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Remembering Ruth Richards

Bill Meredith

"I have taken all knowledge to be my province." Francis Bacon, ca. 1595

On the top shelf of my bookcase is a small paperback volume entitled The Education of Henry Adams. It is the autobiography of a man who was the great-grandson of our second president and the grandson of our 6th; and when he was a boy, he assumed he would be president too. That, of course, did not happen; but his life was consequential nevertheless. He was an influential journalist during the Civil War, Professor of History at Harvard University, and a renowned social leader in Washington; and the title of his autobiography reveals that he was a lifelong student. His life was his education, all 80 years of it. And every time I see that book, I think of Ruth Richards, for her life, too, was her education. All 98 years of it.

When Ruth Richards died on January 3, it marked the end of an era in our small corner of the universe. She and her husband, John, arrived in Emmitsburg in the fall of 1940, when John began teaching at Mount St. Mary’s College. A few alumni from that era still live, but Ruth was the last representative of the faculty families as they were in the pre-war era.

In those days all of the faculty, administration and student body of the college were men; the only women on campus were the Nuns who worked in the infirmary and laundry, and a few secretaries. The Priests, who made up more than half of the faculty, lived in the dormitories and used their rooms as offices, but the lay faculty had no offices; they had to spend the time between classes in the library or snackbar. That was particularly inconvenient for John, because each of his courses in Physics and Physical Chemistry had 3-hour labs in addition to the three lectures each week. That meant he had to spend twice as much time on campus as faculty who were not in science, so during weekdays Ruth was left in their apartment in town without a car.

That was not as much of a problem then as it would be now. To begin with, there were fewer cars, gas was rationed, and fewer wives knew how to drive; and the Great Depression was still lingering, so most people could afford little beyond necessities. The town was essentially self-sufficient; Main Street was lined with family-owned shops, stores and meat markets. Everyone shopped locally, so it was a social activity as much as a necessity.

There were both public and parochial schools, doctors, churches of five denominations, a movie theater, a bowling alley, and restaurants. Ruth and John were both from South Dakota, and had grown up in towns somewhat bigger than Emmitsburg, so a certain amount of cultural adjustment was necessary, but they both fit in and soon knew everyone in the community. They lived in town for the next 15 years; their two daughters were born here, and they were involved in an active social life that included both townspeople and faculty families from The Mount and St. Joseph’s College. In 1955 they built a new house near the college, and that was where I met them.

My wife and I arrived at Mount St. Mary’s with our baby daughter in the fall of 1957, and the Richards’ were among the first people we met. From the beginning I was unable to think of them separately; they are so closely linked in my memory that their names merge… they are JohnandRuth or RuthandJohn, depending on whether the incident recalled is professional or social. I met John first. It was only a few days before classes started, and I was in the Biology Lab trying to find things when I noticed a small man leaning on the door and watching me. He said, "You the new biologist?" and when I admitted that I was, he went on, "I’m John Richards. You know anything about birds?"

I quickly found out that with John, what you saw was what you got… not much small talk, but great conversation on any topic that came up. Within a few days, we were invited to their home for dinner. There we found a relaxed atmosphere, excellent food, two bright kids, and a dachshund named Heidi who liked to catch turtles and bring them home. It was our introduction to Emmitsburg society.

Two things drew us together from the start. The first was birdwatching. I had a very good course in Ornithology in college; Ruth and John were self-taught, but being older and more widely travelled, they knew a lot more birds than I did. Their house was surrounded by woods, and on any day you could find 20 species or more on their lot. Each year the local Audubon Society met at their house for the annual Christmas Count. John marked off a circle some 15 miles in diameter, and assigned segments of it to each of the 12 or 15 participants; then, on the appointed day everyone would go out around 5:00 am to listen for owls.

Regardless of the weather, we would stay out all day, counting every bird we could find; and we would arrive at the Richards home that evening exhausted, sometimes half frozen and occasionally wet. Ruth would be take part in the search in the morning, but she would come in at noon, and she would be waiting for us with warm (and warming) drinks, appetizers, and mounds of spaghetti. Those who still had room would finish up on chocolate cake. When we were warmed and filled, we would share our bird lists, gleefully trying to top each other by saving the rarest sightings until last. It was not unusual for the total number of species seen to exceed 75 or 80.

The second bond that drew us together was a social group called "The Faculty Discussion Club." Its members were faculty and their spouses from both the Mount and St. Joseph’s College; there were no elected officers, but Ruth and John were among its leaders. The group met each month to discuss a book, which might be a classic in some field or a current best-seller. Members took turns at hosting the meetings in their homes. Those meetings had a profound effect on me.

I had heard of Francis Bacon’s remark about all knowledge being his province, and I had been naively critical of it, because even in the 16th century it wasn’t possible to master all knowledge; but that was not what it meant. I was to learn from that group that intellectuals should not just bury themselves in their own narrow discipline; rather, they should make it their aim to learn enough to converse intelligently about any topic that came to be important. One of the books we read was The Education of Henry Adams, and it was then that I began to realize that my own education would have to go on as long as life persisted. Ruth and John showed me how that worked.

We turned out to be kindred spirits. Besides birds, we were interested in wildflowers. I was trained in botany, but Ruth knew as many wildflowers as I did, and she collected many local varieties in her yard and gardens. In later years, after John died I often plowed a bit of her former garden for her so she could plant a few vegetables just to watch them grow. Early each summer I would go out to set her air conditioner in the upstairs window, but one time I didn’t get the screen sealed correctly beside it, and the next day she called to tell me a bat had got into her bedroom. She was not frightened, but she couldn’t get the window open to let it out. It had got between the windowpane and the screen, so I had to remove the air conditioner to lower the window. The bat was hanging on the screen, so I was able to put a quart jar over it without injuring it; and, typically, Ruth had to examine it and determine what kind it was before we released it. Another time, she came to our house carrying what appeared to be a soccer ball; it turned out to be a puffball fungus that had grown near her house after a week of rain. We cut it open and found part of it had developed into spores, but the rest was still firm, so we sliced it up and fried it in butter. It was the first time I had tasted puffball, and it was delicious.

I was not able to see Ruth as much after she moved to a retirement home. She was well provided for there, but not really content; she missed her birds, flowers and garden. She continued to read and do the daily crossword puzzle in her left-handed, partly legible script, and her mind remained clear. And she continued to educate it, to the end.

Read other articles by Bill Meredith