The Keeper of Detroit's History
The Keeper of Detroit's History
Elana Rugh: A Spartan of Historical ConnectionNovember 27, 2023
Elana Rugh had a plan.
Step one: Follow in her dad’s footsteps and attend the University of Michigan.
Step two: Major in journalism.
Step three: Ascend the industry’s broadcasting ranks with an artful blend of creativity and objectivity, relatability and relevance.
“Maybe become a host on the ‘Today’ show,” Rugh smiles.
But as often happens in young lives, different possibilities emerge, and a new plan takes shape.
Rather than attend Michigan, Rugh switched allegiances and enrolled at Michigan State, swayed by MSU’s accredited journalism school and the welcoming campus environment she experienced during a high school visit.
“The people that I met at MSU completely changed my worldview,” she says.
And rather than pursuing broadcast journalism upon graduation—her intended plan—Rugh charged into the nonprofit world, spurred by a multi-year job at Phone Bank Systems (PBS) during her undergraduate years. An upstart telemarketing company with a basement office on the corner of M.A.C. Avenue and Grand River, PBS led fundraising efforts for nonprofits such as the Detroit Zoo and the Detroit Opera House. The work energized Rugh more than she ever imagined.
“I loved how it made me feel—the idea of working for the greater good, working altruistically,” she says. “There was a shift in my head and my heart, and I decided to take a different path.”
Back home in Bloomfield Hills after graduation, Rugh spotted a classified ad in the local newspaper for a fundraising assistant position. That $18,000 a year gig with the Michigan Chapter of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society kicked off Rugh’s nonprofit career, one stretching 33 years and touching health care, education and the arts, and seemingly every slice of nonprofit duties, from recruiting volunteers to shepherding events, penning newsletters to chasing donors.
“When you throw your hat in the ring, you learn you’re able to do lots of things,” says Rugh, who also spent six years at the Henry Ford Health System.
In 2018, after an 11-year run as president of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society’s Michigan Chapter, Rugh was named president and CEO of the Detroit Historical Society (DHS). An admittedly unorthodox choice given that Rugh is neither a historian nor claimed experience at a cultural institution, her proven ability to build and lead high-performing teams and stimulate financial stability prevailed.
“The people that I met at MSU completely changed my worldview.”
Over the last five years, Rugh has steered DHS’s growth, ushering the organization through the COVID-19 pandemic, strengthening its fiscal position, managing some 300,000 historical artifacts and expanding the diversity of stories the museum shares, including the institution’s first-ever LGBTQ exhibits and a 2023 show titled “The Hustle” celebrating Detroit’s Black entrepreneurs— restaurateurs, garage owners, beauty salon operators and more.
“We are the keepers of Detroit’s stories, and that’s incredibility important given history’s role in shaping our understanding of the world,” Rugh says, noting that every public school third grader in Detroit visits the museum.
With an earnest spirit and strategic mind, Rugh is now pushing to secure DHS’s long-term sustainability. She is working with legislators on a millage—pushing a fractional portion of property taxes to the DHS—to ensure the museum thrives for years to come.
“We have an opportunity to completely change the trajectory of this important cultural institution, one that really matters to people,” Rugh says. “In this way, I can’t say I’ve ever had a job so inspiring.”
Contributing Writer(s): Daniel P. Smith