Our community’s self-styled “Deputy Dog” and “Mother Hen” has succumbed after a long valiant fight against cancer.
Ruth Lampe was no-nonsense and tough as nails, but also loved her friends, family, and community with fierce and burning passion.
She was a force of nature and in a category all her own. Her style and sensibility was a beautifully complementary combination of Iowa farm girl, 1960’s style left-wing radical activist and motherly protector and influence to all who knew her.
In a society where most people like to meet and vote– or worse, just complain– when problems arise, Ruth roared and steamrolled for what she thought was right. And once she pushed her way to the front of an issue, she took command and was relentless and got things done.
After more than 40 years of community and civic activism in Parkside, she knew everyone– and knew most of their fathers, too. Widely accepted as speaking for the community and fair, her aggressive tactics were usually met with open arms by the powers that be– with the knowledge that having Ruth on your side was always a smart move.
But it wasn’t just about sweeping grand notions with Ruth– it was about sweeping up after events. And moving chairs. And helping at the ticket table. She was the sort of leader who lead by example every step of the way, and would never ask anyone to do something she hadn’t already done and wasn’t getting ready to do again.
All that is wonderful, but to really turn the rusty wheels of change– you inevitably rankle the comfortably accepting of the substandard or offensive.
You know Ruth Lampe was a hero by the number of people who wince– even decades later– at hearing her name. It may have happened during the city’s 1982 free paint program, but 33 years later, there are still those in Parkside who will snear, “Ruth Lampe made me paint my house.” She always made an impact. She sure did on me.
When my phone rang during lunch on two weeks ago yesterday, I smiled to see the name Ruth Lampe on the caller ID.
She’d been terminally ill with untreatable cancer, but I was thinking of how I’d been filled with joy when I saw a thin-but-healthy Ruth out on Hertel going to dinner with her husband David a couple weeks before. I was about to run up to say hi when a couple of little munchkins hop out of the car, too.
Selfishly, I stopped and enjoyed watching her be grandma from half a block away. I’m sure she would have enjoyed a hello and a hug, but I wasn’t going to intrude on grandkid time, and I really enjoyed seeing her in that element.
She looked great that day, and that was in my mind as I answered the phone.
With genuine excitement I hit the button and offered a “Hey Ruth!”
Without thinking, I followed with a “How are ya!” which I genuinely meant– but said without thinking given her battle.
My upfront question meant the call got right down to business. She talked about the next stage. Hospital beds at home, making final plans.
Ruth’s last great gift to those who love her is taking on the final project of her life with the bullheaded strength and tenacity she’s shown every project she’s ever undertaken. She was planning her own goodbye– one she knew was coming in a period of time that could be counted in days more than weeks or months.
It was a classic Ruth moment of organization– but of course it’s different. This isn’t fighting with mayors over stop signs or school boards looking for racial balance and equality in our neighborhood public school.
I don’t know that I ever heard this great woman resigned to anything– but she was calm, accepting, and willing to put her and her loved ones into the hands of the Lord. The peaceful beauty and dignity with which she faced this grand struggle is awe inspiring.
This final battle is for everything. We want to help, just like with every other battle we’ve joined her for– but no letters to the editor or picket carrying can help.
We always say, “Anything I can do,” which is always true. But I think we say it more to help ourselves through the thought of someone else’s pain. Someone in Ruth’s situation really doesn’t want to be handing out jobs, you know?
So, I’ve tried not to say that. Ruth and her husband David know it’s true– anything– but I try not to say it.
What I’ve tried to do, since back pain turned to cancer turned to just a matter of time, is just remind them both in little, hopefully unobtrusive ways that I love them both very much.
There are no more cliches. Just what’s real. What else can you really do but love and pray and answer the phone when it rings?
Which it did during lunch on a Friday two weeks ago.
And Ruth asked me to be a pall bearer. At her own funeral. Taking what she could off the plate of her soon to be grieving and devastated family, by fighting and loving the best way she knew how— by doing.
I have little right to be emotional as this incredible woman powered through what was the start of her final two weeks among us, but I can’t help but be moved to tears by the thought of it. This woman, our neighborhood queen and sheriff and mother asked me to do the honor of presenting her earthly remains to her friends and to her church and to their final resting place…. That someone who has meant so much to me as a civic leader, as a mentor, as a cage-rattling compatriot, as a friend– can even think of me at all as the sun sets on her beautiful life, but that she would so powerfully and personally offer me this honor leaves me just without words… Other than…
I love you, Ruth. The many many many of us you’ve touched, we all love you.
And we’ve all learned from you. The trail you’ve blazed in fighting for what’s right won’t grow cold so long as I’m here to battle forward with the gifts of knowledge and strength you’ve given us all.
The spirit you’ve kindled lives on… and doesn’t show any signs of letting up.