A Life's Story

April 30, 2022

‘The kind of teacher everyone wanted to have’

Mary Ruta, 97, blended fierce independence with love of helping others

By: Jim Timlick

Mary Ruta was by no means an imposing figure, but you would be hard-pressed to find someone more resilient than the diminutive former teacher.

Ruta’s son, Jim, recalls phoning her one particularly blustery January day, when the temperature had dropped to -40 C. His mom, then in her early 90s, said she had just returned home from the grocery store.

“I said, ‘Did your car start OK?’” Jim says. “My mom said, ‘No, I didn’t take the car’… It was about two kilometres to Sobeys. She said it was too cold for the car, so she walked there. She said it was really cold on her fingers carrying those two bags of groceries, but she was fine.”

Resilience and perseverance were staples of Ruta’s life, from her upbringing in the tiny town of Tolstoi until her final years.

Ruta died Aug. 25, at the age of 97. She was predeceased by husband Walter in 2013, and is survived by sons Jim, Tom and Wally and their families.

Jim says his mom often spoke about her childhood in Tolstoi, about 90 km south of Winnipeg. While she had many fond memories, there were struggles, too.

Ruta’s parents, John and Barbara, had emigrated from Eastern Europe before settling in Tolstoi. Despite its size, the town was home to three Orthodox churches at the time, which posed something of a challenge for Ruta, her three siblings and parents, who were all Catholic.

“Mom used to say she was bullied as a kid because she was Catholic and not Orthodox,” Jim says.

Still, childhood was a mostly positive time. The siblings grew up on the family’s two-acre property in the heart of Tolstoi, in a large house with a big, beautiful yard Jim says looked like something out of Little House on the Prairie.

Ruta’s father was a huge influence on her. He attended college as a young man and was regarded as something of a Renaissance man.

In addition to operating a gristmill, he built a windmill on his property used to supply electric power to the family home. (It caught the attention of the owners of the nearby Tolstoi Hotel, who asked him to do likewise for them.) In his spare time, he made caskets, as well as concrete cemetery monuments, many of which still stand at the Tolstoi cemetery.

“He was a real hard worker, which was my mom, too,” Jim says. “She was always the up-and-at-’em type in the morning. It was always: let’s go, let’s get at it.”

Another huge part of Ruta’s early life was education. She attended school just outside of town and would often be driven there by her father in a horse-drawn sleigh in the winter. Because the school only offered grades 1 to 11, she had to transfer to Emerson for Grade 12, where she boarded with a local family.

Emerson to Tolstoi is roughly 35 km, “But at the time (the 1940s), it might as well have been Chicago. Mom couldn’t come home every night and sometimes had to remain there even on the weekend,” Jim recalls.

After graduating from high school, Ruta announced she planned to attend college to become a nurse. Her dad hated the idea and wouldn’t allow it. Since she loved helping people, Ruta decided the next best thing would be to become a teacher.

With rural teachers in short supply due to the pressures of the Second World War, at 17, she became a permit teacher at Sunbeam School in the town of Sundown in 1942.

After attending Teacher’s College in Winnipeg in 1945, she began teaching at Zora School in Cooks Creek, before moving on to Cloverleaf School near Beausejour, where she met future husband Walter.

After the couple moved to Winnipeg, she taught at Aberdeen and Argyle schools before moving on to Glenelm School, where she would work for 20 years before retiring in 1985.

“She loved the kids and I think that’s what kept her going for so long. She loved those kids and they loved her,” Jim says. “She could be strict but fair. She was the kind of teacher everyone wanted to have.

“I still run into people who went to Glenelm who say: ‘Mrs. Ruta? That was your mom? I remember her’ and she hasn’t been there since 1985.”

One former student who still fondly remembers is Caroline Krebs. Ruta was her Grade 2 teacher at Glenelm during the 1972-73 school year.

It was a particularly trying year for Krebs, who suffered a serious burn and had to miss nearly three months of school while she recovered in hospital. Krebs recalls how Ruta went out of her way to make sure she felt comfortable upon her return to the classroom.

“My injury was pretty visible at the time. It started around my chin and went all the way down,” she says. “No one ever bullied me in the classroom. Mrs. Ruta created a very safe space for me to come back to for the remaining months of that school year. That was critical for me dealing with what I was dealing with.

“I have very, very fond memories of her — and imagine hundreds and hundreds of other students do as well. She really created a lovely environment for learning and growing.”

Ruta continued to help others into retirement.

She left teaching to care for her elderly mother-in-law, who was living with her and her husband at the time. She also volunteered at Holy Eucharist Ukrainian Catholic Church, where she was a member of the perogy-making crew, which allowed her to combine her love of people with her love of God.

Faith was a huge part of Ruta’s life. She attended church every Sunday and, in later years, attended mass at Holy Eucharist almost daily.

“She used to say to me: Jimmy, you’re a grown man now, I can’t do anything for you anymore, but I can pray. I’m just hoping God still listens to little old ladies,” he says.

Ruta was fiercely independent. She continued to drive until she was in her early 90s, and still cooked and cleaned her own home until an injury forced her into a seniors’ residence about two years before her death.

She became frustrated about her declining physical health, largely because it meant she was no longer able to help others, Jim says.

“She had a real sense of duty. She felt that if there was something she could do to help others, she should do it. If a situation called for someone to take over, my mom would do it.”

passages@freepress.mb.ca

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