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Vol. LXV, No. 49
Wednesday, December 7, 2011
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Princeton Personality by Jean Stratton


PRINCETON PERSPECTIVE: “I like the wide variety of people in Princeton, and the stimulating activities that are going on all the time,” says Princeton resident, former teacher, and community volunteer Ruth Randall. “I love events at McCarter, especially the music programs.”

Long-time Princeton Resident Ruth Randall Wears Many Hats in the Community

To one friend, she is a “pillar of the community”; to another, she is the “go-to person for getting the job done;” to still another, she is “a great mentor,” and to a colleague, she is “a strong, steady leader.”

All of these are accurate and perceptive descriptions of long-time Princeton resident Ruth Randall, who has indeed served the community in a myriad of ways and continues to do so.

Teacher, curriculum advisor and innovator, senior citizen advocate, political volunteer, one-on-one mentor, and amateur musician, Ruth Randall has been an engaged participant and leader in many avenues of community life since she arrived in Princeton 55 years ago.

As her friend and a former teacher in Princeton Regional Schools, Ann Johnston notes: “The late ’50s and ’60s were exciting times. Princeton was a very small town; you could count liberal activists on one hand. Ruth and I crossed paths in a number of ways. I sold UNICEF cards in my house every Christmas for years, and she came to buy. There was the Vietnam War protest, the Civil Rights movement, and by the late ’60s, the revolution in the schools when we were looking for more meaningful participation of community, parents, teachers, and students in local public education.”

Without Fanfare

“So we were kindred spirits and became close friends from then on. She is a warm, generous, thoughtful human being who is always willing to take responsibility to see that whatever she thinks is a right cause gets done. That’s always without a lot of hoopla. Her contributions have been in the areas of her passions — politics, government, education and perhaps, most of all, person-to-person help. She just quietly does the job. Her friendship is infinitely important to me. I can count on her as one with whom I can raise any kind of controversial question, doubt, or personal dilemma.”

And, whatever Ms. Randall undertakes, it is done quietly, without fanfare or “bells and whistles,” as Ms. Johnston points out. When asked about her reasons for taking on these varied leadership roles, Ms. Randall replied: “No one else seem to want to do it!”

There is more to it than that, of course. From her earliest years, Ruth was an involved citizen, politically aware, serving in student government in school, and cognizant of the needs of others.

Born in Manhattan to Irene and Larry Hochheimer, Ruth was the oldest of two children. Her sister Alice was 16 months younger. The family lived on the upper west side, and from kindergarten to 12th grade, Ruth attended the progressive and ethically and intellectually serious Ethical Culture Schools.

“I loved school,” she reports, “and I especially liked to read. My uncle Dick, my mother’s brother, was a rare book dealer, and I loved seeing all those old books. He helped to found the Antiquarian Book Society.”

Born just before the Great Depression devastated the lives of so many people, Ruth witnessed a lot of history. “I remember Pearl Harbor very well,” she recalls. “I was playing with a classmate at her apartment, and the elevator man came and told us. I didn’t know where Pearl Harbor was, but I knew this was important.”

Limited Supply

“I remember rationing, when you could only get a limited supply of groceries. Also, we got margarine instead of butter. It was white, and you could squish it to make it yellow. We also had air raid drills, when the shades and blinds had to be pulled down and closed. My parents talked about the war a lot.”

Despite the impact of the war, weekends were fun. Ruth was busy with a variety of activities, including going to movies, museums, visits to the top of the Empire State Building, and later Broadway plays. School days were more intense, especially in high school. Ruth attended the Fieldston School in Riverdale, N,Y., which entailed a 45-minute subway ride to and from school.

Family was important, and every Sunday, visits to Ruth’s grandparents, who also lived in Manhattan, were part of the routine.

Ruth remembers a happy childhood, and in 1938, the family purchased a summer house in Norwalk, Conn. “We would go there on weekends and for the summer. We went to the beach, and during the war, we planted a Victory Garden, and grew vegetables. In the summer, we’d ‘borrow’ a dog from people who were away, and we’d keep it until they returned. My sister and I played with it, and since we didn’t have a dog of our own, we really enjoyed this.”

Ruth was also introduced to music; classical music was regularly played in the home, and she had piano lessons. She later sang in the high school and college choirs, and singing would become a life-long pleasure.

