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December 6, 2013

A 67-year-old caroling tradition

(Continued)

WASHINGTON —

From an early age, Ruthanna learned the importance of a healthy mind and body. How could she not? Her mother was a nutritionist who lived to be 107. Yet though Ruthanna did as her mother said and ate a green and a yellow vegetable every day, she was always small for her age. To her frustration, the nickname her brother gave her, "Puny," stuck for a long time.

The Great Depression hit as Ruthanna was graduating high school, and she had to decline her acceptance to Mount Holyoke College, because her father, who was in the oil business, couldn't afford the room and board. Instead, she enrolled at Findlay College just a few blocks away, from which her mother had graduated.

Ruthanna had taken up piano at age 4, and though she didn't study music in college, she played in a band. As a child, she had discovered she could "play by ear," often needing to hear a song only once before being able to play it. In high school she often performed at school shows. "The only trouble was that I was always down at the piano while the others were up on the stage having fun," Ruthanna remembered, chuckling.

After graduating from Findlay and to help supplement her pay as a high school English teacher, Ruthanna gave piano lessons and directed a church choir. She enjoyed teaching but wanted to make music a bigger part of her life. Ruthanna spent two summers at the University of Wisconsin in Madison working on a graduate degree in music. But she would never get to finish her thesis.

On a blisteringly hot day in August 1942, waiting for her train home, Ruthanna saw a poster of a young, female Uncle Sam exhorting: "Join the WAVES. The Navy Needs You." Three hours later she had set herself on a completely different career path and was enrolled in the Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service.

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