Aunt Ruthie Longenecker: Her Life in Pictures

Yesterday, Tuesday, October 4, my Aunt Ruthie celebrated her 98th birthday. Born in 1918, she is a towering figure in my life and, and along with Mother and Grandma Longenecker, my strongest mentor. And she has been mother/teacher to many.

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See the determination in that little girl’s face!

Her mother, my grandma Fannie Longenecker, replying to my sister Janice’s questions for a sociology-class interview assignment, mentioned that “Ruthie was industrious, a busy-body, a tomboy who would take risks.”


Education

The blurb in her Elizabethtown High School yearbook photo acknowledged her brilliant mind. (She skipped two elementary grades.) The description below also foretold her teaching career and hinted at the math skills she used in her long career as tax collector for West Donegal (PA) Township. She was so young when she began college at age 16, she required a chaperone.

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Ruthie attended business school near Elizabethtown and earned a bachelor’s degree from Eastern Mennonite College in Harrisonburg, Virginia. She earned a master’s degree in education from Temple University in Philadelphia.

Teaching Career

Country children in rural Lancaster County usually did not attend kindergarten. Aunt Ruthie created kindergarten for me as a 5-year-old at Cherry Hill School, close to Milton Grove, PA. I remember bouncing up and down over hills and dales riding in the back seat of her brown Hudson on the way to Cherry Hill. Two or three days a week I learned the alphabet and numbers sitting along side first graders. In the one-room classroom with eight grades, I loved singing: “Good morning merry sunshine, how did you wake so soon? You scared away the little stars and shined away the moon.”

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Hundreds of students remember Miss Longenecker at the age pictured below at Rheems Elementary School where she taught sixth grade and served as principal. Earlier in her career there, the school board (probably all male) refused to acknowledge her true function as principal and condescendingly referred to her as “head teacher.”

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It galls me even now to disclose this awful truth, and so I ask:

What title goes to the person (man or woman) who approves the curriculum, supervises textbook orders and presides over faculty meetings, responding to parental complains. It’s the PRINCIPAL I tell you!

 


Host to Refugees and Immigrants

This 1979 photo below shows Grandma Longenecker, Aunt Ruthie and Phuong Le, a refugee from Vietnam, a young girl they welcomed into their home as a daughter. Phuong was the first among dozens who sought shelter from war-torn countries. She made the most of Aunt Ruthie’s mentoring from 1976-1982, later succeeding in a career as a computer programmer and raising a fine family.

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Lutheran Social Services acknowledged Ruthie’s magnanimous contribution to refugees and immigrants with The Salt of the Earth Award, a plaque which recognized “her exceptional commitment and warmhearted compassion in welcoming the stranger. ‘Ye are the salt of the earth’ Matthew 5:13” (script from plaque)

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Love of Family

“You are always welcome here,” were Aunt Ruthie’s words after my sisters and I married and moved away from home. She labored in the kitchen when her nieces from Florida and Michigan nested in her home during vacations.

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In a small way, we returned the favor and relished her enjoying the citrus we bought from our orange and grapefruit trees in Florida.

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Appreciation for Music

A music lover, Ruthie played the piano vigorously. If the apron is any indication, she is relaxing here after over-seeing meal making, her grand-niece Crista in the background.

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Into her early 90s, she played dinner music for the elderly ( ! ) at Rheems Nursing Home. “They don’t have anybody doing much for them,” she said.

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Playing the dulcimer – wholeheartedly!

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Animal Friends

Through the years, her Schnauzers, Fritzie I, II, III, and IV have been her ever-present companions, protecting her by day and warming her feet at night in bed.

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The last Fritzie, # IV, has found a dog’s paradise, adopted by teen-age Jason and his family.

Love for Learning

Books, magazines, and the Lancaster Intelligencer Journal/New Era have kept her curious mind informed.

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During most of her stay at Landis Homes, she has whizzed through Word Finds puzzle books.

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Hands in the Soil

A life-long gardener, Aunt Ruthie has always had her hands in rich Pennsylvania soil. She was my hoeing companion in the 4 1/2 -acre tomato “patch” in Bainbridge, PA in the 1950s.

Aunt Ruthie with scarf and I hoeing in tomato field
Aunt Ruthie with scarf and I hoeing in tomato field

At home, she kept a large garden, the envy of passersby on old route # 230 that borders her property.

All summer long until Aunt Ruthie was almost 90, she mowed nearly an acre of grass on her land near Rheems, preferring outdoor work to household duties.

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For decades, she kept a strawberry patch and a vegetable garden, bordered by flowers. Now the flowers come to her.