After graduation from high school in 1947, she attended Swarthmore College, located in a suburb of Philadelphia. “I liked the idea of a co-ed school, and I really enjoyed Swarthmore,” says Ms. Randall. “I majored in European history, and had excellent professors. I especially remember Professor George Cuttino, who taught medieval history. His class was so interesting. I was in an honors program, and we met once a week for a seminar. We had to write a weekly paper, and it was a wonderful experience in writing.”

Milestone Event

Ruth enjoyed college, and made lasting friendships. “There were a lot of very nice friendships, and 10 of us still get together regularly for our own mini reunions. I actually still have friends all the way from kindergarten through high school and college.”

Meeting her future husband, Jim Randall, was a milestone event during her junior year. A chance meeting with his college roommate at summer school set things in motion. “I was taking a French course at Colby College in Maine because I wanted to improve my French,” recalls Ms. Randall. “Jim’s roommate was there, and he thought Jim and I would get along. Jim was a student at Columbia.”

It wasn’t until senior year, however, that Ruth realized she had met the “one and only”, and then things moved quickly. After graduation in June, 1951, they married in September in Washington, D.C.

“By that time, the Korean War was underway, and Jim was in the Navy, teaching music theory at the U.S. Navy School of Music in Washington,” she says. “We lived in Anacostia, and I loved Washington — the concerts, the museums. I liked feeling that I was in the middle of the action. I had always been interested in politics and followed it, as my family had done.”

Ruth had begun to realize that she wanted to teach, but as yet had no teaching credentials. So, her first job was as a secretary in the Department of Physical Education for Women at George Washington University, a position she held for one year. During that time, she was able to earn teaching certification.

In 1952 through ’54, she taught eighth grade American history in Fairfax, Virginia. She found she enjoyed teaching a great deal, and when Mr. Randall went back to Columbia to get his degree, the couple lived in the Bronx, and Ruth taught New York State history in middle school in New Rochelle, N.Y.

On the Go

From then on, the Randalls were pretty much on the go. “After Jim got his BA, we went to Harvard so he could get a masters in music. I taught in Brookline, Mass. for a year. We always seemed to be packing up!”

In 1956, however, they found a place to call home. “We moved to Princeton because Jim wanted to study with Milton Babbitt at the University and get his MFA,” explains Ms. Randall. And, now, children began to arrive: first, Ellen, followed by Thomas, and Beth.

“When Ellen was born, I had an opportunity to work part-time for Helen Meyner, who had recently married New Jersey Governor Robert Meyner. She needed someone to write thank you notes. I worked at Morven (then the Governor’s Mansion) for five months. It was enjoyable and very interesting to see the variety of wedding gifts from so many different people from all walks of life.”

In the 1960s, Ms. Randall became involved in the move to consolidate the Princeton schools into a regional school system. They had previously been separated as Borough or Township schools.

“I worked very hard for school regionalization,” she recalls. “Chet Straub was the superintendent of the Borough Schools then, and was instrumental in helping to see that the change went smoothly. That was the first time I had been involved in Princeton politics.”

Shortly after regionalization got underway, Ms. Randall became active in a unique school writing program. “Gene Doherty, a teacher in the middle school, was helping kids to write, but volunteers were needed to proofread the writing and make suggestions. This was not a typical English or grammar class but was meant to encourage students to express themselves through writing. I was pleased to be able to help on this project.”

Community People

This led to teaching assignments at the Quarry, Valley Road, and Community Park Schools, as well as others. “I was also working with teachers helping to develop curricula in English and social studies kindergarten through eighth grade in all the schools,” she adds.

“This was the time of the LBJ (Lyndon B. Johnson) Great Society in the ’60s, and we made an effort to include more community people in Princeton schools to assist the teachers in all grades. My job was to train these wonderful people from the community. Some were from low income families, and kids could see how competent people could be from all levels of the community.”

Typical of Ms. Randall’s wide-ranging concerns — and perhaps indicative of her continuing interest in history — she helped to bring to light the little-known (to many) fact that President Grover Cleveland is buried in the Princeton Cemetery. “I had met Jeanne Silvester (the late Princeton resident and former local radio host), and she said no one was paying attention to Grover Cleveland being buried here. So, together, we wrote a letter to President Johnson, explaining the situation. As a result, there is an annual tribute on Cleveland’s birthday, when soldiers place a wreath at his grave.”

