‘Harvey was love in action’: Miami-Dade honors longtime leader Harvey Ruvin
Harvey Ruvin dedicated nearly six decades of his life to public service. His death led to a vacuum at both state and local levels. Image via Harvey Ruvin.

Harvey Ruvin
'Harvey was evenhanded, levelheaded and openhearted with all people. To my knowledge, he had no known enemies.'

Harvey Ruvin, the late Miami-Dade County Clerk of Courts, was relatively diminutive in stature. But to those who knew him, he was a veritable titan who left an indelible impact over a 56-year career in public service.

On Thursday, close to a thousand friends and admirers from both sides of the political aisle converged on the Miami-Dade Auditorium to celebrate his life. For several hours, they listened — and frequently laughed — at the anecdotes and observations shared by some of those closest to him.

All described a man determined to leave the world better off than when he entered it.

“The world we live in (is) the fabric of (his) over 50-year legacy of service,” said Risa Ruvin, his wife. “He always felt that it is an honor and a privilege to serve his community, and because of Harvey’s efforts, he leaves all the places that he touched better than he found them.

“He was a true mensch. He made me a better human being.”

Ruvin, who died from cancer Dec. 31 at 85, never chose the easy or safe course, according to interim Clerk Luis Montaldo, the longtime General Counsel to the Clerk’s Office and Ruvin’s preferred successor.

Rather, he strove without exception to do the right thing.

“He knew how important his role was, acting as an arm of the court and recordkeeper,” he said.

Ruvin treated everyone in his office, more than 1,100 staff members, as valued contributors, making a point to speak with every employee he passed, Montaldo said. He also had an amazing memory and was able to remember the names and personal details of his employees and often asked after their families as well.

Many times, Montaldo said he found Ruvin conversing with jurors, court security personnel and maintenance staff, among others, expressing how much he valued their service.

That warmth extended to those from whom he stood to gain nothing. One such person was a homeless woman Montaldo and Ruvin living near the courthouse. While many ignored her, Ruvin stopped daily to acknowledge and smile at her, gently shake her hand and ask how she was doing.

“Harvey was love in action,” Montaldo said.

Going green, cutting red tape

A litigator by training, Ruvin first served in elected office as Mayor of North Bay Village in 1968. Four years later, he won a seat on what is now called the Miami-Dade Commission, a position he held for two decades.

During his time on the county dais, he backed ordinances that at the time were groundbreaking but are commonplace today, including the county’s residential and commercial recycling system, introduced efforts to curb greenhouse gases that through 2021 offset 40 million-plus tons of carbon emissions, and an endangered land preservation program that at the time of its creation was the largest of its kind in the country.

He chaired the National Association of Counties and the county’s Biscayne Bay Task Force.

In 1990, he was a founding member of the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives.

Late Miami-Dade Clerk of Courts Harvey Ruvin and Luis Montaldo, his preferred successor. Image via Luis Montaldo.

He was elected Clerk two years later and held the job until his passing on New Year’s Eve. During the 2020 election, more Miami-Dade residents voted for him — nearly 759,000 people — than any other candidate on the ballot, including those running for President, Congress and county Mayor.

His top priority upon first winning the Clerk job in 1992, according to former Miami Herald publisher David Lawrence, the founder and Chair of The Children’s Movement of Florida, was to speed child support payments through the county system to help struggling mothers and their kids.

A decade later, Ruvin revolutionized the office as one of the first Clerks in the nation to digitize its records, saving the administration resources, staff members time and taxpayers money.

“(He) figured out how to use technology to diminish bureaucracy,” Lawrence said before rattling off a list of titles Ruvin deserved. Among them: “evangelist for the environment,” “beach builder, management maven, trash talker, poker player, engineering award-winner” — Ruvin earned his undergraduate degree in industrial engineering — “Dodger fan and, most of all, loving mentor.”

“He was a great storyteller. He loved puns. He was kind to everyone, and he was available for everyone,” Lawrence said. “He could as quickly forgive as anyone. He loved Risa and his family, with plenty of room for all of us.”

When Ruvin received his cancer diagnosis, he never wavered in his determination to fight the disease so he could continue to serve the public. Hospice services were brought to Ruvin’s home two days before he died. He had refused to check into a hospital and remained hopeful until he passed.

“With those great blue eyes, he told his wife, ‘Risa, I am not leaving you,’” Lawrence said. “Well, I am here to tell you he hasn’t left us. We have his enduring examples, his kindness, his very soul of decency, his goodness, his love. We will always have him. The angels are sharing his spirit with us.”

A big heart, an open mind and a zest for life

H.T. Smith, the first African American to serve as Assistant County Attorney and Public Defender in Miami-Dade, as well as the founding director of the Trial Advocacy Program at Florida international University, recalled meeting Ruvin in the 1980s.

“He had a deep, smooth voice and kind of a hip walk,” he said. “I thought he was a little too cool.”

That coolness lasted, Smith said, as decades later Ruvin penned and recorded a rap song about climate change, “Maybe Just Maybe,” at the behest of film legend Robert Redford. To date, the video has 21,000 views on YouTube.

