Harlan Jefferson reflects on time with Ruckmans

By Jim Hagerty

ROCKFORD — When brothers Christopher and Jack Ruckman were found shot to death in their home last weekend, a cloud of confusion hung eerily over their quiet Cherry Valley neighborhood before making its way throughout the Rockford region.

The darkness quickly reached musician Harlan Jefferson, who knew both boys and took Christopher, a guitar prodigy, under his wing. When Jefferson heard the news, he was preparing to play a show with him at Rockford Christian High School.

Things got even more disturbing for Jefferson when he learned the boys were reportedly killed by their father, Rock Valley College professor P.S. Ruckman, who was also found dead from an apparent self-inflicted gunshot.

“You never know what people are going through,” Jefferson said.

Police say there was no history of domestic violence in the Ruckman family. The only thing on record is a divorce that was finalized last year. Ruckman and his ex-wife shared custody of the boys, a situation not unusual. They were splitting time with the parents, as children of divorce do, and adjusting to the situation.

Known to their classmates as Chris and Jack, they performed music together as an act they called The Vitamin Gang. Chris also played piano; Jack was a drummer. Their relationship with Jefferson began when their father reached out to the hornist and asked if he’d help Christopher develop his chops. It wasn’t long before the young player was sitting in with Jefferson’s band, playing material well beyond his years.

“Jack and Christopher were both amazing kids,” Jefferson said. “Jack always enjoyed watching the show and Christopher always enjoyed performing with me. He loved the blues and Jimi Hendrix. He was my student but, in reality, he was my little buddy.”

Chris was on stage with Jefferson Feb. 23 at Big Al’s in Rockford; his dad and brother were in the crowd. And while he noticed Chris was especially on point and wore a smile all night, it was an exchange with P.S. Ruckman after the show that will stick with Jefferson for years to come.

“The last thing he told me is that he loved me and ‘Thanks for working with Chris,'” Jefferson said.

Jefferson didn’t realize it at the time, but Ruckman may have been telegraphing a forever goodbye. The professor was always reachable, but a call to his phone March 2 went unanswered. And because the performance with the Rockford Christian jazz band was the next day, he found it odd that P.S. didn’t pick up.

Nevertheless, Jefferson had a show to do and planned on seeing Chris at the Spring Tour Fundraiser. But it was not to be.

“When I was preparing to do a soundcheck, I received a call and was informed what was going on,” Jefferson said. “It blew me away.”

The show was canceled.

Aside from a 20-year career as a political science professor at Rock Valley, P.S. Ruckman was a nationally renowned expert in presidential pardons and wrote two books on the subject. He earned a Ph.D. from Ferris State University in 1991. He also earned a master’s and two bachelor’s degrees from Florida State University and the University of West Florida, respectively.

Ruckman was the son of noted Baptist pastor and Pensacola Bible Institute founder Peter Sturges Ruckman. His ex-wife, Heidi Ruckman, is an attorney with a top civil-defense firm.

“I didn’t know anything about their major accomplishments,” Jefferson said. “All I knew is that they loved their kids, and I thought it was great how Mr. Ruckman would always bring him out to learn about music from me the same way my father did for me when I was a kid.”

Chris and Jack’s visitation is Thursday from 4-8 p.m. at Our Savior’s Lutheran Church in Rockford. A memorial service will be held at the church at 1 p.m. Friday. Burial will be private in Elmwood Cemetery in Sycamore. The family is establishing a scholarship in their memory to benefit musicians at Rockford Christian High School.

“Our focus is on how good can come out of evil and how in the worst of tragedies our response is what’s important,” Rockford Christian Superintendent Randy Taylor said in a statement. “Do not sorrow as people who have no hope. We believe in the Resurrection. We believe that there is hope. Because we have hope, we will make it through this terrible time.”

Police have not announced when the boys were shot. An obituary submitted by their family indicates they died Wednesday, Feb. 28. They were not at school Thursday or Friday.

Funeral services for P.S. Ruckman are pending. R.

WNIJ’s Susan Stephens contributed to this report. 

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