During this time, Ms. Randall helped found the Princeton Regional Education Association of the New Jersey Education Association (NJA). “We had to write the by-laws, and I became the first president of the Princeton Regional Education Association. That was quite an experience.”

After eight years in the Princeton Regional School system, Ms. Randall left in the 1980s for a new opportunity, taking a challenging part-time position in the Lambertville school system. “This was as ‘T & E’ coordinator,” she explains. “I worked with teachers to improve the school curriculum and improve test scores. I liked this immensely.”

At the same time, she took a step in another direction, which led her to a business-oriented experience. “This was a part-time job, distributing video tapes and materials for management training, including time management, interviewing strategies, etc. The company was Sagotsky Multimedia, and was located on Route One. I loved it, and was able to do it simultaneously with the Lambertville work. I did it for eight years until the mid-90s, and I met very interesting people there.”

Creative and Far-sighted

One of these, Princeton resident Barbara Prince, became a good friend. “I met Ruth when she was the manager at my husband’s company, Sagotsky Multimedia,” says Ms. Prince. “When I later started working there, Ruth was my supervisor. Before I knew her, Ruth was involved with the school district, and education is an interest we share. She was really knowledgeable about curriculum and learning, and very creative and far-sighted about the critical importance of a good education.

“I value our friendship. We have shared a lot. There have been times when she has been a great mentor and times when she has provided candid and sage advice. She has a really good attitude about life and setting priorities.”

Priorities are important to Ms. Randall. She believes in honesty, hard work, and problem-solving, and considers these essential to a successful career and life. These are qualities she has certainly demonstrated in all her own endeavors including her volunteer work in two very diverse organizations: the Rush Holt political campaigns and Community Without Walls.

“In the early ’90s, I went to a coffee for Rush Holt, and I was so impressed,” observes Ms. Randall. “For the first time in my life, I thought I’d like to help a congressman in a political campaign. I did anything that was needed. At one point, Rush wanted to know how much money he had for the campaign. It is important to have all the donors’ names right and keep track of things. I said, ‘You need someone to handle all of this, and that someone is me!’”

The campaign manager agreed, and Ms. Randall has been part of the Rush Holt volunteer operation ever since. “I’ve been helping with finance. I like to do this — I like the hands-on dirty work. And I like being part of the team and knowing all the people who are there. The campaign is every two years, but the work goes on all the time. A lot is involved.”

A few years after her introduction to Rush Holt’s political campaign, Ms. Randall became active in another very important volunteer program. “A friend suggested that I look into Community Without Walls (CWW),” she explains. “It is an independent non-profit charitable organization, and there is nothing else like it in the country. It is very unusual. The whole point is to make new friends and support each other. The idea is to help older people stay in their own homes.”

Unique Concept

Princeton resident Richard Bergman, one of the four founders of CWW, comments on the unique concept of this organization and Ms. Randall’s contribution to it. “Back in 1992, when the four CWW co-founders were discussing what was needed to help support successful ‘Aging in Place’ in the Princeton area, our geriatric social worker co-founder said that in her experience, the most important need was continuing social support; that as people aged, and as their spouses, companions, friends, neighbors passed away or moved, they could become socially isolated, leading to decline. So CWW was conceived as an organization whose members would provide each other with continuing social support, some purely social, some educational, some assistance of the kind ‘friends do for friends’.

“The question then became, how do you do that? Over several years of discussion, our by then 60 or so initial membership explored that issue,” continues Mr. Bergman. “A consensus developed that to assure continuing member-to-member support, we had to build a Community Without Walls, because it was to be a relationship-based community as contrasted with a community defined by its walls, its physical buildings and dimensions. We also did some research into how large a group could be so that its members could develop relationships with each other as a basis for continuing mutual support.”

The notion of establishing separate chapters evolved as the organization grew, he adds. Mr. Bergman’s wife Vicky, also a founding member (and former Township Committeewoman) introduced the term “house” for each chapter. Ms. Randall became president of her own House Three, and then president of the entire CWW organization, succeeding Mr. Bergman in the latter position.

“I first came to know Ruth when she was president of her House, and joined the steering committee as a House Three representative,” says Mr. Bergman. “After serving some years on the CWW steering committee, Ruth succeeded me as President. I was just delighted when she accepted the invitation to become president. Ruth has been a strong, steady leader of our organization. I know that in addition to CWW, Ruth has been involved in other Princeton organizations, all of which make an important contribution to the fabric of our community.”

