Spirit of the 90s Ruth Bear Levy, lifelong dynamo, approaches 94 with high energy

November 08, 1992|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,Staff Writer

Ruth Bear Levy grabs a package of Berger's cookies out of the freezer. "Don't you just love them?" she asks.

Fresh from a music appreciation class, she is considering attending a current events class later in the day.

The following day, she plans to pack a picnic lunch and try the light rail for the first time. She wants to write an essay comparing the new transportation system with the streetcars that once carried Baltimoreans to work and play.

On Wednesday -- Veterans Day -- Mrs. Levy turns 94.

She has worn out six answering machines because she gets so many phone calls. At age 88, she researched and wrote a two-part article on her hometown hero, Baseball Hall of Famer Robert Moses "Lefty" Grove, for the Maryland Historical Magazine. And until not so long ago, Mrs. Levy faithfully packed a lunch (complete with homemade brownies) and delivered it to her son, Robert, an internist, at his downtown office once a week.

Well under 5 feet tall, with a determined jaw, twinkling eyes and thick, wavy white hair, she is a subcompact dynamo with the vitality of an entire freshman class.

Striding purposefully through life -- painting, writing, going to baseball games, the theater, to Lonaconing (her beloved hometown) -- Mrs. Levy leaves a wake of astonished friends and relatives as witnesses to her matter-of-fact zest for life.

"There's so much going on," she says simply. "I don't have time. Every day's different. I go out an awful lot. I want to paint. I want to write. I've got a lot to tend to."

Distilling the essence of Mrs. Levy is about as easy as harnessing any vital life force. "It's whatever that magic is that's born into a human being that we don't understand quite," says Gloria Melanson, admissions coordinator for Roland Park Place, the Baltimore retirement community where Mrs. Levy has lived for two and a half years. "How can we define talent and kindness and love and all those qualities in humanity? And she has them all."

At Roland Park Place, Mrs. Levy is a maverick. She "has contributed youth and spirit and energy and a whole philosophy of life that has not only picked up the spirit of the residents, but of the staff as well," Ms. Melanson says.

A mind ready for what's new

For Mrs. Levy, there is no other way to live. Growing up with the century, she has remained young by keeping her keen mind open to all that is new and wondrous.

And yet, Lonaconing, the small Western Maryland mining town where Mrs. Levy was born, remains the wellspring of much of her energy and creativity.

Although she has not lived there since leaving at age 17 to attend Goucher College, vivid memories of the plucky George's Creek Valley coal town have colored her imagination ever since.

In scores of impressionistic paintings, and in her 1983 memoir, "A Wee Bit O' Scotland: Growing Up in Lonaconing, Maryland, at the Turn of the Century" (published in 1983 by the Maryland Historical Society), Mrs. Levy looks with a child's eye at the once-thriving town where her father owned a men's clothing store on Main Street.

Like a spirited girl

It is as if Ruth Barbetta Bear, the only child of Linnie and Mose Bear, were still a spirited young girl catching a ball tossed by native son Lefty Grove, pulling pranks, listening to the town band and scaling Dan's Rock to view the four-state vista beyond.

And it is as if Lonaconing had never plunged into an intractable decline but remained the bustling commercial center it once was. In Mrs. Levy's mind, it's still the same old 'Coney.

"Many people don't regard their early life as deeply as I do," Mrs. Levy says, a member of the Lonaconing Hall of Fame.

An enduring love for her parents -- who spent their final years with her, in Baltimore -- is woven tightly into the fabric of Mrs. Levy's home memories.

"She scolded me a lot," Mrs. Levy writes about her mother in her memoir. "But lovingly. She had to scold me because nobody else in our good-natured family -- not Grandpa or Grandma or Papa -- ever would."

Of her father, a carefree man with a lively sense of humor, she writes, "He was my oldest and dearest friend, and he saw me as a good pal. We never missed a ball game, or a circus, or a walk in the woods, or a picnic, or a band concert or a parade."

Mrs. Levy graduated from college in 1921. She was a member of "one of Goucher's greatest classes," says Wes Poling, Goucher's vice president for development and alumni relations. About 25 of Mrs. Levy's classmates are still living, and they continue to get together on special occasions, including their 70th reunion last year, Mr. Poling says.

Romance in Baltimore

After college, Mrs. Levy planned to attend the Columbia School of Journalism in New York. But as she and her mother were traveling there, Mrs. Bear fell ill, and they were grounded in Baltimore. While her mother convalesced here, Ruth Bear met a young physician named Charles S. Levy. They fell in love, and Mrs. Levy never made it to New York.

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