Ruth Powell: The legacy of a teacher

By Dan Curtis

Ruth Powell, the namesake of Ruth Powell Elementary School in Safford, passed away February 9, 2018 at age 96. She taught in the Safford school system for 30 years. As the namesake for Ruth Powell Elementary School in Safford, her story is worth telling.

Early Life

Ruth Helen Jansen Powell was born October 4, 1921, in Chicago, Illinois, at a time of momentous change in America: Women had won the right to vote the year before. Her birth certificate was signed by Cook County Clerk, Richard Daley. Daley would later serve as Mayor of Chicago from 1955 until his death in 1976. He had a major role in shaping the Democratic Party.

The Curtiss Candy Company had just marketed a new candy bar called, “Baby Ruth.” The official story is that the candy bar was named after President Grover Cleveland’s daughter, Ruth Cleveland. Family lore, however, has it that Ruth Powell’s uncle, a Curtiss Candy Company executive, had a hand in naming the new treat after his niece.

Ruth grew up in a house built by her father, not very far from Wrigley Field. She had two sisters. She had frequent outings to the ballpark with her uncle Augie, which transformed her into a life-long Cubs fan. Other neighborhood events were not so pleasant. Their home was burglarized eight times and a gang-related killing took the life of the owner of the neighborhood service station.

It was in Chicago, however, that the seeds of her resilience were planted, as well as a strong sense of family service, exemplified by attending German language school on Saturdays. Being a second-generation descendent from German immigrants, she attended the German language school in order to speak with her grandmother who spoke no English.

Her childhood not only gave her resilience, but a realization of the inevitability of change, despite one’s preference for stability. She used to nostalgically complain that even the smell of gasoline spilled in the neighborhood service station has changed beyond recognition.

Lakeview high school — class of 1938

Ruth’s sense of service was strengthened as she assumed roles of leadership in high school. She served as manager, secretary, and vice president of various clubs, and earned an honor society silver pin. These roles would be the start of a lifetime of community service, including more than 13,000 hours at the Mount Graham Regional Medical Center auxiliary. In 2006, Lakeview high honored Ruth by including her in its first cohort of honorees in their wall of fame.

Chicago teachers College/early career

After high school, Ruth attended Chicago Teachers College and began teaching at Chicago’s Schiller School in 1944. She received a Masters of education from Northwestern University in 1947. During graduate school she managed the synchronized swim team – a team that included Johnny Weissmuller, who went on to win 5 Olympic Gold Medals for swimming. Weissmuller is best known for starring as Tarzan in a string of movies in the 1930s and 1940s. Ruth also managed the newly formed Tommy Bartlett’s ski show that eventually became a long-running show in the Wisconsin Dells area.

Relocating To Arizona

Ruth suffered from allergies in the Chicago area. A friend in Tucson suggested that she come to Arizona to see if she could find some relief. In 1948, she packed up and moved to Arizona. She taught in the Solomonville schools for two years. After her first year in Arizona, she decided to make Arizona her home. She settled in Safford in 1950.

It took a while for Ruth to integrate Midwest culture with Arizona’s distinctive cultural mix, but she learned such things as not to put a banana cream pie on the ground near an ant hill and that horses do not like hamburgers.

Ruth married Melvin Powell in 1953. The couple had two children: Melvin Jr. and Ruth Anne. Against the prevailing norm of the time, Ruth returned to full-time teaching in 1957, skillfully and compassionately applying her considerable energies to both home and classroom. As she put it, “despite my husband’s concerns, the household did not fall apart.” She taught her children not to ask what needs to be done, but to look around and see what needs to be done.

She joined the Methodist church in 1955, perhaps, in part, inspired by the successful matchmaking efforts by her buddies to get their friend, Emily, married off to the church’s single pastor, Rev. Don Wogaman.

Teaching Career at Lafe Nelson Elementary

Lafe Nelson was the principal of the elementary school when Ruth started teaching in Safford. She took a break from teaching when her daughter, Ruth Anne, was born. However, when a teacher suddenly quit at the beginning of the school year, they asked Ruth to substitute while they looked for a permanent replacement. Ruth agreed, but told the principal there was no need to find a replacement. She was ready to go back to work full-time.

Ruth’s 30-year tenure at Safford schools was characterized by her patient, resourceful teaching style. She looked for ways to enhance her student’s lives beyond the classroom: collecting and delivering Christmas gifts to families in need, helping organize aid to residents of Little Hollywood during flooding were some of the service activities she provided for her students.

