February 23, 2012
Ruthie, who is 81 now, was raised in Chicago. An abused child, she was sent away to live on a farm called Glen Eyrie in Delavan, Wis. “You know what it was like in the ’30s if you had a mean mother — no one talked about it. I know how to milk cows, kill chickens.”
Although she’s Jewish, she learned every Christian hymn in the book there. “That’s where I started to become a musician.” She took the train there every weekend, and in the summers for many years. “I still take trains today.”
When she was 17, she went to a music school in Aspen, Colo., run by the folk singer Richard Dyer-Bennet. She lived with him way up in the mountains for two years, until she got a scholarship to Bennington College, where she majored in anthropology. Her teacher, a Nobel laureate, told her to major in literature and she responded, “No. If I major in literature, I’d have nothing to write about.” She flew out to California to finish a paper, and that’s where she met her first husband, a clinical psychologist and father of her three children. I say first husband, because Ruthie has been married three times. Her second and third husbands passed away; six years ago, she lost the husband she calls her beshert.
She speaks so quickly — and jumps from tangent to tangent so often — that I finally grab her by the arms to ask her something, hoping it will slow her down. I hold on as she answers, but this leads her to another story, and she’s off and running again. So I give up and let her speak.
Ruthie’s spent most of her life on the radio, where she got the nickname “Uncle Ruthie” after doing a sketch satirizing all the on-air personalities with the nickname “uncle.” At some point she got a teaching degree, with a focus in special education. “I have worked with every single kind of special-needs kid there is. For the last 10 years, I’ve been with blind kids. I’m a music teacher at the Blind Childrens Center. I teach children from birth to second grade.”
I ask her when she’s retiring. She says, “Someone asked me about retiring and I said, ‘Maybe one day,’ and the principal said, ‘Never. She won’t ever retire.’ ‘What if I were to drop over dead?’ ‘We’ll sit you against the couch and go on with the song.’ ”
Her philosophy about school is, “Learning has to be fun. If you’re not excited about what you’re learning, there’s no point. The purpose of school isn’t to have knowledge thrown into you, it’s to teach you to teach yourself. To be self-winding. All your life, you’re going to be learning.”
“What do you want in a man?” I ask. “He should be breathing,” she jokes. “He should be progressive and vital and living in the world. I will not go to football games. I like tennis, and track and field. I like Olympics. I want someone who’s a left-wing, politically active person who does not object to taxes being raised. I want somebody who likes theater, arts and music. And has a very active life of his own. I don’t want anyone who says to me, ‘How come you’re so busy?’ I want someone who’s also busy. Someone who’s had a happy marriage. Someone who’s had good relationships with women. At this point, I could sum it up in one word who I’d like to meet — anybody.”
If you want to hear more of Ruthie, tune in to “Halfway Down the Stairs With Uncle Ruthie” on KPFK 90.7 FM on 8:30 Saturday mornings.
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Seth Menachem is an actor and writer living in Los Angeles with his wife and daughter. You can see more of his work on his Web site, sethmenachem.com, and meet even more single peeps at mysinglepeeps.com.