Niece Jean brings knockout roses for Aunt Ruthie now living at Landis Homes.
Niece Jean brings knockout roses for Aunt Ruthie now living at Landis Homes.

 


She has had a goodly heritage

The Martin-Horst-Longenecker Freindschaft, circa 1938 Both in back row: My dad Ray Longenecker with zippered sweater and Aunt Ruthie on right with cape dress and white covering strings
The Martin-Horst-Longenecker Freindschaft, circa 1938
Both in back row: My dad Ray Longenecker with zippered sweater and Aunt Ruthie on right with V-necked cape dress and white covering strings

 

Gutes Leben, her high school yearbook blurb concluded.

Yes, Aunt Ruthie, has enjoyed a good life.

 

Happy Birthday, Aunt Ruthie!

Ruthie after enjoying a birthday lunch at Oregon Dairy near Lititz, PA a few years ago
Ruthie after enjoying a birthday lunch at Oregon Dairy near Lititz, PA a few years ago

 

 

Coming next: Heart on Fire, Guess Who’s Voted for President!

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Mennonites and Race: A Longenecker Lens

This week we celebrate Martin Luther King Day, a tribute to the man with a vision for racial equality in the twentieth century and beyond. Just so, this post pays tribute to his dream and his legacy through a Mennonite lens.

Dr. Martin Luther King

“Jesus Loves the Little Children, All the Children of the World, Red, Brown, Yellow, Black and White,They are Precious in His Sight, Jesus Loves the Little Children of the World.”

As a tiny tot I was taught this song in Sunday School at Bossler’s Mennonite Church in the 1950s though the entire congregation was white. I saw children with slanted eyes and yellowish skin in picture books and a few black people in Lancaster and Harrisburg or maybe on the PRR train on our way to Philadelphia. But there were no children of a different skin color at Rheems Elementary School.  Or even at Elizabethtown High School. Not a one!

It was ancestry, not skin color, that made a difference in my family. Grandma Longenecker, benign soul though she was, did make disparaging remarks about other ethnic groups. She called a woman she was slightly acquainted with in Bainbridge “The Hunky Lady.” From her tone, I think Grandma Fannie was referring to the woman’s origins in Hungary, and therefore different from us, the Pennsylvania Dutch. And she made no bones about her view of Irish housekeeping. If we made a mess playing in her big kitchen, she’d remark, “It looks Irish in here,” and we’d be tidying up behind her broom. Fast!

In a recent visit to the attic, I came upon a pair of bookends featuring two pop-eyed black faces, a boy and a girl, painted in grade school.  Were such children curiosities to us? Novelties? Why would my teacher approve of  such an art project? Along with stories like Little Black Sambo, they were obviously part of the folklore of another era, not at all politically correct by today’s standards.

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My first encounter with a black person, up close and personal, was with little Chico Duncan, a black boy from New York City, who came to our home for a week in the “Fresh Air” program in which volunteer families would give city children summer vacations in the country. (Shirley Showalter’s book Blush devotes an entire chapter to her friendship with their family’s Fresh Air girl.) The most fascinating thing about Chico was his hair, kinky black and glistening. Was his hair naturally oily or did he put on something from a bottle? I longed to touch it and feel the texture, but fear or embarrassment or both restrained me from even asking. Besides, he was a BOY, and I had hoped for a girl to play with!

But that was years ago. Now at Bossler’s Church, children who sing “Jesus Loves the Little Children” may actually be sitting besides a child with a darker skin tone. The church treasurer, a former missionary, has an Ethiopian husband; one farm family has adopted African-American twin babies. There is a couple of Middle-Eastern descent. The Bishop, Director of African Programming with Eastern Mennonite Missions, has biological grand-children of Kenyan-American ancestry.

And my Grandma Longenecker? For at least two decades through Lutheran Social Services, she and Aunt Ruthie sponsored families from all over the world—particularly Viet Nam, Africa, and eastern Europe. They, along with many other Lancaster County families, welcomed the immigrants and refugees from countries at war for weeks or months at a time until they could get a job, an apartment of their own, even acquire an education.

A few months ago, I re-visited Aunt Ruthie’s bedroom, (now unoccupied because she lives at Landis Homes) and saw on the wall as if for the first time, a framed picture of three women:

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Two elegantly dressed Victorian women and a black woman, obviously a maid, playing cards. Is the maid holding the card tray for the other two? Is she teaching the ladies tricks of the trade? Are all three playing the game? Three would make a better game, don’t you think?

Detail: Women Playing Cards
Detail: Women Playing Cards

What experience with race did you encounter as a child? What story or anecdote can you add? I love when the bell chimes with your comment!