Ruth had an innovative approach to teaching. She always made sure the kids met academic standards, but her approach to the classroom was unique. Sometimes it was quite a production. Her class once made a huge totem pole for a production called, Call of Courage. They made it inside her classroom out of refrigerator boxes. When it came time to take it out for the performance, it was too big to get out the door. Alan Robinson had to take the door off of its hinges so they could get it through the door. About two years later the totem pole was found in the basement of the Catholic Church. Nobody knows how it got there.

Ruth’s master’s degree specialized reading techniques. In 1999, her innovative techniques in teaching reading were recognized by Governor Jane D. Hull. The award recognized her for selfless acts to help children improve their skills, their self-esteem, and to promote their reading and comprehension skills.

Taking a tube down Slide Rock

In addition to her innovative classroom teaching, she also volunteered in the summer to take a group of under-privileged kids to slide rock in Sedona. Many of the kids they took had never been out of this area and some of them had special needs. Ruth and a group of teachers would take them camping for a week at Slide Rock. There was a boy’s tent and a girl’s tent and they taught them how to camp. Camping was something the Powell family did a lot of together.

While Ruth was known for her innovative techniques in the classroom, she was also known for her antics on the playground. Ruth could be stern on the playground when kids got out of line, but she also had a fun side and was known to take a turn on the merry-go-round, or a run down the slide. She was eventually banned from the merry-go-round when she was injured after being thrown off. She was also banned from the slide at the Solomonville school when she fell off of it.

On the last day of school, Ruth would often host a big picnic at her house, which was just up the street from the school. It was a potluck and the parents would bring pies, cakes and plenty of food. The kids would eat, play games, then march back to the school just in time to begin their summer break.

Ruth took a special interest in her students. In 1966, a young girl had just moved from Colorado to Safford during Christmas break, leaving her friends and relatives in Colorado and Oklahoma. Deena Francis recalls that she ended up in Ruth Powell’s classroom. “Mrs. Powell was a wonderful teacher. She went out of her way to make me feel at home in my new surroundings. She helped catch me up with the class. When I had days when I missed my relatives in Oklahoma, she gave me words of encouragement. She told me that I would make friends, and they would take away some of the loneliness from missing my relatives in Oklahoma. She was one of those people that come into your life that brings a smile to your face when you think of her. Mrs. Powell touched everyone she met that way.”

Dr. Eric Curtis was also in Ruth’s third grade class in 1966. Eric recalls going to the school a few weeks before the semester began and finding out he was in Ruth Powell’s class. He was terrified. “She had a reputation for being mean on the playground,” Eric said. “When I saw I was assigned to Mrs. Powell’s class I told my mom that I wasn’t going to third grade. I’ll go to somebody else’s class but I’m not going to Mrs. Powell’s class because she’s too mean.”

“She had a gruff demeaner and she used it with great effect on the playground,” Eric recalls. “When she had playground duty and she ordered kids to stop running, or beating on each other, they would stop. There was enough of a fear factor that they would do what she said.”

“In the classroom, she was fantastic! She was enthusiastic. She kept up a steady stream of interesting things that held her student’s interest. She read a lot of books after lunch and the class discussed them after she read.”

Listening to Mrs. Powell read Chitty Chitty Bang Bang sparked Eric’s artistic abilities and got him started drawing cars.

“She would let me draw during class – even during math class -and then would let me catch up later,” Eric said.

Many years later Eric commented to Ruth’s daughter, Ruth Anne, that he was really glad that Mrs. Powell was interested in art because she fostered his talent in her class. Ruth Anne responded that her mother didn’t care about art, ‘she was interested in you.’

“That was an extraordinary gift of hers,” Eric said. “She took a special interest in her students; not just getting them through their assignments and tests; her interest was much more personal. She took an interest in her students as human beings, and tried to bring out their potential.”

Eric said one of the amazing things about Ruth was how she kept up with her students after they moved on. Eric received a letter from her when he graduated high school and later when he graduated dental school. Ruth had been a patient of his father’s dental practice and later became Eric’s dental patient.

Ruth’s daughter, Ruth Anne, recalls that she wasn’t much of a morning person. She was frequently seen rushing onto the school grounds as the teacher’s bell rang. The family lived a block away from the school. Ruth was often seen rushing toward the school with her coat half off, a slice of toast in one hand, papers in the other and the family dog trotting along beside her. Most people knew not to call her before ten in the morning because she would stay up until one or two in the morning reading.

Ruth was known for always having animals in her classroom. Her family dog, Spot, was a frequent visitor to the classroom as well as the principal’s office. She also hosted tarantulas, demonstrating their gentleness by letting them climb up her arm. Other classroom pets included snakes, hamsters, rats, and mice.

