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Jack Ruina, at 91; MIT professor, expert on strategic arms control

Dr. Ruina also was head of the Advanced Research Projects Agency, or ARPA.
Dr. Ruina also was head of the Advanced Research Projects Agency, or ARPA.Courtesy of Andy Ruina

As a government official and a university professor, Jack Ruina advocated for an antiballistic missile treaty and helped sow early seeds for strategic arms limitations talks between the United States and the Soviet Union in the early 1970s.

Because his arms control expertise grew as he moved from academia to the Defense Department during the Kennedy administration and eventually to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, reporters sought Dr. Ruina’s thoughts in March 1983 when President Ronald Reagan announced plans for the Strategic Defense Initiative, which often was called the Star Wars program.

“There is zero promise for this system right now,” Dr. Ruina, who was known throughout his career for offering unsparing opinions, told the Globe a few days after Reagan’s speech. “To mislead, misguide the public — and yourself — is a tragedy.”

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In another Globe interview a few weeks later about Reagan’s proposal for the space-based system to prevent nuclear attacks, he mused that “what worries so many of us is that a project with so little basis in technical reality has become the centerpiece of national arms control policy.”

Dr. Ruina, a professor emeritus of electrical engineering and computer science at MIT, where he taught for more than 30 years, died in his sleep Feb. 4 in the Sunrise senior living community at Friendship Heights in Chevy Chase, Md. He was 91 and previously lived in Cambridge, though he changed addresses so often early in his career for different jobs that his late wife, Edith, wrote a 1970 book called “Moving: A Common Sense Guide to Relocating Your Family.”

Beginning at the outset of President John F. Kennedy’s administration in 1961, Dr. Ruina served as director of the federal Advanced Research Projects Agency, or ARPA, for more than two years. Appointed by Robert McNamara, who was then secretary of defense, Dr. Ruina supervised projects that included developing technologies for seismic detection of nuclear tests, which was a step toward the 1963 treaty partially banning tests.

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As head of ARPA, Dr. Ruina also was instrumental in hiring J.C.R. Licklider, who set in motion the project that led to the creation of ARPANET, a precursor to the Internet. In 1962, Dr. Ruina’s work at ARPA earned him an Arthur S. Flemming Award as one of 10 outstanding young men in government.

Although he joined MIT’s faculty in 1963 in the electrical engineering department, Dr. Ruina soon took a leave to serve as president for about two years of the Institute for Defense Analyses,a nonprofit research institution that MIT and 11 other universities sponsored.

Dr. Ruina also participated in the gatherings of world scientists that were known as the Pugwash Conferences. During those, he suggested the need for an antiballistic missile treaty, an idea that bore fruit during the SALT talks. The conferences, which were founded in the late 1950s in Pugwash, Nova Scotia, shared the 1995 Nobel Peace Prize for contributing to nuclear disarmament.

While at MIT, Dr. Ruina was vice president for special laboratories, including the Lincoln and Draper facilities, and he founded the Defense and Arms Control Studies Program, which has since been renamed the Security Studies Program.

“He was just a very valuable person on the faculty,” said George Rathjens, a political science professor at MIT who was a friend of Dr. Ruina’s and a collaborator on academic papers.

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“There wasn’t a better faculty member that I knew in the universe, certainly in the university world,” Rathjens added. “He was a great friend.”

Born in Rypin, Poland, where his father had been a merchant, Jack Ruina was the youngest of nine children and the only one to attend college. His first language was Yiddish, and his family moved to Brooklyn, N.Y., when he was 3½.

He finished his bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering at City College of New York during World War II and was drafted into the Army. After the war, he used the GI Bill to attend Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn, where he received a master’s and a doctorate in electrical engineering.

He considered himself fortunate to be in a family that had escaped the hardships and persecution Jews faced in Poland and fortunate that, as the youngest child, finances allowed him to further his education. He also thought he was lucky to encounter Edith Elster at a party in New York City in 1946. They began dating the following January and married in October 1947.

“After they’d known each other for two weeks, he said, ‘Someday, you’re going to be Mrs. Ruina,’ ” said their son, Andy, of Ithaca, N.Y.

“He talked all the time about how lucky he was to meet her,” said their daughter Rachel of Bethesda, Md. “He always felt like he was incredibly lucky and always talked throughout his life about how lucky he was.”

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Dr. Ruina and his wife also had a home in Wellfleet for many years. Mrs. Ruina, a former director of MIT’s Women in Technology and Science program, died in 2005.

Before joining MIT’s faculty, Dr. Ruina taught at Brown University and the University of Illinois. He worked in the Defense Department before becoming director of ARPA on Jan. 20, 1961, the day Kennedy became president.

Andy said his father “loved classical music. He could sing beautifully and could identify all kinds of composers and compositions.” Dr. Ruina and his wife established a fund at MIT to provide private music lessons, and MIT also has a Ruina Nuclear Age Speakers Series.

Dr. Ruina was “very sensible and practical and very, very smart,” his daughter said. “He was a good listener and would really talk to people and help them think things through.”

A private service will be held for Dr. Ruina, who in addition to his son and daughter leaves another daughter, Ellen of Washington, D.C., and seven grandchildren.

Although he advocated for arms control and was a harsh critic of Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative, Dr. Ruina told the Globe in July 1989 that he was “still a proponent of military research and development. I still believe we should have weapons. A nuclear-free world to me is a bit of fantasy.”

Nevertheless, he added, world leaders should “be a good bit more rational. The nations have spent trillions and we are no safer than we were before. The arms race is idiocy, the nuclear arms race in particular. One can be interested in bringing a bit of reason to this whole business without being a pacifist.”

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Bryan Marquard
can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.