Kansas couple who sent N95 mask to Gov. Cuomo just wanted to ‘make sure we could at least help one person’

photo by: Darren McGee/Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo via AP, Contributed Photo

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, left, addresses the media while holding an N95 mask during his daily press briefing on COVID-19 at the State Capitol in Albany, N.Y., Friday, April 24, 2020. The mask was sent to the governor by retired Kansas farmer Dennis Ruhnke, whose wife, Sharon Ruhnke, pictured at right, only has one lung. Ruhnke asked that the governor give it to a doctor or a nurse.

As of 3 p.m. on Friday, neither Dennis nor Sharon Ruhnke had seen the viral clip of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo reading a letter from a retired farmer in northeast Kansas.

It was Dennis’ letter — one he had sent about 10 days ago and one he certainly didn’t think would make it into the hands of the governor himself.

In fact, his letter began “Dear Mr. Cuomo, I seriously doubt that you will ever read this letter.”

But Cuomo did read it, and he was so inspired by the letter and the N95 mask that Ruhnke sent along with it that he read it at a news conference on Friday. He called Ruhnke’s actions an example of “humanity at its best” on Twitter.

When asked what he thought of that comment, Ruhnke, 72, said he was proud but astonished.

“I’m very proud of that, but I’m just shocked at his words,” he said. “I didn’t intend for this to happen.”

Ruhnke said he didn’t like “glitter and glam” or attention.

“It’s my 15 minutes of fame, and I hope it’s over later today,” he said.

Ruhnke had written to Cuomo, stating that he was a retired farmer from northeast Kansas whose wife has only one lung and other health problems.

“We are in our 70s and frankly, I am afraid for her,” he wrote. Ruhnke and his wife live in Troy, in Doniphan County, about 70 miles north of Lawrence.

He had five N95 masks from when he would clean out the grain bin on his farm, and his immediate family only needed four. Sharon said they had checked in with their niece, a paramedic, to see if any health care workers in her town needed supplies, but she said they had enough. So instead, Ruhnke thought he’d send the mask to a city where he knew it could be used.

“Enclosed find a solitary N-95 mask left over from my farming days. It has never been used. If you could, would you please give this mask to a nurse or doctor in your city,” he wrote to Cuomo.

After reading Ruhnke’s letter at the news conference on Friday, Cuomo called it “a snapshot of humanity.”

“You have five masks. What do you do? Do you keep all five? … No, you send one mask — one mask — to New York to help a nurse or a doctor,” he said.

Sharon and Ruhnke had spoken about what they would do with the extra mask, and Ruhnke said Cuomo’s address was easy to find on the internet.

“I just figured it was the best way. I didn’t know who else to send it to,” he said. “His address was on the internet. So I chose him.”

Ruhnke expected someone in Cuomo’s office to open his letter and get the supply to someone in need, he said. He hadn’t heard about Cuomo receiving his letter personally until Friday afternoon, when he looked at his phone after charging it. People had been calling him nonstop.

Sharon first heard about the news conference from her son, who sent her an article that included her husband’s letter. He recognized his dad’s handwriting, and Sharon did too.

“Handwriting on a yellow notepad? That’s kind of my husband,” she said. “He’s 72 and he still believes in writing everything down.”

Sharon said the couple just wanted to “make sure we could at least help one person.”

“It’s not a lot. But we at least helped one person,” she said.


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