During her teaching career she organized the Campbell Soup project, collecting and redeeming an average of 26,500 soup labels a year. For 32 years she partnered with Campbell’s Soup to supply school equipment to Safford schools. She actually outlived the Campbell Soup project.

Ruth retirement from teaching in 1987, but she didn’t slow down. She chose to use this time to increase her volunteer activities and travel the world with her husband of 49 years.

After Ruth passed away, her children found that she had kept every single photo taken of every single class she taught.

First Grade Class, 1963

Home and Family Life

Melvin Powell was a World War II veteran. He had been shot during the war. After he and Ruth were married in 1953, Melvin worked for the U.S. Forest service. He had worked on the forest fire in the Capitan Mountains in New Mexico where Smokey the Bear was rescued. Ruth didn’t want to travel from one forest service appointment to another, and when Melvin was about to be promoted, she persuaded him to not take the job. The couple moved back to Safford, AZ where Melvin worked for the Postal Service for the next 45 years.

Ruth was an avid sports fan. Having been born and raised in Chicago, she was a die-hard Cubs fan. She also loved hockey. She was known to yell at the TV when games were televised. She used to iron clothes while watching sporting events on TV, but had to quit ironing when she watched sporting events because too many shirts were getting burned.

One of Melvin’s memories of his mother is of her effort to teach him to play catch. He was around five or six at the time and Ruth thought that every young man needed to know how to catch a ball. Despite the fact that Melvin was not interested in playing baseball. Ruth took it upon herself to teach him a skill she thought every young boy should have. Ruth would throw the ball and Melvin would catch it. Then she would take a few steps backward and throw the ball again. As Ruth got further away, the ball wouldn’t reach young Melvin and she would have to take a few steps forward and throw again. Melvin finally convinced her that he didn’t really need to learn to catch the ball.

Ruth Anne recalls how organized Ruth was. She had a talent for making things happen. She was always involved in anything her children did. In addition to working full time and taking care of her husband and children. After attending church on Sunday’s, Ruth would prepare a special meal for the family and made sure the both grandmothers/mothers-in-law were present.

But she didn’t do things at a frantic pace. Melvin says that she did things at a medium pace but she was very organized. In the morning she would get up and look around and say, ‘okay let’s get organized.’ She was the general in the house. She had a knack of organizing and things got done in a very well-organized fashion.

Ruth didn’t learn to drive until she was an adult, living in Safford. According to Melvin, she never did learn to drive over 35 miles per hour. She hated left turns and would frequently go all the way around the block instead of making a left turn. Ruth’s 1947 green Buick was famous. It was known as the ‘Green Turtle.’ The car’s shock absorbers were shot, which made for an exciting ride. Ruth’s kids and their friends used to beg to ride in the backseat because it bounced up and down. They would ask her to ride over the hump by the canal on Fourth and Fifth Avenue because the car would bounce up and down when they hit the hump. 

The Green Turtle was beautifully restored by Russ Oesterling.

The naming of a school

When a new school was to be built in Safford, school administrators solicited public input on what to name the school. One of the names being considered for the new school was “Heritage School,” because the location for the school was over some Native American ruins. The administration received a number of nominations to name the school after former teachers and administrators. Most of them came with letters of support. Whereas most of them had one or two letters, Ruth’s came with nearly 10 letters of support. With that kind of support Ruth’s name hit the top of the list.

Ruth was out of town visiting her son, Melvin, during the nominating process, and was completely oblivious to the fact that she had been nominated as the namesake of a new school. Several people had contacted Ruth Anne to get statistics and information about Ruth’s teaching career.

Speaking at the school dedication, 2002.

Ruth had no idea she had been nominated to be the namesake for the new school until she received a phone call from Superintendent, Dr. Mark Tregaskas, informing her that the decision had been made to name the school after her. Ruth was so shocked to hear the news that she couldn’t speak. Observing her silence, Dr. Tregaskas noted that it was the first time he had ever heard her speechless. They had her on speaker phone during the school board meeting. When she finally found her voice, Ruth pointed out that it was customary to name institutions after people have passed on. She wondered why this honor had come to her while she was very much alive. Ruth never considered herself a public figure, but always felt honored to have the school named after her.

And she had a lot of fun with it. She would volunteer for the book fair at Ruth Powell School alongside her former co-worker, Gary Rasmussen. When people wrote checks for the books they purchased, Gary would tell them to make sure they put ‘school’ after her name so that Ruth couldn’t cash it. On one occasion she overheard a couple of students asking each other who she was. One of them said, “I don’t know, I think it’s some lady who was named after the school.”

Video Interview, November 17, 2017
(Courtesy, Graham County Historical society)