cattle business feeding cattle in Laveen, Arizona. Later he owned and operated the Pioneer Gun Shop. He was very knowledgeable about guns and enjoyed the company of local gun buffs.

When Rukie heard about 80 acres of land for sale in Lyle Canyon near Elgin, he went to meet with the owner. The ranch was formerly a guest ranch of, let's say, “questionable repute,” owned at one time by Chiquite Mosen, who had a taste for red velvet jumpsuits. The name Diamond C Ranch was never changed; after all, Keri's real name is Carolyn! The ranch was family-run—there are three sons (Rukin III, Daniel, and Jimmy) and a very loyal and dear friend, foreman Joe Quiroga.

When I write obituaries (as I often do), people ask if I find it a sad task. Yes and no. In Rukie's case, I can find so much joy in his life, and the love story here makes me enormously happy. Rukie met Keri while at the university, and they married in 1951. They were together in all things until Rukie's death. Rukin III still lives on the ranch; Daniel lives in Hawaii; Jimmy lives in Davis, California, but he still manages the ranch's cattle operations. There are ten grandchildren.

Rukie and Keri traveled the world during their years together, and their trip through South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, and Zimbabwe at a time when all of this was considered very exotic remains a favorite.

Rukie assembled an extraordinary mineral collection, and he was generous to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum and the University of Arizona with funding and donations of minerals. The Jelks family was always a supporter of community events and organizations, and Rukie spent a considerable amount of time in various board rooms through the years. We can thank him for help in getting Kartchner Caverns placed on the National Association of State Parks while he served with the Arizona State Parks board. He also served on the board of the Mountain Oyster (MO) Club, founded in 1948 by his father and a few other ranchers, cowboys, horse-racing types, and prominent Tucsonians in the area. Because it had no dress code, they could feel comfortable at the club in their boots and Levi's. (The MO is one of the outstanding places in Tucson, and I certainly have enjoyed my many visits there with Rukie and Keri.) In 2008 Rukie was named “Cattleman of the Year” by the Arizona Cattleman's Association.

Rukie loved his mineral collection. There were showcases off the living room filled with beautiful pieces, and he devoted much of his time to his rare systematic mineral collection. He was always in attendance at the Tucson shows. Although not “out there” like some of today's collectors, Rukie was held in high esteem by the dealers who sold to him as well as by his fellow collectors. When he found a mineral he liked, the twinkle in his eye was a dead giveaway. His meticulous cataloguing of his collection occupied many of his days. Knowing that his health was failing and with a desire to “put his house in order,” his beloved collection was sold some months before his death.

On 15 February hundreds of fellow ranchers and friends came from all over to celebrate a life well lived and a man much loved and admired. I cried again that day, but it was because I saw just how much Rukie was respected in his beloved Arizona.

So long Papabear ….

Dona Leicht and her husband, Wayne, have owned and operated Kristalle in Laguna Beach, California, since 1974.

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