Ruby Powell will celebrate 21 years at USF in April. Three months later, Powell will mark another 21-year anniversary, but that milestone will be no cause for celebration.
On July 9, 1981, Powell became the victim of a horrific attack by her ex-husband that left her permanently scarred and near death. But she battled back and has dedicated her life to helping others.
“All women are not alike,” said Powell, the senior custodian of the Village, where she is better known as Miss Ruby. “There are strong women, and there are weak women. I consider myself to be a strong woman.”
Just months into her new job at the USF Medical Center in 1981, Powell said she returned home one night to find her four-month-old baby, Jerome, burned by a cigarette and bitten on his forehead, chest and back. Her husband, Jerome Whylly, already on probation for attacking a fireman while drunk, was arrested.
Powell was set to testify against Whylly, but he was not about to let that happen.
“While he was in jail, he wrote me threatening letters, saying that he was going to slice my face up, he’ll throw potash in my face,” Powell said. “So the morning of court on July 9, he called me and told me I’d better not come to the court because somebody’s momma was going to be crying, and it wasn’t going to be his.”Powell arrived at the Hillsborough County Courthouse that morning with a gun in her purse, but that wasn’t enough. Whylly met her outside with an orange juice carton full of gas in hand, and Powell took off. Too late.
“But before I could get to the (courthouse) door, I felt something cold hit me on my back. Then the odor started (hitting me) – it was gas,” Powell said. “So I started running, not knowing that this man was following me. He ran behind me and threw a match, and I was ignited.
“An attorney by the name of Fred Buckine (now a government attorney in Tallahassee), he saw me running in flames. He caught me and threw me down. He was like my guardian angel.”At first, doctors thought the damage was too great. They were wrong.
“Through it all I’m still hanging in there,” Powell said. “The doctors had first told my parents, when it first happened, I was going to die. Then they told them that I was going to be a vegetable, then they had told them that I was going to be in the hospital for eight or nine months.
“So I’m still alive, doing fine. I’m not a vegetable, and I was only in there 48 days.”
Whylly received a 99-year sentence for attempted first degree murder, plus 10 for tampering with a state witness (in the child abuse case) and five more for violating probation. Powell, on the other hand, was sentenced to a lifetime of scars on her face, arms and chest.
She said she has moved on, though the attack and the disfiguring scars will never go away.
“I’ve moved on, but at the same time I can’t forget about it … because when I see myself every day, it’s there. I’m scarred the rest of my life,” Powell said.
Powell also suffered the disappointment of losing $2.3 million, which she won from the state for not providing adequate protection the morning of the attack. The state won an appeal in district court, and it was upheld in the Florida Supreme Court.
Though she missed out on the riches, Powell used her new lease on life to affect those around her. After three years, she left the Medical Center to join the staff of Residence Services, for which she has worked since.
At Alpha and Gamma Halls (now Kosove and Castor halls, respectively), Powell went beyond the call of her custodial duties, counseling and cooking for residents. Her immediate supervisor, Greg Anderson, worked with her during her days at Gamma and said she remains a dedicated, strong-willed person who does not let her condition define her.
“She’s outspoken,” Anderson said. “She’s not going to let anybody feel sorry for her. She’ll make you feel like you have the problem … that self-assurance that she has. She’s very secure in herself.”
Powell moved on to the Village in 1997, but her impact was felt. Two years later, she needed the help of those around her when Whylly was to appear before the parole board. After garnering signatures for petitions around campus, Powell testified and helped keep Whylly behind bars. He is due up for parole again in 2017.
Besides the students and her sons, Leviticus, 23, and Jerome, 21, Powell extends her caring to foster kids. She has had 11 wards so far, including two for as long as two years and a little girl who stayed overnight after being kidnapped. The shortest stay was 30 minutes.
“I became a foster parent because at one time I was doing so much to help a lot of grown people, and they didn’t appreciate me,” Powell said. “So I figure I’d dedicate myself to little people because back in ’99 there was such a big demand for minority homes.”
Powell said she connects well with youngsters.
“(After the attack), people used to be scared of me, like little kids. But now a lot of little kids love me,” Powell said. “It’s just the bigger people sometimes I have a problem with, how they stare at you. And rather than people staring at me, I’d (prefer) for them to just come out and ask me, ‘What happened?’ Because I can talk about it.”
Powell’s work did not go unnoticed in 1998, when she won the campus Outstanding Staff Award, receiving $500 and a trophy.”She’s an excellent worker,” said Candace Brown, assistant custodial superintendent in Residence Services. “She’s always on time, she’s there when you need her and she definitely cares about students … she treats them like family.”
Brown also pointed to Powell’s strong faith.
“When I come by and I need to talk about something, the first thing out of her mouth is something about the Lord,” Brown said.
On a mirror in her office, Powell keeps a picture of herself, pre-attack, alongside photos of Jerome, Leviticus and her granddaughter. Though the attack and the scars will never truly go away, “Miss Ruby” considers herself fortunate to be alive.
“The chances of survival from a gunshot wound or a stab wound, I probably wouldn’t even be here,” Powell said. “So I count my blessings every day because I’m scarred, but I’m still alive, and I’m still here making a difference in my children’s lives.”
- Contact Khari Williams at firstname.lastname@example.org