Mary Ruell, a beloved longtime fixture in Ashland, still going strong at 95 years young. (Leigh Sharps)
January 04, 2012REGION — She's a real Yankee Doodle dandy, all right!
Born on the Fourth of July, Ashland's resident firecracker and 95-year-young matriarch, Mary Walsh Ruell, lights a room up like a sparkler on that landmark date. Those around her cannot help but catch that giving spirit, no matter where she is or what she is doing, from urging others to volunteer themselves or to "keep on keeping on" — her own self-promise to never stop volunteering.
Not one to either rest on her laurels or set aside hobbies at her spry age, she's still consumed with reading, and just lately stayed up until 2 a.m. one morning to finish a book.
"I still can't stop proofreading books, and I just want to pick up a pen and correct them," the former English school teacher stated.
Growing up in Hamilton, Mass., Ruell attended Salem State College, where she attained her teaching degree in business education. She sought a position, and found just one advertised in New Hampshire. It was in Ashland.
"They wanted an older woman, and I tried to make myself look older wearing hats and such, but I still couldn't pass myself off as any older than 17," quipped Ruell.
She was the last on a long list that day she interviewed with the superintendent for that position, and she thought the interview went well, but she never dreamed at 4:30 that same afternoon, she would land her first teaching job.
"I was skeptical of New Hampshire, but figured I'd give it a shot," she recalls.
Beginning her beloved job here, she met her future husband, Laurent "Joe" Ruell, at a church Christmas party where both had volunteered their time.
"We built the stage and helped the kids with a play," she explained.
It was, perhaps, Ruell's first foray into the world of volunteering.
She was earning only $1,000 a year, and decided she needed to find a higher paying position, so she moved to Old Lyme, Conn. to teach. She stayed there three years when the war started. Besides teaching, she was a genuine "Rosie the Riveter," working in personnel at the Walsh Kaiser Shipyard, where destroyers were built. She also worked in fundraising for United War Fund, American Red Cross and Brown University.
The working spirit Ruell had was inherited from her mother who, as a widow, single-handedly raised a family while designing and making clothes. (She had immigrated to the U.S. from Ireland, where she was unable to find a teaching job due to her religious beliefs as a Catholic — Ireland was still in British hands at that time).
"She was a hard-worker, all right," added Mary.
After the war, a visit to old friends back in Ashland led Ruell to a second meeting with Joe, and this time, the two engaged in a courtship which led to marriage in 1949.
She and Joe rented homes on Prospect, Depot and Highland Streets until Joe's mother passed away and the couple inherited the family home at 7 Hill Ave. in 1955 (The house was built in the 1830's by Everett Mitchell). They lived there for more than 50 years (Joe passed away in 1995), and she continues to reside there today with son David.
After seven years teaching in Bristol, Ruell returned to school and received her Master's degree in English Education from Plymouth State College. She took a job teaching English at Laconia High School, where she remained for 15 years. Joe, meanwhile, worked at Packard's mill after being trained as a weaver. This was a prestigious job, as most of the weavers at that time were from England. After that, he became the long-time postmaster of Ashland until his retirement.
Somewhere in between all the years of working, the pair raised five children. They all attended New Hampton School and the Holderness School, where there was "more competition," said Ruell.
When their youngest daughter married in 1980, the Ruells looked for a way to keep the family together and in touch for at least part of the year. To that purpose, they rented cabins in Maine on the ocean at the same spot each year so they, their five kids and their 11 grandchildren could grow up together. They have continued this tradition until the present, sometimes in foreign countries, and it is one Ruell is proud of: solving the conundrum of how to keep a family together, even though they all were going their own separate ways.
During her teaching career, Ruell took to volunteering for several causes which were her passion. She first worked for the American Cancer Society fundraising.
"We had so many different types of fundraisers, such as 'Daffodil Days,' to make the cause visible. It was very active back in those days ('60's to '80's)," explained Ruell.
Both she and Joe were involved at that time in the town's Historical Society (she is a past President), and she is also past President of the Woman's Club. In addition, she was an active (past President) of the Retired Teachers of the Lakes Region.
"Just because you work outside the home doesn't mean you can't do something (volunteer). Just go and do it…you'll be surprised at what you can do, even when you think you don't have enough time," said Ruell.
She is still a charter member of the Garden Club, and serves on the Fourth of July Committee.
Speaking of that important date (birthday-wise), she has also served as the Grand Marshal of the huge Ashland Fourth of July parade twice.
"Once when I was 80 years old, and again when I was 90," she adds.
The annual town report has also been dedicated to her (2003). To name all committees past and present that Ruell has been on is such a monumental task, she must refer to that report so as not to forget anyone or anything.
"I know I'd forget something if I had to do a formal list from memory," she added.
Committees include: Plymouth Area Community Closet, the Habitat for Humanity, The Covered Bridge fundraising committee ("We did it properly raising that money for the bridge, legally, etc. and had all our ducks in a row," she explained. "It worked out nicely and is now one of the town's landmarks.")
She helped Nancy Cross to establish and run the Ashland Community Center. She is a past treasurer of Memorial Park downtown, and adds that her husband was also a great volunteer in town, joining her on many committees and fundraising efforts.
Her writing skills did not languish after she retired from teaching. She edited the newsletter for the Retired Educators Association (the state) until she was 90, and, of course, she is still the writer of the well-read Ashland Talk of the Towns column printed each week in rhe Record Enterprise.
She served 16 years on the Ashland School Board. She was so concerned about the recycling effort in town (which was non-existent), she rallied behind the effort to institute it. She also worked on elderly exemptions, the budget committee and fundraising to rebuild the tennis courts.
Other committees she has been on include the State Committee on Aging, Pemi-Baker Health and Human Hospice, F.I.S.H. (transporting people to and from appointments, etc.), State School Board Association, Youth At Risk Committee, member of St. Agnes Church, both the State and Lakes Region Retired Educators Associations and the League of N.H. Craftsmen.
Hobbies that Ruell still pursues include painting, using all types of media and completing very intricate rug hooking projects. But, again, reading is her passion, and one she looks forward to each day.
She has been asked to write her memoirs by a son-in-law, but her reply to that is: "Oh, dear, I wouldn't know where to start!"
A real firecracker…that's Ashland's Mary Ruell!
Editor's note: The preceding article concludes our Holiday Heroes series profiling some of the unsung heroes who make the Pemi-Baker and Newfound areas such a unique and wonderful place to live, particularly during the holiday season. Our thanks to contributing writer Leigh Sharps for conceiving and writing this special series, and to all the local heroes who shared their stories with us.