Scenes from a Life - Ruth’s Story - 1943

Scenes from a Life - Ruth’s Story - 1943

Over the past 2 weeks, I’ve had the opportunity to visit the former Ogontz School campus (now Penn State – Abington), where librarian & archivist, Lil Hansberry, was a tremendous help. I’ve also interviewed Terrie Smith, former archivist at Ogontz/PSU Abington, as well as several neighbors here in Lancaster who knew Ruth. So, here’s another installment in Ruth’s story…

The year: Spring, 1943

Ruth is in her last year of high school at the private girls’ boarding school, Ogontz, outside of Philadelphia. Ogontz offers both a college preparatory curriculum and a general curriculum. Ruth is in the college prep program, taking courses in English, French, Latin, history (which encompasses ancient, medieval, modern European, English and American history), math (including algebra, geometry and trigonometry), and science (including chemistry, biology, physics and physiology).

In addition, Ruth is in the drama club and school orchestra, and she is a reporter for the school magazine, Mosaic. Ruth had tried the basketball and hockey teams during the previous year, but she has always been very thin and, at times, somewhat frail physically. It appears that she finally concluded that sports just weren’t her strength. (some of this was obvious from her struggles with sporting activities the previous summer at Ogontz Camp)

Ogontz was well known for engaging all students in military drill, to “cultivate poise, grace and better posture.” By her last year of high school, Ruth has become a Corporal in the military drill.

In an oral interview many years after her Ogontz days were over, Ruth recalled, “I liked drill. I drilled even as a 7 year-old. We had blouses and navy blue ties and pleated navy blue skirts and blue socks and white sneakers and wooden guns. I liked drill. It was fun. Miss Sutherland always said it gave her girls poise, coordination and balance, and that it provided good preparation for husbands because we were prepared to take orders. According to my father, Abby Sutherland was always right.”

School legend had it that Adolf Hitler had written a personal letter to Ogontz headmistress, Abby Sutherland, to compliment the school on its practice of training students in military drill. However, that letter “disappeared” after it became apparent what Hitler and the Nazi Party were doing in their reign of terror.

At Ogontz, Ruth also takes piano lessons from well-known pianist Henri Deering, who comes in from New York to offer lessons twice a week to selected Ogontz students. She also plays the organ.

A write-up in the school magazine, Mosaic, in the spring of 1943 says, “Ruth is the musician of our class. Her touch on the keys of a piano is to be marveled at by those of us not so fortunately blessed. Ruthie is well loved in her class because of her good nature and enjoyment of real fun.”

Ruth later told an interviewer, “My father thought I was going to be a professional pianist. I didn’t think so because I didn’t like to play in front of people. But he had great ambitions for me.”

So did Abby Sutherland. Here’s an exchange of letters between Ruth’s father, who in spring of 1943 is very ill, and Abby Sutherland.

February 15, 1943: letter from Ruth’s father to Abby Sutherland (written on Lancaster General Hospital letterhead):
Dear Miss Sutherland, I am rather weak but do not want you to feel I am not interested in Ruth’s reports, etc so will do the best I can. I want you to know I am really grateful to you for inviting Ruth to spend Spring Vacation with you. Of course should any expense be incurred I expect to reimburse you. I had intended to try to see you in person at vacation time, but circumstances prevent that. The best I have to offer as to Ruth’s future at this time would be if you can sell her the idea of taking secretarial preparatory work at Camp this summer. Hope I can write more later. W.E.

February 17, 1943 (reply from Abby Sutherland):
My dear Mr. Ehrhart: I am sorry to know that you are obliged to be in the Hospital and hope that all comes out very well for you. My plan for Ruth to do her best to prepare for college so that she can pass those examinations is based on a deep desire for her success and for her future. If she can pass that examination and get into college – if she is only there two years in a large group where she has to adjust herself to more people without any great help – it will do her much good in her preparation for life. There will be no expense connected with this. I want to do it for my own satisfaction. We have had Ruth with us now during her growing childhood and girlhood and I want to be sure that we have done everything we can to help her get into college. I am going to see Ruth about taking the secretarial work at camp and I think I can sell the idea to her after we have been together during the holidays for a time. My secretary promises that she will do everything to help her get the typing and stenography started at camp. Very sincerely yours, Abby A Sutherland

March 31, 1943 (additional letter from Abby Sutherland):
My dear Mr. Ehrhart: As Ruth’s high school work is being completed this year with good standing and satisfaction to us, we are looking forward to entering her in college. As I fear she may not pass her examinations, I should like to have her back here for her two years of college work and prepare her for something she wants to do later. I really do not think that Ruthie is a serious student although she is trying to the limit of her strength. As the room assignments for this division of the school (Ogontz Junior College) are greatly in demand, we should like to give our old girls the opportunity of the choice of the best places. We are therefore sending the application blank at this date. Our room assignments are based upon the date of application. We hope that you are as pleased with her progress and development these years as we are. Very faithfully yours, Abby A. Sutherland

Ruth finishes her final year of high school at Ogontz with a short story she wrote, titled “The Sun Shines Bright” published in Mosaic. At the May Day program, she dances in a number titled “Zombie Club Dance.” (Martha Graham had been the Modern Dance Instructor at Ogontz for several years while Ruth was in high school)

And on May 31, 1943, at Commencement, Ruth plays “Concerto for Piano – 1st Movement by Grieg.”

In the Commencement program, Ruth is listed among the “Graduates of the High School Department of the Ogontz School – with preparation in college entrance.”

What will be next for Ruth? Stay tuned as I piece together more of her story. And as always, I welcome your questions and observations!

Posted by Melanie Tagged as: city life lancaster pa ruths story

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