I had an apparition the other day. I saw my recently deceased dear friend and mentor, Ruth Butwell. She spoke to me.
Her medium was a book we both contributed to in 1990. It was called Democracy Watch, Nicaragua: Five Central Kentuckians Observe the 1990 Nicaraguan Elections. The book recorded the journals of Ruth and four others of us who in 1990 officially observed the presidential elections in Nicaragua. Those elections had the U.S.-favored, Violetta Chamorro, defeating Daniel Ortega, the leader of the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN). To this day, in some sense, I’m still reeling from the disappointment.
As I re-read Ruth’s sparkling diary and paged through the pictures in the book, vivid memories of her friendship and guidance came flooding in. There we were taking Spanish classes together, living with our working-class families, walking Managua’s dusty streets, visiting the offices of the Sandinistas and their opponents, touring farming co-ops and a prison, interviewing people on the streets, attending political rallies, talking with U.S. officials, and watching Nicaraguans vote in polling place after polling place. It was all as if she were there in the room with me as I read. And there was more. I recalled her not only as my traveling companion, but as my boss, the match-maker who brought me together with my bride of 40+ years, and as the dearest of friends.
I met Ruth Butwell in 1974, my first year at Berea College, where I ended up teaching for 40 years. Ruth was the Dean of Students at the college and therefore became my boss as I took a part-time job as the director of Dana Hall, a men’s residence there. (I also was hired to teach a section of a freshman course called “Issues and Values.”) Ruth played a big part in orienting me towards the Berea College ethos — “the Berea way.”
Very significantly, that same year, Peggy DuRivage also arrived on the Berea campus. Like Ruth, Peggy was a Michigander. The two of them hit it off immediately. In fact, the day that Ruth hired Peggy, she told her (with that twinkle in her eye) of this other Catholic who had just been hired – a former priest – whom Peggy might find interesting. (At the time, it was still unusual for Berea to hire Catholics – and even more so, a former priest.)
Of course, Peggy and I hit it off too. We got to know each other at the weekly meeting of residence hall directors chaired by Ruth in her office just off of Fairchild Hall. Ruth and her secretary and dear friend, Gloria Vanwinkle, saw what was developing between Peggy and me. (We both felt that they along with the rest of the residence hall faculty were watching us closely. Naturally, they were – and all smilingly cheering us on.)
And so, two years later, Ruth found herself generously hosting a wedding-day breakfast for Peggy and me and our guests at her home on Pinnacle Street. I remember that feast so well – a wonderful fruit salad, omelets, breads, sweet rolls, juices, coffee and teas. Ruth presided regally. Her mother was there too – and her children, John and Ann. (Then in 2016, Ruth reprised the event to help us celebrate our milestone 40th anniversary.)
But the wedding breakfast was only half the story. With the students gone in early June, Ruth allowed my mother and other members of my family, along with some friends to stay two nights free-of-charge in Dana Hall.
The night before the wedding, we threw a big party right there. The campus minister, Henry Parker, showed up. (He’d help us tie the knot the next day.) There was wine and homemade lasagna. My mother played the piano. Her signature rendition of “Bumble-Bee Boogie” was a big hit. Everybody was dancing. Peggy’s mom and dad showed everyone how to jitterbug.
No wonder Peggy and I remained close friends with Ruth even after she retired from the college around 1996. She was an important part of our life. To this day, we lovingly treasure her friendship.
All of that was great.
However, I got to know and love Ruth Butwell even more during our trip to Nicaragua. Throughout the 1980s, that tiny Central American country was in the news every day. President Reagan tried to persuade Americans that the FSLN was the incarnation of evil and and a direct agent of the Soviet Union. He said that Daniel Ortega and the Sandinistas in general were “Marxist-Leninist-totalitarian-Communist-dictators.” They were about to invade the United States through Harlingen, Texas. Reagan called the U.S.-supported counter-revolutionaries (the “Contras”) “the moral equivalent of our Founding Fathers.” Many of us who had already traveled to Nicaragua knew better. The Contras were terrorists pure and simple. The Sandinistas were champions of the country’s poor.
Ruth suspected all of that. So, when I asked her to join a fact-finding delegation that would double as election observers, she gave the invitation serious consideration. We would fund the trip, I said, by selling in advance copies of a book of the journals we’d keep during our 10-day stay in the country. And as soon as I could persuade her that the book would be of sufficiently high quality, she agreed to go. I was so grateful. Ruth enjoyed unquestioned credibility on campus as a smart, fair-minded, highly principled educator. Her contribution would help our book’s readers correct Reagan’s lies.
But those weren’t even Ruth’s main qualities. She was absolutely full of grace. She was extremely kind, optimistic, funny, and possessed of a wonderfully grounded sense of empathy and fairness – especially towards impoverished women like those we met at every turn in Nicaragua.
Her journal entries (nearly 50 pages in our book) also revealed her as a brilliant extremely perceptive writer with a gift for colorful description worthy of a wonderful novelist.
Here, for example, is the way she depicted buying a Coca-Cola on a Managua street:
“There are vendors of all kinds selling ice cream bars, Cokes, and water. We stop to get a Coke. Bottles are scarce, so the vendor is not going to part with the bottle. Instead, he has a large wooden wheelbarrow with a truck or box full of drinks perched above the wheel part. Down in the barrel is a 100-pound chunk of ice. The vendor has a metal shaving plane used at home in my dad’s shop for planning wood, but here used to shave up curls of ice from the big block. He scoops these curls up with his hand into a small plastic bag and pours a bottle of Coke or Pepsi (bottled in Nicaragua) into the bag. He deftly ties a knot in the plastic bag, collects 25,000 cordobas (about 50 cents) and hands me a brown balloon with two corners sticking up. Soon I see how to manage. I, like the others, bite off a corner of the bag with my teeth and suck the Coke out of the hole. At the same time, I push the liquid with my hands – sort of a liquid bagpipe. In the process, quite a bit escapes and trickles down my chin and shoots up my nose. Never mind. I am hot and dry and the stuff is cold and wet.”
After the Nicaragua trip, my bond with Ruth deepened through her daughter, Ann, and her son-in-law John Wright-Rios. During her sophomore year, Ann, was an outstanding student in my section of a “Great Books” course required of all second-year students. It was called “Religious and Historical Perspectives.” Subsequently, I asked Ann to be my teaching associate in the same course. And, again she excelled in that role.
Ann’s sense of social justice and the deeply-informed “preferential option” for the world’s poor are themselves testimonies to Ruth’s own global awareness, sense of justice, and commitment to on-going growth and development. Ruth was a wonderful mother.
Yes, my life (like the lives of countless others) has been and continues to be blessed by Ruth Butwell. Again, I consider her a mentor and shining example of the best traditions Berea College has to offer the world. Neither Peggy nor I will ever forget her brightness, intelligence, sense of humor, rock-solid integrity, and deep commitment to justice and peace.
I am so grateful for her apparition in my life — and in my memory.