My first encounter with Ruth Leitch was when I joined the Alvinston Community Group in 2012, not long after I first moved to the community. With an unassuming presence , Ruth has a way of putting one at ease while quickly learning she has a vast knowledge of the community through family ties and her understanding of Alvinston’s history, which runs deep. Her creativity and her zest for life quickly made me realize she was someone that I wanted to get to get close to.
Sitting on the floor with Ruth going through a box of photographs is how we began her walk down memory lane. We started with a photograph of her grandfathers family home. Ruth has vague recollections of seeing the remnants of the house in her youth. “That’s my grandpa and his sisters, he had one brother. That’s the house they built when he was nine years old he told me” Ruth recalls. The house was somewhere between Kerwood and Napier. “They didn’t build many brick houses then but there was a brick yard not far from there” she said.
Ruth’s great grand parents were McIlwain’s and they lived on the edge of Brooke Township. James McIlwain first came here clearing a lot of the land they owned. While clearing the land he chopped his foot with the axe and ended up walking all the way to London to get a doctor to sow his foot up.
Ruth’s parents were married on the 23rd of November 1929 in Strathroy and then taking the train to spend their honeymoon in London. Ruth was born in 1933 and was the middle child of three children. That’s my little brother with his rabbits” Ruth said, “ and me and my sister” pointing to the next photograph. Ruth’s sister Mary passed away a week before we spoke. She was 91 and living in the United States. Her brother passed away when he was 24.
Ruth’s mother treasured a family portrait that hung in an oval frame in their home as far back as she could remember. The portrait was taken around 1905 when her mother Gertrude was 3 years old. Gertrude also had a younger sister, Mable, who wasn’t in the photo as she had yet to be born. After Ruth’s parents passed away the portrait hung in her sister Mary’s house where Ruth was able to capture it in this photo at a surprise birthday party for her sister in Tucson Arizona.
Ruth’s connections began back when she attended S.S.1 & 13 Brooke and Warwick public school. Six girls attended this small schoolhouse with her and they became life long friends. “We have kept in touch, I talked to Helen the day before yesterday,” she said. “The two Logan girls, we used to go there to play in the summertime after we had gone to school all year.”
Ruth Sifton became Ruth Leitch in 1953 when she married John Leitch. The wedding photos were taken at her family farm. Ruth’s Bridesmaids wore blue, pink and yellow dresses while Ruth carried red roses. Ruth and John were the second people to be married in the United Church in Watford. “They had open steps outside. Now thats all covered in and the steps are inside” she remembers.
Ruth’s Mother made her wedding cake, pictured above. Norval Woods was the minister who married them. “The reason he was the minister in Thedford then but there was no minister in Watford and when I went to look for one I wanted him because his father came to Canada and went to Manitoba. Then he left and came here and bought that farm we lived on, it was crown land and then he sold it to Orval Redman who then sold it to my dad” she explained. Her father bought ninety acres for forty two hundred dollars from Orval Redman and Norval was the son of the original owner.
Ruth and John had five kids, two boys and three girls. Ruth now has 13 grandkids and 24 great grandkids. John and Ruth divorced in 1978 (finalized in 19980) after 25 years of marriage. Ruth bought a small house in Alvinston on the corner on Centre Street and Elgin Street until the early 2000’s when she sold her house and moving to where she now calls her home, the Millpond Estates.
“This was the real me” Ruth said pointing out the next photograph. “Eleanor Vanderkwaak and I got dressed up and clowned around Glencoe one day.” Ruth guessed it would have been at least 40 years ago as Eleanor was a hairdresser in Glencoe at the time.
Ruth in my eyes has lived her life as a true renaissance woman. She went to teachers college graduating when she was 36 or 37, she can’t quite recollect. She taught elementary school for about two years all the while juggling motherhood with kids at home during a time when many mothers were encouraged to just stay at home.
She then taught adult education for Lambton County for about five years. Her teaching including teachers college spanned the late 60’s and well into the 70’s. She then moved over into a career as a librarian in Alvinston which spanned 26 years, retiring at 65.
At the same time Ruth began her career as a reporter in 1966 with one column which lead to a regular gig covering Petrolia and Alvinston for the Transcript and Free press. She also wrote a few articles for the Sarnia Observer but found covering Sarnia to much. Even when I met Ruth in 2012 and I began to write for the Watford Guide Advocate I would run into Ruth at events where she was still taking photos and covering stories as a reporter.
