When you’ve sat through enough civic and business and charity events listening to enough earnest, well-meaning people reciting enough cautiously scripted and—all too often—self-important talks, Ruth Sharp Altshuler was a breath of fresh air. One of the most consequential, community-minded figures in Dallas history, Altshuler—who died Friday at age 93—was frank, humorous, spontaneous, and unpretentious, both in person and on the stages where she was honored for her many decades of civic and philanthropic accomplishment.
The last time I saw her in such a setting was at a United Way of Metropolitan Dallas luncheon in September, when she was the subject of a lengthy tribute. “I’m just overcome with all the to-do,” Ruth said characteristically, when she finally got up to take the podium. “I’m going to go home and take a nap. Don’t anybody call me.” Later in her remarks she recalled an influential pastor her family had known when she was growing up: “We thought he was God. He did, too.”
She was raised comfortably in Dallas, the only daughter of her mother Ruth and her father Carr P. Collins Sr., who had grown up in modest circumstances before going on to found Fidelity Union Life Insurance. But she had her share of tough times—her first husband was killed in World War II, her second died after suffering from Parkinson’s disease—and she was never averse to hard work.
For a profile in D CEO’s Dallas 500 special publication, she told us that her first job was “cleaning tuna fish in a cannery in Astoria, Oregon. It was during World War II, when they were asking civilians to do their part.” What did she learn doing that? “That I didn’t like the smell of tuna,” Ruth replied.
Five years later, she said, her eyes were opened to the importance of serving others. During an interview at her cozy, very unostentatious home on Meaders Lane for this 2015 story in D CEO, she told how the light-bulb moment occurred after she was “put up” for membership in the Junior League of Dallas at the age of 25:
… [B]ecause she was pregnant when the March provisional class started, her membership had to be postponed. “It hurt my feelings that I didn’t get in, but I was having my first baby in March, so they scratched me,” Altshuler recalls. “I had to wait a year, until the following March, to get in.”
In those days, just 10 percent of the members worked full-time, Altshuler says. So for many, the league was an eye-opening experience. “I was a sheltered little girl without realizing it. I had never even seen a poor person,” she says. “When I was [attending Southern Methodist University], all I did was work on a float. That was the only great thing I did in college. I wasn’t mean or anything, but in those days you thought of yourself and your family.”
Altshuler was assigned during her provisional year to work at Parkland Hospital, where one day she befriended a young woman who had been paralyzed from the neck down in an automobile accident. “We kept up with her until she died,” Altshuler says. “We’d go on Sundays and put her in the front seat of our car and bring along her wheelchair, and she’d come over to our house and have lunch. Then we’d take her to the fair, because she loved a corn dog, and I’d hold the corn dog for her. That kind of started us visiting people like that.
“For the first time, my mind started clicking with other people,” she goes on. “Junior League changed me for my lifetime. It gave me a sense of purpose and direction that I wouldn’t have had otherwise.
“My talent is I can organize and delegate; I can be a leader if I have to be. It was always in my mind and heart, but I learned how to make a difference through the Junior League,” says Altshuler, who served as the group’s president in 1961-62. “What it did was show me the other world. If I hadn’t had the Junior League, I wouldn’t have seen how an organization runs. Now I’ve run everything in town for 60 or 70 years! All of this stemmed from that day at Parkland. Everybody has a turning point, and that was mine.”
During her long lifetime, Altshuler scored a number of “firsts.” She was the first female chairman of SMU’s board of trustees. The first woman to serve on a grand jury in Dallas. The first woman to chair the United Way annual campaign, the first female to serve as board chair of the local Salvation Army. A highlight of her many decades of civic involvement came in 2013, when she was asked by Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings to chair the city’s ceremony for the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
In an interview a month before the event on Nov. 22, 2013, I asked her why she’d agreed to get involved:
RA: Well, the mayor called me about a year and a half ago to do this. I just thought, ‘What are we doing?’ And then he said, ‘Well, do it for Dallas.’ And that’s what got me, because I love Dallas, I was born here, I’ve lived here all my life, and I’m so tired of ‘city of hate’ and all that junk. If there was just anything that any one person could do, to clean that off the record. So I took it, and I’m glad I did.
I told the mayor, ‘I’m not going to raise a dollar for this; you must know this going in.’ And he said, ‘Don’t worry about it.’ Well, we wouldn’t have a dollar if I hadn’t done it! I’ve done it all. And Bobby Lyle’s entered into it at this late stage. But, I’ve just raised all the money with a letter—people I know. Anyway, it’s coming in, and it’s all fine.
GH: You wrote one letter?
RA: I wrote a personal letter on [foundation letterhead]. I wrote it two pages, all handwritten. Nobody’s had a handwritten letter since Lincoln died! Each one, I knew them in a different way, and so I had a different ‘ask.’ A lot just didn’t even answer. Because, I get letters like that all the time, and if I’m not gonna give, I don’t answer. You can’t, you know. But a lot have just responded in an amazing way, so I’m very grateful.
GH: How many letters did you send out?
RA: Maybe 40, and I’ve gotten 20 back. I don’t even know. Fifty and 25, something like that. Maybe even more than half. With some people, I asked for $50,000. I put a number in each letter. All of them could afford a lot, or I wouldn’t have sent the letter. But I’d say, ‘Would you give $50,000?’ And they’d give $50,000. Occasionally they wouldn’t give as much as I asked for. But, we couldn’t have raised this money if I hadn’t minimized almost giving $50,000. There’s some $25,000, and lots of $100,000. But you can’t raise $3 million, which was our goal, with $10,000 here and $5,000 there.
The $3 million ultimately was raised, of course. And no one who knew the remarkable Ruth Sharp Altshuler was surprised at all.
A memorial service for Ruth, whose survivors include her husband, Dr. Ken Altshuler, and two daughters and a son, will be held Thursday afternoon at 2 at Highland Park United Methodist Church.