President Joe Bertolino sowed the seed at Southern’s 125th anniversary gala in October 2019; it took root that night in the hearts of Ruth Eren, professor emeritus of special education, and her husband Tumer. In his remarks on stage, Bertolino spoke about an initiative to start an on-campus food bank for Southern students, but mentioned it was short $10,000. “I couldn’t believe it. That these kids couldn’t afford to buy food,” says Tumer, who was touched by the sincerity of Bertolino’s speech. He told his wife, “We have to do something.”
It didn’t take long for them to write a check. They had made generous but smaller contributions to the SCSU Foundation over the years, but their $10,000 gift designated to the Support Our Students (SOS) Fund was their first sizable donation to Southern. They followed it with leadership-level support of the College of Education during Southern’s annual Day of Caring in 2021 and 2022. By making “matching-gift challenges” on those days through the family business, Classic Turf Company, they also inspired many more to contribute.
“As a family, we want to see others have the same opportunities at SCSU that we had — and experience a campus environment that is warm and friendly with outstanding, caring faculty and very committed students,” says Ruth.
A student turned professor at the university, she holds three Southern degrees: a bachelor’s in special education (1971) and two master’s degrees earned in 1984 — one in special education, the other in school psychology. After finishing her doctorate in educational leadership at Nova Southeastern University, she worked for 14 years as a special education administrator in Connecticut public schools. That’s where Ruth developed an affinity for children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD). “We saw the public schools [in Connecticut and around the country] inundated with kids with autism spectrum disorders,” she says. “I learned as much as I could about it. Along the way, I recognized the need for others to have information about ASD.”
She returned to Southern in 2002 to teach in the Department of Special Education with the goal of starting a master’s program with a specialty in ASD, because there weren’t comparable programs to train teachers at the time. Hired as an adjunct professor, she was promoted to a full faculty member the following year, and eventually chaired the department.
During her career, Ruth established herself as an expert in ASD. She served on the state task force that wrote the Connecticut guidelines for educating children with autism in public schools. She consulted with school districts on program development and curriculum for students on the spectrum. She wrote or co-authored more than 20 papers on various aspects of autism — from examining transdisciplinary training models for teachers to helping individuals with Asperger’s syndrome become independent adults.
In 2010, Ruth co-founded — along with the late James Granfield, the former interim dean of what is now the College of Education — the Center of Excellence on Autism Spectrum Disorders at Southern. Its mission is to develop and deliver training rooted in evidence-based practices for teachers and others working with children with ASD. She became the center’s first director, a position she held until her retirement. In 2015, the university named Ruth the Goodwin Endowed Chair in Special Education, the first endowed professorship in Southern’s history. Following her retirement as a faculty member in 2017, she joined the SCSU Foundation Board of Directors.
While Ruth’s desire to support higher education seems a natural extension of her life’s work, her husband’s motivation may not appear as obvious, since he dropped out of college to join the Turkish Army. A former Olympic-level alpine skier, Tumer taught members of NATO’s special forces in Turkey to ski. The Turkish native immigrated to the United States in 1978 at age 33 with only “a small backpack, very little money, and a big dream to become a successful American citizen.”
Tumer soon found work as a ski instructor at a ski and racquet club in Connecticut’s Litchfield County. That led to a side hustle repairing cracked asphalt tennis courts. But he was frustrated to see the courts soon crumble again in the harsh New England climate. So he developed and patented a concrete surface that he could guarantee for 20 years or more and founded the Classic Turf Company in 1980. His was the first company to build post-tension concrete courts in Connecticut, New York, and New Jersey, eventually expanding the technology to basketball, track, and multipurpose courts. The business took off during the pandemic, registering $10 million in annual sales.
Along the way, Tumer met and married Ruth. They had two children — John and Elizabeth — and now have three grandchildren. They raised their family in Woodbury, Conn., and recently moved to a house along the Niantic River. Ruth says it’s their retirement home “if Tumer ever retires.”
The business is clearly in a growth mode. With more than “40 years in the game,” Classic Turf boasts an extensive portfolio of courts, tracks, and fields — ranging from home playscapes to dramatic rooftop basketball and tennis courts. Clients include sports clubs, high schools, universities, municipalities, and homeowners, among them, the Heights Casino in Brooklyn, the Aspen Alps sports club in Colorado, White Plains City Center in New York, and, yes, Southern Connecticut State University.
Though a self-made man, Tumer believes deeply in the value of education. He not only encouraged his children’s studies, he provided the necessary financial support for three nieces and nephews from Turkey to earn college degrees in the U.S. The Erens’ son John and his wife Kate both completed their MBAs at Southern. They now work in the family business. John, MBA ’11, who earlier earned his civil engineering degree from Northeastern University, is vice president and an engineer with Classic Turf Company. Kate, MBA ’11, is the company’s director of finance. The Hartford Business Journal named John a “Rising Star,” honoring the company with one of its “Family Business Awards” in 2021.
When President Bertolino made his pitch at Southern’s anniversary gala, the time was right — their children’s educations paid for, the family business prospering — for Ruth and Tumer to respond in a more significant way than they had been able to before. “In the past, I contributed very modest amounts to Southern. Only after Tumer’s company really took off were we able to begin to make more substantial donations,” Ruth says. “Whether large or small, we think our donations always were made in the spirit of giving back.
“Southern has given me the opportunity to have a very rewarding career in education and has now given our son and daughter-in-law, with their recently earned MBAs, an opportunity to lead the family company and continue its legacy of philanthropic support.”