Outreach Program

“CWW is very important to me,” comments Ms. Randall. “I feel it is very useful and serves a need. It also puts me in contact with so many interesting people. We cooperate with the Princeton Senior Resource Center and Secure@Home. We also have a special outreach program, ‘CWW On Stage’ in which members entertain local audiences by recording stories of older people and then acting them out. It shows the value of older people’s lives.

“In addition, On Stage’s next project will be an inter-generational program, demonstrating the importance of old people and young people learning new things together.”

Recently, Ms. Randall’s experience with CWW was evidenced in a way she had not anticipated when she first joined the organization. As she explains, “Something that really convinced me of the importance of CWW was the ‘virtual’ village that developed around the terminal illness of a neighbor. A number of friends formed a group and met weekly to help her and particularly address the needs of the children in the household.

“What was interesting was the way we regularly considered many issues, but ended up having specialties. One person was in charge of meals; another drove our friend to the doctor; another coordinated medical help and home health aides; others focused on the children. My job was financial because I had power of attorney.”

Wonderful Experience

“We all worked hard and did this for more than a year and a half, but it was a wonderful experience. We hadn’t really known each other before, but became friends, and many of us will stay in touch. I feel we were able to accomplish what we hoped to do.”

One of the other members of that group is Princeton resident Cindy Schweppenheiser, who also recalls the value of that experience. “I met Ruth at the time the ‘Village’ was formed, and I got to know her more as we worked together to help our friend and her family. It has been great getting to know Ruth. Not only did we collaborate to help a friend, but we found that we had other things in common as well. Ruth had previously taught in the school district I now teach in. We have had frequent conversations about the school district, its changes over the years, and about education in general. We also each have a pet turtle, and it’s not often you have that in common with someone!

“I’m sure I don’t know all that Ruth is involved in in our community, but it seems to me she is always involved in something and has connections everywhere. In the short time I have known her, she was instrumental in getting a friend a reverse mortgage, knew how to get FEMA’s help after a flood, knew where to donate used and unused medical supplies, toys, fabric, and yarn, knew how to obtain the school system’s help for a family, and is active politically. She can get the job done, whatever the job may be!”

Ms. Randall’s life is like a mosaic — an interwoven design of many patterns and pieces coming together to create a unique and fascinating whole. For example, in the midst of her many responsibilities, she continues to sing, an activity she has enjoyed for 30 years in Princeton, when she first contributed her alto voice to Princeton Pro Musica.

“I was a founding member of Princeton Pro Musica, when five or six of us started it,” she recalls. “I liked the camaraderie, and I liked learning the music. Eventually, it grew to 120 members, with four concerts a year. It became quite a big deal.”

She now enjoys singing with the Westminster Community Chorus, which, as she explains, “is a little less intense.”

Impressive Manner

Nevertheless, along with her many other activities and commitments, it keeps her busy with weekly rehearsals during the season, followed by the performances.

That Ms. Randall seems to welcome activities and challenges is demonstrated by her participation in so many varied organizations. As her friend Barbara Prince points out, “Ruth has been involved in different music groups; she has been involved as a teacher and educator, parent, and with Community Without Walls. She is very community-minded, and has been involved in the community on many fronts in a really impressive manner.”

Ms. Randall has clearly formed an attachment to the community she has called home for 55 years. Despite many changes, Princeton still offers a unique environment, she notes. “One of the things so interesting about Princeton aside from the many opportunities here is that it is incredibly diverse racially, economically, and ethnically.”

There is no question that it is a different place from that of the 1950s when she first arrived, however. “I no longer know half of the people I see on Nassau Street. There is certainly a bigger population, and gentrification has also taken place,” she points out. “I liked the small town atmosphere that used to be here. When we lived on Jefferson Road, there were 41 children in our block, and they were in and out of each other’s houses all the time, and always outside playing together. Princeton is a wonderful town, but it’s not a small town anymore.”

When she has rare free moments to herself, Ms. Randall loves to read and listen to music. Her three children and seven grandchildren live near enough to visit often, and she and Mr. Randall, a composer and retired professor of music at Princeton University, enjoy many activities together.

Primarily, though, her time is spent volunteering and supporting the organizations and causes she believes in. She is energetic, and she is engaged.

“These days, singing, Rush Holt, and CWW are my main interests,” she observes. “This is what I enjoy, and I hope where I can make a difference.”

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