Our Stories: Vicki Ruwitch
by Wynn Montgomery
Vicki Garbutt Ruwitch entitled her memoir The Dog Doctor’s Daughter. That title offers a hint about her life, but is far from the entire story. Her father was a successful New York veterinarian, and her brother followed in their father’s footsteps. Her husband, Joe Ruwitch, a former high school science teacher, would also become a successful veterinarian. While Vicki and Joe had that in common, they came from entirely different worlds.
During her early childhood, Vicki’s father was in charge of an ASPCA clinic located in a low-income area of New York City, and the family lived above the clinic. To ensure that Vicki got a good education, she was sent to a private Quaker school and then to Hunter College’s “laboratory school,” where the emphasis on mathematics led to non-numerical Vicki being asked to repeat the 3rdgrade. By this time, her family had moved to Manhasset, Long Island, and Vicki was enrolled in the 4th grade in the public school, her mother conveniently neglecting to report Hunter’s decision. Within a year, however, she had been promoted to the 5th grade and never learned fractions. She then completed her K-12 education at the Drew Seminary for Select Young Females and Northfield School for Girls before entering Virginia Intermont College in the fall of 1943.
One year in the “Jim Crow South” was enough for Vicki. She returned home, graduated from Katherine Gibbs Secretarial School (where extra white gloves were kept on hand to ensure constant compliance with its strict dress code), and spent a few years in the corporate world before returning to college at Michigan State University. That’s where on a blind date she met World War II Navy veteran Joe Ruwitch from an immigrant farm family in the Upper Peninsula, and Vicki soon chose an MRS over a BA. The impoverished newlyweds moved first to Cheboygan, Michigan and then to Escanaba, where Joe opened a veterinary clinic. During their three years there, Vicki was sometimes called on to anesthetize dogs with a device fashioned from a cocktail shaker or to hold a cow’s tail during a barn procedure she had never seen in her father’s small animal clinic—a vivid reminder that she was no longer a city girl.
In 1952, Vicki and Joe moved to Fort Collins, where he joined the faculty at CSU. Four years later, they moved to Boulder, and Joe opened a veterinary clinic on Arapahoe. Eventually, Vicki (by then the mother of four) completed her college education, graduating from CU in 1969, the same year that her oldest child graduated from Boulder High. Almost immediately after getting her Teacher’s Certificate, she began teaching at Boulder High, where her love of Greek and Roman classics earned her the nickname of “Myth” Ruwitch.
After Joe opted for early “retirement,” he and Vicki began to divide their time between Boulder and a home in Victor, Idaho (population 424), where Joe’s volunteer veterinary skills were often sought out and “paid” for with goods and services rather than cash. The Ruwitchs lived that half-time bucolic life for 13 years before settling in Louisville in 1991 in the house that Vicki still describes as a “most wonderful house.” After Joe died in 1993, Vicki stayed in that wonderful house for 11 more years before moving to the Balfour Retirement Community, just nine months after deciding on her own that, at age 88, it was time to quit driving.
Vicki says that her early education exposed her to many different religions and the importance of social justice, but it wasn’t until she and Joe moved to Boulder that they briefly attended UUCB. She did not become a member of any religious organization until she joined BVUUF in 2004, after Paul and Vicki Winston introduced her to the Fellowship. She has shared her writing and editing skills with other members in several memoir-writing courses and more recently was a frequent friendly face at the Welcome Table. She is a voracious reader and now regularly reads aloud to fellow Balfour residents who suffer from fragile vision. This is her way of applying an adage she learned in a class at BVUUF and shared in a short memoir in a recent Staying Connected: “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.”
Vicki is fortunate to have most of her family nearby. All four of her children live in Front Range communities within 20 miles of Vicki as do most of her eight grandchildren and five of her seven great grandchildren (see photo).
Vicki still lights up when she talks about Joe, whose memory survives in the 14 “Joe Bears” made by their daughter from his trademark woolen shirts and distributed within the family. Vicki says that hers sits atop a dictionary where he learns lots of words. Where else?
During my conversation with Vicki one day before her 96th birthday, I suggested that she reminded me of the women that Southerners call “Steel Magnolias” —women who exemplify both traditional femininity as well as an uncommon fortitude. At first, she said “No,” but eventually she conceded that she might have some of those characteristics. Perhaps one characteristic of a true Steel Magnolia is that her femininity will not allow her to accept the accolade, leaving others to make their own decision. I stand by mine.