The legacy of Mari-Jo Ruiz | Inquirer Business

The legacy of Mari-Jo Ruiz

In our last week as undergraduates, my friend and I discussed a graph theory proof in front of the class. Afterwards, our professor, Mari-Jo Ruiz, asked me, “Where are you working after graduation?” “In a multinational company,” I said. She looked me straight in the eye: “You should teach. Teach with us here.”

That same day, my theology-of-liberation professor, Fr. Asandas Balchand, gave me an on-the-spot oral exam, in full view of everyone. Then he asked about my career plans—and echoed Mari-Jo’s injunction: “Teach. Give back to Ateneo.”


God knocked on the door twice, through two teachers I respect, so I decided to teach for a year before entering the corporate world. But then, students were enthused after they finally understood complex theorems, they raced to present solutions, and they never missed class if they could help it. If they wanted to learn, then I would teach. I have stayed in the academe for 35 years, and Mari-Jo was a “ninang” (godmother) at my wedding.

Today Fr. Balch remains active as a spiritual director. This semester, Mari-Jo did another graph theory class—before passing away last week, at the age of 79.


A high school valedictorian from the College of the Holy Spirit, Mari-Jo majored in math at Marymount Manhattan College in New York, where she struggled with math for the first time in her life.

“The only algebra I knew then was basic algebra—equations, functions, polynomials,” she recalled, when I interviewed her for my book “Ten Outstanding Filipino Scientists.” “I knew nothing about abstract algebra—fields, rings, groups. To keep up in class, I studied background material on my own. It was tough.”

“Students should not give up quickly,” she reflected. “Math is not a spectator sport. The only way to learn math is to do the problems.”

She grew to empathize with people struggling with math. “The best students do not always make the best teachers. Those who experienced some difficulties may likely be better.”

After master’s studies at New York University, Mari-Jo began teaching math in Ateneo in 1965, when students were still all male. As one of the few women teachers, she got a lot of attention, particularly when she drove a green Ford sports car, earning her the sobriquet “Mustang Mary.”

Three years later, upon the request of Fr. Wallace Campbell, who designed the Management Engineering (ME) program, she read up on operations research (OR), again on her own. In the summer, she visited SGV to learn how OR worked in feasibility studies and project management, and the next school year, she taught the first course in OR—and never stopped doing so. An ME hallmark, OR revolves around optimization techniques, increasingly used in industry, including professionally-run family businesses. Mari-Jo maintained close ties with alumni and attended their annual reunions.

She received a doctoral degree from Ateneo and became the first female college dean. She had a reputation for acting decisively and challenged us to do likewise, assigning us to various committees based on our strengths. She won Metrobank’s Outstanding Teacher and Ateneo’s Lux in Domino (Light in the World) awards.


After retirement, Mari-Jo opted to teach part-time, to “enjoy her grandchildren” and to do math art. Her Christmas gift of a calendar of tessellations (which she drew herself) I treasure to this day.

For years now, I have been responding to students with mental health issues, and Mari-Jo and I sometimes shared ideas on motivating the young. One time, exhausted after counseling panicky teens, I was touched to receive an email from her, out of the blue: “Thank you for your work with students.”

Was this Someone, again, talking to me, through my beloved mentor?

Our sorrow at Mari-Jo’s passing is tempered by the fact that she was doing what she loved—teaching—until the end. She went to the Creator in her sleep, surrounded by family, in a place often deemed paradise.

Thank you for everything, Mari-Jo. You taught us well, and we will carry on your legacy.

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