Archive for Friday, January 20, 2012

100-year-old recalls life before highways, cars

At 96, she rebuilt a home that was lost to make way for new U.S. Highway 59

Ruth Perry, 100, of rural Baldwin City, grew up on an isolated ranch in Wyoming. She eventually came to northeastern Kansas, where she was a longtime teacher. Recently she rebuilt a home that was lost to U.S. Highway 59 construction.

Ruth Perry, 100, of rural Baldwin City, grew up on an isolated ranch in Wyoming. She eventually came to northeastern Kansas, where she was a longtime teacher. Recently she rebuilt a home that was lost to U.S. Highway 59 construction.

January 20, 2012


From her large living room window, Ruth Perry can watch traffic zooming north and south on U.S. Highway 59.

Ruth Perry remembers

Ruth Perry, who celebrates her 100th birthday Jan. 19, recalls her earliest memory and her first teaching job in isolated northwest Wyoming more than 80 years ago. Enlarge video

Next to those busy two lanes are two fresh and raw concrete strips that soon will be the new highway. Underneath one is the site of her home of more than half a century.

“Progress, I guess,” Perry said.

Progress or not, the view is a contrast to her earliest memory, which involves a horse and buggy ride.

“I was 2 1/2 years old,” she said. “I was at my grandmother’s house. We walked down to get the mail. She talked to the postman; they always knew the latest gossip. She told me, ‘You have a baby brother. Let’s go see him.’ I went with her in the buggy.

“I remember I wasn’t too impressed. After he got some age on him, we had a lot of fun together.”

More than 97 years after that day in Dawson County, Neb., Perry, of rural Baldwin City, is celebrating her 100th birthday, which was Thursday.

It’s not a big deal, Perry maintains, saying hers has been a commonplace, ordinary life. But it’s certainly unusual to find a centenarian living alone, although her son Charles’ house overlooks her 3-year-old home, and her oldest daughter, Sally Dunn, visits daily from Baldwin City.

Nor will you find many people who grew up on a ranch in the West not long after the closing of the frontier.

“You could see Devil’s Tower out of the kitchen window,” Perry said. “It was 20 miles away, but it would take you 40 miles to get there.”

Isolation and difficult travel was a constant of her youth. The nearest post office, which delivered mail to the ranch twice a week and was home to the closest telephone, was a six-mile trip, a long time on a horse.

“When you would go somewhere, you rode a horse,” she said. “They were for work, too. To go get the cattle — everything.

“My mother got our first car, a 1918 Oakland. They took us for a ride when they brought it home. I sat in the back seat with my brother. I was scared to death almost.”

There was always something to keep her busy on the ranch, sewing, cooking or other chores. One other passion helped shorten the long Wyoming winter nights.

“I read a lot,” Perry said. “I always loved to read.”

When she was 16, her mother went to care for one of Perry’s grandparents, caught pneumonia and died.

“She overworked herself,” Perry said. “I was left to raise my younger sister. I just took over. Those were the toughest times, decidedly.”

She managed her new duties with her high school studies, graduating from Gillette High School and going back to the classroom the next year as a teacher at a one-room school.

“I had 10 students in a 9-by-11-foot school,” she said. “If they were at their desks and someone came, they couldn’t get in the door. We had to shove the desks out of the way.”

She stayed that first year with the family of one of her students, who was just three years younger than she and with whom she still exchanges letters. The two rode horseback each day the eight miles to the school and back.

“Mr. McGuire would have the horses saddled and ready in the morning,” she said. “Oh, I got such saddle sores on my knees. I rode horses before but not like that.”

She continued teaching, leaving the one-room schools for larger consolidated schools. Perry said her circumstances improved enough that she could buy a car.

“My first car was a 1936 Plymouth,” she said. “It was brand new. My brother and I went to town and bought it. My father didn’t like cars. He said they’d be the ruination of the nation and they should outlaw them.

“When we brought the car home that night, I was afraid what he would say. The next morning, he looked out and asked, ‘Is that your car? There’s an auction in town. Let’s go.’”

1941, with the nation headed for the war, she says, caused more change than any other thing in her lifetime. She married Charles Perry, who took her away from teaching and Wyoming

“I didn’t want to live on dry, treeless land all my life, so I decided to try something different,” she said. “I didn’t see much there. I was teaching at the best rural school in the county. Everybody was moving around. I wanted to see what was next.

“Besides, I liked the guy.”

They first moved to Boston, where her husband, a steelworker worked in a shipyard. Unhappy in Boston, she was thrilled when in a year Charles got a job in Stockton, Calif., for the remainder of the war.

With peace, they moved to Nebraska where she had inherited some land and stayed until 1951. Then, they moved to Kansas and the house condemned for the new highway, just in time for the big flood.

“We couldn’t go to Lawrence or Ottawa. The bridges were out,” she said. “We listened to the radio. They’d tell about so-and-so’s farm going down the river.”

Her early years in Kansas, she focused on raising her three children.

Perry started teaching again in 1958. Her first job in Kansas was a rowdy bunch of sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders at Sigel School, a schoolhouse gone since the building of Clinton Dam.

“I was green. I didn’t know what books to use,” she said. “The kids had ran the last teacher out. I told them if they expected to graduate, we’d have to work together. They’d tell me what book to use.”

She also finished the college degree she’d started at the University of Wyoming, graduating from Baker in 1961.

“I was scared when I first started in Baker what the kids would think of this 50-year-old woman,” she said. “But the Baker kids were always very friendly.”

After Sigel, Perry moved on to Wakarusa Valley before taking a position at Riverside School in North Lawrence, where she taught from 1966 until her retirement in 1977. Through the years, the classroom was where she wanted to be.

“I didn’t have any interest in being the big boss,” she said. “I always liked kids. I got along very well with them. I was friends with a lot of them.”

