SIU Aviation’s Lorelei and José Ruiz have legacy of students soaring to new heights

A “one-two” combination: Lorelei Ruiz and her husband, José, have been fixtures in SIU’s nationally recognized program. (Photo by Russell Bailey)

Student success has always been the focus for Southern Illinois University Carbondale Aviation’s Lorelei and José Ruiz.

Each worked more than 30 years for the nationally recognized program, and they account for hundreds of aviation professionals in varying careers within the industry.

“Looking back, I have been so blessed in the opportunities that were presented to me,” said Lorelei, who like her husband will often get texts and photos from their former students. On one recent day, Lorelei, who retired as an associate professor in aviation flight in 2021, received a selfie from a former student and now first officer with United Airlines along with Lorelei’s very first flight instructor at SIU, who has worked with United for decades and is a captain with the airline.

“I really enjoyed working with the students. They don’t all stay in touch, but it’s so gratifying to hear back from them and see them succeed,” she said.

Her husband, José, a professor in aviation management, will retire in September. He also looks to his students’ successes within the aviation industry, which run the gamut and include working with airlines, as air traffic controllers, military pilots, the Federal Aviation Administration and National Transportation Safety Board. He choked up a bit when discussing his work with students, noting the key is being able to “connect with the kids.”

Came to SIU via different paths

The Ruizes — who married in 1997 after meeting at SIU — have been a “powerful ‘one-two’ combination” for the School of Aviation since the late 1990s, said Dave NewMyer, who came to SIU Aviation in 1977 and retired as aviation management and flight chair in 2014. The School of Aviation consists of aviation management, aviation flight and aviation technologies.

José arrived at SIU in 1995 “because of his strong qualifications with nearly 20 years in air traffic control with the U.S. Air Force,” NewMyer said, noting José’s focus was to upgrade air traffic control-related offerings and aviation safety-related teaching and research.

Lorelei, who grew up in Murphysboro with a love for aviation, came to SIU to major in mathematics and Spanish with the goal of becoming a teacher. She changed her major one day after walking by Faner Hall and hearing the engines of a plane piloted by an aviation student overhead. Along the way, she became a certified flight instructor and started teaching full time in January 1995.

José credits NewMyer and other colleagues with mentoring him once he arrived. He was familiar with teaching and service and was able to augment those areas with research, including, as NewMyer notes, “significant research on the career success of students who participated in airline-oriented internships while enrolled in undergraduate aviation programs.”

José became department chair upon NewMyer’s retirement, and he later served as interim director of the revamped School of Aviation from 2022 to 2023. José was also selected by his national aviation education peers to serve one year as University Aviation Association president in 2012-2013.

Lorelei, meanwhile, also managed the original application for accreditation by the Aviation Accreditation Board International (AABI), the organization that accredits undergraduate aviation programs, NewMyer said. “Lorelei’s work was so wide-ranging and significant that the faculty voted for the first time ever to have her name placed on one of the new Cessna 172 aircraft just delivered to SIU.”

Lorelei also worked to restart the summer aviation camps, including a NASA Wings Camp for eight to 10 high school students, funded by the space agency; the Summer Wings Aviation Camp for high school students and Junior Aviator Camps for students in first through eighth grades, and various outreach aviation programs to local schools.

Scholarship named in her honor

It was a “complete surprise” when Lorelei learned a former student and SIU alumna recommended that a $500 aviation scholarship for women, the Lorelei Ruiz Women in Aviation AAUW Scholarship, be named in her honor. The first award was presented this spring.

“It’s a huge honor, but even more than that, it is a great opportunity for women moving forward to have another scholarship opportunity that is specific to women and the program,” Lorelei said.

José said Lorelei is a “trailblazer”: She was the first woman to become a tenured faculty member within SIU’s aviation program in a male-dominated industry.

Lorelei noted that she may return to the program soon as an FAA test proctor for the testing center within the Glenn Poshard Transportation Education Center. Pilots and mechanics are required to take FAA knowledge tests to attain different ratings and certifications.

‘Tremendous facility’

While sharing the same profession, the couple note that they rarely saw one another during the day. Until the transportation education center (TEC) was completed in 2012, José’s office and classrooms were in the College of Applied Sciences and Arts building on campus, while Lorelei worked out of the former O.B. Young building at the Southern Illinois Airport. Even with the move in 2012 and working just doors from one another, because they were in different programs their individual schedules were different. Because both were so busy with classes or flight instruction, Lorelei said she can count on one hand the number of times they sat down to visit each other in their offices.

In addition to also housing SIU Automotive and the aviation technologies program, the TEC also includes the first and only full tower-based air traffic control simulation center in Illinois, which José and a former aviation faculty member helped create.

“We’ve gone from being a department located within a college to having a tremendous facility,” said José, who will be looking into volunteer opportunities and working on the family’s farm after retiring. “If you look at collegiate aviation programs around the country, few of them rival what we have here in Carbondale.”

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