Ruth N. Watkins

Longtime Howard County Activist Was Known As A 'Ferocious Advocate For Seniors' Issues'

April 28, 2009|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com

Ruth N. Watkins, an outspoken Howard County activist for seniors whose advocacy also centered on the visually impaired, died of a heart attack Friday at Howard County General Hospital. The longtime Ellicott City resident was 84.

Ruth Naomi Herring, the daughter of a florist and a homemaker, was born in Baltimore and raised on Sinclair Lane.

After graduating from Eastern High School in 1942, she worked in accounting at International Harvester on East 25th Street.

While working at International Harvester, Mrs. Watkins met her future husband, Roland Eugene Watkins, who had been a major in the Army during World War II and later returned as the company's inventory supervisor.

They were married in 1947 and moved to Ellicott City seven years later.

Mrs. Watkins' voluntarism began in 1955, when her eldest son was unable to attend kindergarten because such classes were unavailable at the time in Howard County public schools.

Mrs. Watkins, who was joined by several neighbors, established a co-op kindergarten and later persuaded the county schools superintendent to set aside a room for them to use for their kindergarten in St. John's Lane Elementary School.

"I have always been very active," Mrs. Watkins told The Baltimore Sun in 2007. "It would have driven me crazy to sit at home and just do housework then ... and it would still drive me crazy now. Being involved gives a purpose to my life and keeps me mentally alert."

Beginning in the early 1960s, Mrs. Watkins became involved in zoning battles that might have had a negative impact on her St. John's Lane neighborhood.

Later, she devoted the same time and energy she had used to challenge zoning matters to issues that affected the county's senior citizens.

"She was one of my constituents, and I first got acquainted with Ruth when I was knocking on doors back in 2002 and she invited me into her home," said Courtney Watson, Howard County Council vice chairwoman. "She was a strong advocate for her seniors and more public money for programs and staffing for senior citizen centers," Ms. Watson said. "She became a ferocious advocate for seniors' issues and became well-known to me and the county executive. She was just a ball of energy."

In the 1990s, after she began losing her sight to macular degeneration, Mrs. Watkins became the facilitator of the Low-Vision Group that gathered Tuesday afternoons at Ellicott City Senior Center.

Mrs. Watkins, who eventually became legally blind yet retained some sight in her right eye, lost her husband in 1999.

"This group was my salvation at that time in my life," Mrs. Watkins said in The Sun interview. "I often use a cane, but I get around well. And I believe that God has put me here to help others who can't help themselves."

"Mrs. Watkins used to say, 'I'm just a feisty old lady with a big mouth,' " said Terry Chaconas, special assistant to Ms. Watson. "But she was much, much more than that. She was always approachable and always helpful."

After she no longer was able to write, Mrs. Watkins benefited from an astonishing ability to commit to memory pertinent facts and numbers that she nimbly hurled back at county officials during hearings to buttress her point of view.

"I can tell you, she never took no for an answer and would point out little-known facts to us that ultimately, at times, led to changes," Ms. Watson recalled.

In pressing for better county services for seniors, transportation options for them became another cornerstone of her advocacy.

Carl Balser, county transportation head, described Mrs. Watkins as a "firecracker."

"Ruth may have been a feisty advocate, but she was always aware and considerate of the other person's point of view. She didn't come to meetings just to hear herself talk," he said. "She was a very smart, practical and sweet lady."

Carla K. Buehler, director of Ellicott City Senior Center, was a longtime friend.

"She was a little person who was always sticking up for the underdog, and she never let her low-vision problems slow her down one bit," Mrs. Buehler said.

"She was never afraid to pick up the phone. She was like a terrier that had something in its mouth. She shook it until she got something done," Mrs. Buehler said. "Ruth is going to be greatly missed."

Mrs. Watkins suggested to Howard County Executive Ken Ulman that he consider holding a daytime budget hearing at the senior citizen center so members could have the opportunity to voice their opinions.

Mrs. Watkins' suggestion became a reality when Mr. Ulman convened the county's first daytime budget meeting at the senior center in February.

"She told the county executive that many seniors don't go out at night, and he agreed to the daytime community meeting," Mrs. Buehler said.

In the 2007 Sun interview, Mrs. Watkins summed up her life.

"I quite enjoy what I do, and I don't leave many stones unturned," she said. "I am deeply interested in getting seniors as much help as I possibly can."

Her son John Wayne Watkins of Taylorsville said his mother considered it her job to help the county's senior residents.

"She was a pretty tough lady, and she'd fight anything," he said. "The day she died, she was preparing to go to her balance class at the senior center. She had made her bed and laid out her clothes before she called the ambulance."

Mrs. Watkins was a longtime member of First Lutheran Church in Ellicott City.

Services will be held at 11 a.m. Tuesday at the Slack Funeral Home, 3871 Old Columbia Pike, Ellicott City.

Also surviving are two other sons, Richard Gary Watkins of Woodbine and Mark Douglas Watkins of Finksburg; a daughter, Karen Naomi Watkins of New Market; seven grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.

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