Scrolling through my email yesterday morning I came across the sad news that Ruth Mathews (later McGrath) had passed away. Reading her obituary brought tears to my eyes — good, rich tears.
Ruth had an extraordinarily accomplished life, including as an associate dean at the Manhattan campus of Empire State College in New York City. And then, at the age of 61, she came back to Reading and started United Community Services for Working Families. This community-based “labor liaison” non-profit agency performs critical services in Reading, including a YouthBuild program that is a lifeline for many youth without a high-school degree. Ruth started that program in her mid-70s. The programs she and her team ran in Reading for predominantly Hispanic high-school kids and older, at-risk youth — helping them obtain a degree and enter college or careers in unionized construction — have been models for similar efforts in Pittsburgh and elsewhere.
Ruth was a life force who somehow combined enormous vitality, and a sharp mind and wit with a hint of sadness. It was as if she could never quite forget the struggles that our unequal society imposes on the least fortunate families and children. She carried with her a deep sense of responsibility for trying to improve their lives. That partly explains how she could find the energy in her 80s for giving at-risk youth in Reading the level of personal support that would exhaust a high-energy 25-year old.
For a progressive who spends a lot of his time in data and policy abstractions, Ruth was the kind of friend who keeps you honest simply by the power of her example. Without saying a word, she reminded you of your own responsibility for making an actual, concrete difference in people’s lives.
I hope Ruth understood the respect and reverence that many people had for her. She will be missed. But her example will live on. In five years, for example, maybe I will stop crunching numbers and waging policy wars and give my last quarter century (if I’m that lucky) to directly helping some folks. There are worse ways to go.