Jan Gillum retires this month at age 85 after 60 years with Ruan family businesses.

I’ve known her for more than 30 years and while she would never say this, I will: Jan Gillum is as close to the perfect executive assistant as anyone will ever find.  

At one point, a Muscatine businessman was so impressed with her ability to fend off his unsolicited attempts to reach her boss, John Ruan, that he tried to hire Gillum as his own gatekeeper. 

Ron Gillum Jr., Jan’s son, recalls the day in 1975 that pro golfer Tom Watson made her an offer. 

Along with Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicolas, Watson played in the inaugural John Ruan Multiple Sclerosis Golf Tournament, which raised a then-unprecedented $40,000 for MS. Watson was so impressed by all the balls Gillum kept in the air that he asked her to manage his office. 

“Can you imagine? Tom Watson,” Ron Jr. exclaims, more than four decades later.  

Strong communication skills and attention to details made Gillum a peerless organizer. Plus, she was invariably polite, deferential and thoughtful. I’ll never forget the kind note she wrote and John Ruan signed after my father died suddenly in 1990. 
A full generation younger than John Ruan, Gillum, like her boss, grew up on the north side of Des Moines and graduated from North High School. 

Gillum had a steel-plated work ethic that she got from her parents, James and Hazel Wade. Her father was a firefighter stationed at the downtown firehouse and her mother was a homemaker at a time when being one involved much more physical work than it does today.
As a child, “Mom was always active,” Ron Jr. said. “As soon as she had the opportunity to make a little money, babysitting or whatever, she was doing it. During high school, she was a waitress at the downtown Kresge’s dime store, where she met Dad.”

The couple married soon after high school, and 10 months later Ron Jr. arrived. Like clockwork, siblings were added every three years until there were four little Gillums, all with first names that began with the letter R – Ron, Roxanne, Rob and Russ.
Ron Sr. worked on a line crew for Iowa Power and Light, eventually becoming an electrical inspector. Jan continued to work as a waitress until an executive at Central National Bank recognized her talents and hired her as an assistant. 

During the early family years, Ron Jr. said, “Mom took very little time off but had the support of the family to help. As children, we never felt distant from her. She knew how to balance life and quality time, along with getting dinner on the table.”
In 1961, Jan Gillum joined Ruan Transportation in the legal department, before moving up to work for Bob Root, a top Ruan aide.

Root once told me that he recommended Gillum to Ruan at a time when the boss was having difficulty keeping help. 
That’s the story, Ron Jr. said, “but Mom will tell you that Mr. Ruan just took her from Mr. Root.”

Gillum did a lot for John Ruan. She even sewed bow ties at a time when Ruan’s signature neck apparel was out of fashion and unavailable in men’s stores. 
Ruan was a demanding but fair boss, Ron Jr. said. 

When Jan took up running to mitigate migraine headaches, Ruan gave her time off to train and run in the Boston Marathon and many other events, which included a well-publicized 50-mile run through Central Iowa on her 50th birthday. 
Husband Ron was also supportive. “She’d map out a long run and Dad would be there at certain points, enjoying coffee and doughnuts while he waited,” Ron Jr. said.

She also took up golf fairly late in life and excelled at it.

I once described Jan Gillum as “one of the most uniquely powerful people in the metro area because she had the ability to put U.S. presidents on hold.” (Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush served on the Council of Advisors to the Ruan-endowed World Food Prize and frequently spoke with John Ruan.)

Another person she put on hold many times was Teamsters Union President Jimmy Hoffa, who negotiated contracts directly with John Ruan.
Like many of us, Jan Gillum continued to work from home this past year during the pandemic, and that’s cut into her golf and running. But with retirement, said Ron Jr., “Mom is looking at playing more golf and lacing up her running shoes.”