Because of that, she said, she most enjoyed teaching at one-room schools and the bonds they encouraged. That experience has made her a supporter of smaller class sizes in elementary schools.

“It isn’t the school; it’s the teacher,” Perry said. “I like it when they can limit the students in the lower grades to 20 pupils. I hope they keep it up. The lower grades need that personal approach.”

She’s had and is still having a happy life, she said, as she considered her 100th birthday that will bring her youngest daughter, Mary Lou Ellis, from Wyoming to join in her birthday celebration with her two local children, four grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren. But she added she was happy because she works at it.

“You have to make it happy,” she said. “You can’t sit around and feel sorry for yourself.”

It was with that mind-set and optimism that Perry moved on from the forced move from her longtime home.

“When they took my house, I decided to build this one,” she said. “They said it was the silliest thing they had ever heard, a 96-year-old woman building a house. I said I was going to build it anyway.”


agrabass 6 years ago

You Go GIRL! Love this story...especially at 2 AM when I am seepless trying to figure things out. Thank You.

Scott Morgan 6 years ago

This lady needs to beam her memories to our high school classrooms. Wowzer.

Lawrence Morgan 6 years ago

Thank you so much, Ruth Perry. Happy Birthday! May there be many more.

And please share with us ways that we can live for a much longer time.

Thanks, too, for the wonderful memories!!

Lawrence Morgan

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 6 years ago

“It isn’t the school; it’s the teacher,” Perry said. “I like it when they can limit the students in the lower grades to 20 pupils. I hope they keep it up. The lower grades need that personal approach.”

Too bad this wisdom isn't well received among our current leaders.

beatrice 6 years ago

This is why I say there is no such thing as the "common man" -- or woman. What a great and wonderul telling of an American life.

thebigspoon 6 years ago

Happy birthday Mrs. Perry !!! I had you for a teacher in 3rd and 6th grade at Riverside. Glad you are doing well. Mike Stogsdill.

twaldaisy 6 years ago

Wow, she taught 4th/5th grade at Riverside when I was there and it was the year she retired. She sure made certain the kids behaved. I know I was afraid to cross her. How cool she is still independent!

brophy904 6 years ago

First off, Happy Birthday Mrs .Perry. I had the honor of Mrs. Perry for my 1st grade year at Sigel 1959. She is so right about the small classroom giving a better education. Another advantange in the one room school, the different grades all together, one was exposed to so much more. This was realized when my family moved to town during my 3rd grade year and upon going to Pinkney and the larger classes I realized how much more I knew than my classmates. As far as teachers go this lady was my favorite and best. Often when people comment on my good penmanship, I say you can thank my first teacher for that. Now, I thank you Mrs. Perry. James Marshall Jr.

cadunn 6 years ago

Any former students or friends are welcome to attend her birthday party this Sunday from 2-5pm in Baldwin at The Lodge - 502 Ames.... or send her a card at 434 E 1260 Rd, Baldwin City, KS 66006

cadunn 6 years ago

Grandma, I love you so very much! I am so honored and proud to be your granddaughter and am so blessed to have had a lifetime of your influences. You have shown me what true unconditional love looks like, you have shown me stability. You have demonstrated respect and loyalty to me. You pushed me and encouraged me into being who I am today. You did for me what "No child left behind" failed to do for many others. You taught me to have fun, embrace the day, look at all circumstances with the cup half full. I cannot think of a single time you thought the cup was half empty. You've shown me what genuine joy looks like. I will always think of you the first of every month as you joyously turn the calendar to see what the next picture many people take the time to find joy in that? Your strength amazes me. Your life has had more hardships than many, yet youve never complained of them. It does not surprise me in the least that you are celebrating your 100th birthday. You are my hero Grandma! May I one day be a fraction of the person you are. I LOVE YOU, Happy 100th birthday!!

christy kennedy 6 years ago

Lovely story about a lovely woman. I will tell my parents, who are in their 80s and doing a major remodel of their house, that there's no reason why it has to be their last big house project.

christy kennedy 6 years ago

Lovely story about a lovely woman. I will tell my parents, who are in their 80s and doing a major remodel of their house, that there's no reason why it has to be their last big house project.

Ron Holzwarth 6 years ago

One of the greatest tragedies of our time in this nation is that our elders are seldom given the respect they deserve. And, they are rarely asked for advice when their wisdom could save many of us from a lot of grief.

This article reminds me of something I read years ago, when a pup of a news reporter student asked a woman celebrating her 100th birthday this question: "I suppose things have changed pretty much since you were young, haven't they?"

The older woman's response was this: "No, people are pretty much the same."

riverdrifter 6 years ago

I've known Mrs. Perry all my life. She's still as sharp as a tack. I look forward to seeing her and her kids at the Lodge Sunday.

catchagrenade 6 years ago

Congratulations on your 100th birthday Ma'am. Wonderful, wonderful story.

xdcr 6 years ago

Now I know why the word "rowdy" was used. Stinky (James Jr.) and his brothers were under the close eye of Mrs. Perry. An awesome teacher. She taught grades 1 - 8 at Sigel. We need more Ruth Perry's in our school system.

cadunn 6 years ago

My grandma often fondly speaks of "Stinky" with a smile on her face : )

Shaas 5 years, 12 months ago

Mrs. Perry, Happy, happy Birthday! She was my favorite teacher and I was one of the "rowdy" 6th graders, though I don't exactly remember it that way - maybe because midway through the 6th grade, I became sick and had to stay home for several months. Mrs Perry would come to our house after her long day at Sigel to go over my lessons. She created unforgettable memories for me and a high standard of compassion and excellence of teaching - maybe one of the reasons I became one. Sylvia Breithaupt Haas

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