When asked Ruth tells me her favourite career was working as a librarian. She remembers as a young girl, maybe 4 years old and her sister was starting school and her parents took them to Strathroy to buy her a reader for school. “Oh you could smell the books” she recalls with a look of smelling them now as she recounts her story. She remembers loving the smell and wanting some books of her own. “That Christmas I got a big book, Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of Peter Rabbit’ she said, “but it was a big book and I’ve never seen one since and it was so nicely illustrated, there’s Mr McGregor with his hoe out there hoeing his garden. All the pretty colours. Oh I loved that book. It just went from there, I never stopped reading.
When Ruth thinks back she was around 50 when she was first asked to give a sermon after taking a variety of bible study courses through the years. She spent about 5 years preaching at the retirement home in Watford giving sermons. Pictured above with Jessie Dobbyn who was the minister at St. Andrews Church where she gave a sermon during an anniversary service. The church no longer exists except for a plaque in it’s place at the corner of Petrolia Line and Forest Rd. Her preaching over the last while was every other week at Shiloh United Church on Shiloh Line up until a few years ago.
Ruth was also a Rotarian for many years here in Alvinston until the Alvinston club disbanded. She believes a member for just under twenty years even taking on the role of president.
In 2013 Mayor Don McGugan approached Ruth and asked if the Municipality could nominate her for the Guiding Beacon Program. It was a part of Shine: Spotlight on Women of Lambton exhibit at Lambton Heritage Museum. Carolyn Griffith who was also nominated was selected as the Guiding Beacon for the Municipality of Brooke Alvinston. There was someone selected from each municipality in Lambton County.
Donna Clements and Ruth travelled a lot together “Donna and I did a lot of laughing by ourselves” she said, “We stayed at a hotel one night and we made some coffee, the next day Barb McNeil and Marg McNeil had a room further down the corridor they knocked on our door and Marg said she smelt coffee.” Ruth explained that they also had coffee in their room but there were no filters “Donna said, that’s easy, silk underwear makes really good filters!”
On one of their trips they came across a really nice park after stopping at a store where they bought some treat and the cashier told them if they needed a place just to sit and relax awhile they should check out the park. “It was absolutely beautiful,” Ruth reminisces.
Ruth is one of those people who will never slow down. Despite several health issues over the last few years she still manages to keep herself busy. In 2017 she published a book of her photographs called a Outside My Window and you can still find her out selling copies at local art shows and sales. She also is a part of the “Ladies Lunch” where a group of women from the community every Friday meet at a local restaurant for lunch taking turns each week making sure to support all of them. I often see her out on a Saturday attending a meat raffle or playing in the monthly Euchre Tournaments held at the Alvinston Legion. Or even while I’m out walking my dog I’ll see her at the post office and we will stop and chat. It would be impossible to name all the things Ruth has been a part of in this community. Just when I think I know them all I remember another group or organization she is part of.
Ruth and I were founding members of the Brooke-Alvinston Arts and Activity Group where we created a space that we used at the town hall. for a variety of creative classes. The group also held and annual event called the Alvinston Arts & Music Fest where River Street was closed down for a day in the summer where artists could sell their creations and there was a musical line up from start to finish. We celebrated our 5th year of festivals in 2019.
Whenever I see her she always has a new story to tell, often something I have not heard before and sometimes she will tell me something that strikes her as funny and we will have a good laugh together. This year she is turning 89, I look forward to her annual Birthday celebration she holds. She is one of the people I hold dearest to my heart and if you come from the area you definitely know her and if not in person, by reputation. She is someone I look to for information when it comes to writing and I count her as one of my friends in this tiny town. Her influence and knowledge will be a part of this blog in many more ways than just this story. Ruth Leitch, a true renaissance woman.
3 thoughts on “A Small Town Renaissance Woman”
Great article, Liana. *_____________________________* *Kathryn Shailer* *Email: email@example.com * *LinkedIn Profile: https://www.linkedin.com/in/kathryn-shailer-212734132 *
Thank you Kathryn!!
Amazing article. I have core childhood memories of Ruth at the library as a child. My first job was at the Alvinston Public Library when I was 14. I would see Ruth weekly and she would always be by to cover a story for the local paper when programming and events took place. Such a calm, knowledgeable, and genuinely nice person.