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Ruth Rowe Wilson

Ruth Rowe Wilson

February 21, 2012

Ruth Rowe Wilson, a former first lady of Skidmore College and an honorary member of the Class of 1961, died February 19, 2012, in Vacaville, Calif. She was 97.

Born June 6, 1914, in Waterville, Maine, she was the daughter of Harry W. and Hope Chandler Rowe. Ruth graduated from Lewiston (Maine) High School in 1932 and earned a sociology degree in 1936 at Bates College, where her father was dean. 

In 1939 she married Val H. Wilson, a 1938 Bates graduate. His career in divinity and philosophy took them to Yale, the University of West Virginia, and Colorado Women’s College before they came to Skidmore in 1957, when Val was appointed Skidmore’s third president. His tenure included the historic 1961 decision by the trustees to build a new campus, and by the time of his sudden death in 1964, the Wilsons had seen construction begin on the Scribner Library and the first residential and dining complex of the new campus.

In her book Make No Small Plans: A History of Skidmore College, Professor Mary C. Lynn wrote, “Ruth Wilson knew what she would face at Skidmore, because she had grown up on a college campus. In addition to mothering her six children, she had a second job, probably equally demanding, as the first lady at Skidmore.” Both Wilsons attended many campus events and, according to No Small Plans, they visited “each of Skidmore’s many dorms, where they could talk informally with small groups of students.” In addition, the Wilsons visited “many alumnae clubs as well as high schools and preparatory schools, to spread the Skidmore news.”

Ruth herself reflected, in a 1996 Scope article, “Val and I, and our six children, were welcomed to Skidmore in 1957. The 1835 Greek revival house at 46 Circular St. was our home. I remember those wonderful student babysitters, freshman ‘at homes’ in the fall, and the occasional Colgate men who stayed overnight in the extra beds on our third floor.” She and her family also enjoyed hosting many “distinguished guests of the College,” including Eleanor Roosevelt and William O. Douglas.

After Val's death, Ruth and the children moved to Maine, where she served as editor of Bates Magazine until 1980 and then continued as its class-notes editor until her retirement in 2002. She received the Bates Alumni Association’s Distinguished Service Award. She was an officer of the Bates Club in Ocean Park, Maine, which was a gathering spot for many generations of the Rowe-Wilson family. 

President Emeritus David Porter recalled the friendship that he and his wife, Helen, shared with Ruth, who “returned to Skidmore regularly throughout our time in Scribner House–and well beyond. Seemingly ageless, she exuded an exhilarating brightness of mind and manner, was always current on Skidmore news, and was always excited by new developments. To talk with her was to feel fresh delight not only in the college to which she and Val had contributed so much, but in life itself.”  

One return visit came in 1998, to receive the Denis B. Kemball-Cook Award from the Skidmore Board of Trustees, honoring a leader “whose personal qualities and extraordinary commitment have contributed to the life of the College and who...has given sacrificially of wisdom, time, and talent.” At the award ceremony, Trustee Emerita Judith Pick Eissner, a 1964 Skidmore graduate, said, “You and Val were instrumental in improving the academic life here by bringing talented faculty, in providing the vision of this campus which has changed the fabric of this community…. We here at Skidmore owe you, Ruth, a depth of gratitude for being that early visionary, and allowing us to take risks and the giant steps that have become the hallmark of this institution.”

Ruth is survived by sister Esther R. Tallamy of Oakdale, N.Y.; sons David (Sandra) of Littleton, N.H., Alden (A.J. Johnson) of Palm Springs, Calif., and James (Catherine Solak) of Carrabassett, Maine; daughters Carol (John) Grandin of Wakefield, R.I., Nancy (Larry) Schaffer of Brentwood, Calif., and Kathryn (Curtis) Schmidt of Bound Brook, N.J.; as well as 16 grandchildren, nine great-grandchildren, and two great-great-grands.

The family has suggested memorial donations to two scholarship funds: the Harry Rowe Fund at Bates College, Office of College Advancement, 2 Andrews Road, Lewiston, ME 04240; and the Val H. Wilson Fund, Office of Advancement, Skidmore College, 815 N. Broadway, Saratoga Springs, NY 12866.

Skidmore has lost a devoted friend, whose interest in the College was lifelong and multifaceted. Ruth Wilson was a great ambassador for Skidmore, one who fostered alumni friendships in Maine and continued to “spread the Skidmore news” to prospective students. She was a vital link to the College’s history and will be greatly missed.

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