William Ruland of Mattituck always told his children to "never forget who you are and where you come from."
But it wasn't until a few days ago, in the moments following the longtime public servant's death, that the words took on new, profound meaning, said his son, Peter Ruland, 42. "All I wanted to do as a kid was leave the North Fork. But when I look back on where I come from, there’s so many memories and so much to appreciate."
William Ruland died Tuesday at 72 from pancreatic cancer, nearly four months after he was diagnosed, his family said.
He served on the Mattituck-Cutchogue school board for 24 years and on the Southold Town Board as councilman and deputy supervisor for 12 years. He was also part of the Long Island Farm Bureau and a member of the Long Island Cauliflower Association board of directors, recently serving as treasurer and previously holding the role of president.
Those close to Ruland described him as thoughtful, knowledgeable and wise — taking all of his roles very seriously.
"Bill was always the first person here for every board meeting," said John E. Bokina, chief executive of the Long Island Cauliflower Association. "If the meeting started at 1, he’d be here at 12:15 prepared and ready to go."
In October, the Mattituck-Laurel Civic Association honored Ruland, naming him the 2020 Citizen of the Year.
"He was an absolutely incredible man of integrity, knowledge and underlying all of that was an incredible amount of humility," said Southold Town Supervisor Scott Russell. "The one attribute that Bill had that tends to get overlooked was that he had a really great sense of humor. He was dignified, but he was known to laugh really hard."
Russell worked with Ruland on the town board for 12 years and considered him a friend and mentor, he said.
"Every issue with regard to the community was important to him," Russell said of their time serving together. "Even if it just affected one person, he put the same amount of weight on it, no matter how small an issue."
He was often seen riding his tractor, friends and family said.
As a father, Peter Ruland said, William would put his kids to work at the farm, just like his father and grandfather did before him. His farm on Mill Lane in Mattituck has been in the family dating back to 1736.
"The farm was just part of Bill, so if you were in his life, then you were in the farm life," said Linda Ruland, his wife of 49 years, who once worked as a bookkeeper for the farm.
The Ruland Farm was named a National Bicentennial Farm in 1976, meaning the same family had owned it for 200 consecutive years, according to Newsday archives. William Ruland, who was 28 at the time, had taken over the farm as owner and operator after his father, Elmer Jr., and grandfather, Elmer D. Ruland.
The farm still grows hay and rye, as it did back then, when it also grew potatoes, cabbage and cauliflower. In the 1980s, Ruland sold his development rights "to ensure that his farm would stay in farming for generations and that the legacy of his family would continue," Russell said.
His loyalty was undying, whether it was to his community or his family, friends and family said.
"With our marriage, our children, our family — he was faithful and devoted," Linda Ruland, 68, said.
They met when she was 16 through her brother, who was his best friend growing up, she recalled in an interview. They married four years later, she said.
"He was very loving and gentle. He was an incredible husband and an incredible father," she said. "He was our rock. He was our compass. He was the one we could go to for sound advice and wisdom.
"They don’t come any better, I can tell you that."
In addition to his wife, Linda, son Peter and his wife, Janine, Ruland is survived by daughter Anna Agro and her husband James, and four grandchildren, Vincent, Alyssa, Jenna and Rose.
Services were scheduled for Sunday at 3 p.m. at New Bethany Cemetery in Mattituck.