Latrobe woman lived long enough to see her Christmas sleigh wish fulfilled
Rita Ruffner was all about Christmas, so much so that she wanted her son, a former Hollywood set designer, to make a Santa’s sleigh for her front yard.
Jeffrey Michaels, 51, of Las Vegas started work on the sleigh this summer. He finished days before his mother’s 80th birthday Oct. 26.
On Nov. 9, Ruffner died unexpectedly of a heart attack — but not before she got a chance to see the finished creation.
“She cried and loved it,” Michaels said. “She had more Christmas decorations than you could ever imagine. She thought people would come and get their pictures taken in the sleigh and use it for Christmas cards.”
Family members hope the horse-drawn sleigh on display in front of Ruffner’s home, 1215 Mary St., Latrobe, serves as a testament to her love of Christmas and inspires all those who see it.
“She had wanted a sleigh for a long time,” Michaels said.
“She began decorating months before and shopped in the summer months to make sure everything was perfect,” said her daughter, Colleen McElhaney of Latrobe.
A 1986 graduate of Derry Area High School, Michaels moved to Los Angeles and became an art director and set designer for the film industry. He later moved to Las Vegas, where he works as a musician and entertainer.
Michaels started coming home more frequently after his father, Jerry, died in 2017. Over the summer, he started making the sleigh out of birchwood and other materials.
He worked in his mother’s garage with a jig saw but kept the creation hidden from its intended recipient.
He returned to the area in time for his mother’s surprise birthday party Oct. 26, putting the finishing touches on the horse and sleigh. The idea was that Santa uses reindeer to guide his sleigh during Christmastime, but the rest of the year the sleigh is horse-powered, Michaels explained.
The day after her birthday, Ruffner went to the front window with her son and saw the sleigh for the first time, McElhaney said.
“She was very excited about it,” she said.
Ruffner spent four days in the hospital after her birthday and came home to see the sleigh completed.
“It took me a few more days to do it,” Michaels said. “While she was in the hospital, I was trying to finish it.”
Family members hope that people who see the sleigh will consider making a donation to the American Heart Association in Ruffner’s name.
Stephen Huba is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Stephen at 724-850-1280, [email protected] or via Twitter .