“I can tell you that in the Black community, Harvey Ruvin the rapper was the man,” he said.

Smith praised Ruvin for his resistance to the pull of partisanship. Ruvin was a longtime Democrat by the time the two met, but Smith admitted to being “a little bit suspicious” of his politics.

“Because every time I talked to a Republican, they told me how much they loved Harvey, and I was saying, ‘Wait a minute. Is Harvey Ruvin an undercover Republican?” he said. “But you see, Harvey’s friends and family knew the truth, (which) was that Harvey Ruvin was a community treasure, a treasure for all races, a treasure for all religions, a treasure for all ethnicities, a treasure to all political persuasions.

“Harvey was evenhanded, levelheaded and openhearted with all people. To my knowledge, he had no known enemies.”

He was also a true friend to the Black community, Smith continued.

“He worked quietly behind the scenes to advance the righteous cause of equal and racial justice — mentoring, encouraging, providing meaningful opportunities to Black people, employees and nonemployees alike,” he said. “I regularly tell primarily Black audiences that there are people of our kind who are not of our color. Harvey was one of our kind.”

Outside the public sphere, Ruvin had an insatiable zest for life. He was a twice-daily practitioner and vocal proponent of transcendental meditation, crediting it in part for his mental sharpness and physical fitness. In recent years, he was an avid chess player.

When he began playing racquetball decades ago with Merret Stierheim, a former Miami-Dade Public Schools Superintendent and manager for the county and cities of Doral, Miami and Miami Lakes, Ruvin was hardly a wunderkind. So, to even the playing field, Stierheim granted Ruvin free points, the number of which precipitously shrank until the roles were reversed.

Ruvin ultimately got so good at the sport, in fact, that he achieved a national ranking: 16th overall in his age group.

“Then when we played, he gave me points,” he said. “And I took them, because I needed them.”

Ruvin was a well of information and great source for advice, Stierheim continued. He also kept an open mind. Such was the case in the early ’80s, when the artist, Christo, proposed wrapping 11 spoil islands in Biscayne Bay with floating pink polypropylene fabric.

A documentary photograph of “Surrounded Islands,” the 1980s project in which the artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude wrapped 11 islands in Miami’s Biscayne Bay with fabric. Image via.Wolfgang Volz/Christo.

Though he balked at the idea, thinking it would be harmful to the waterbody, he agreed to meet with the artist. After hearing the plan, he made a complete about-face and ended up promoting the project.

“Harvey left impressed and freely admitted it,” he said. “(That) helped sway many naysayers to support the project, (which) proved to be a spectacular success with considerable national and international recognition.”

A legacy deserving honors

Many others shared similar praise, including consultant Mickey Gottlieb and former City National Bank owner Leonard Abess, who noted that when people in Miami-Dade said, “Harvey,” it was obvious to whom they were referring.

“I told him, you succeeded in replacing a giant rabbit,” he said. “That’s quite an accomplishment.”

Bobby Lewis, Ruvin’s nephew, said Ruvin “always took the high road” and never attacked a political opponent.

Ruvin’s son, Zachary, shared one of his most oft-repeated pieces of advice: “If you’re not pulling your weight, you’re pushing your luck.”

Rabbi Danny Marmorstein, Ruvin’s brother-in-law and the officiant of Thursday’s services, opened and closed the proceedings by reciting and singing lyrics from Ruvin’s favorite song, “Get Together” by The Youngbloods.

The song’s instantly recognizable chorus — “Come on, people now, smile on your brother. Everybody get together. Try to love one another right now” — was something of a personal mantra.

Marmorstein rattled off some of Ruvin’s many awards and honors, including his 1987 election as President of the National Association of Counties; “Man of the Year” award from the Miami Beach Chamber of Commerce that same year; the 1989 “County Leader of the Year” award from the American City and County magazine; 2003 “Public Technologist of the Year” award from the Public Technology Institute and 2004; “Medal of Achievement” from ComputerWOrld Magazine for his digitization efforts at the Clerk’s Office; 2008 “Defender of the Everglades” award from the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Friends of the Everglades; and 2014 “Citizen of the Year” award from the Minority Chamber of Commerce.

Ruvin is also the only person in history to twice win the Tropical Audubon Society’s Conservation Award.

While some have floated naming a government award in Ruvin’s honor, Marmorstein had another suggestion that evoked the loudest round of applause of the day.

“God blessed us with the best public servant he ever created,” he said. “For the powers that be, get together and love one another, at least long enough to name the courthouse in Harvey Ruvin’s memory,” he said, referring to the new municipal and probate courthouse tower now rising beside the old one.

“Harvey was too humble to make such a request,” he said. “But I believe such a dedication will be a well-deserved legacy and the right thing to do.”

Jesse Scheckner

Jesse Scheckner has covered South Florida with a focus on Miami-Dade County since 2012. His work has been recognized by the Hearst Foundation, Society of Professional Journalists, Florida Society of News Editors, Florida MMA Awards and Miami New Times. Email him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @JesseScheckner.


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