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WSU Popular Teacher, Poet Ruth Slonim Dies
Tuesday, Feb. 22, 2005
Sue Hinz, 509/332-1168Charleen Taylor, WSU News Service, 509/335-7209, firstname.lastname@example.org
MOSCOW, Idaho -- Ruth Slonim, whose dedication to her Washington State University students lasted a lifetime, died Wednesday, Feb. 16, in a Moscow care center. She was 87.
Miss Slonim joined the WSU faculty in 1947 after teaching at several other institutions, including one year at Central Washington University, Ellensburg, Wash. She earned an undergraduate degree from Duluth State Teachers College, Duluth, Minn., in 1938 and a master’s degree from the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, in 1942.
In 1946-47 she was invited by the University of Puerto Rico to set up the humanities segment of its General Education Program. She later accepted an invitation from the School of Irish Studies, made up of faculty from University College and Trinity College, Dublin, to teach a course on William Butler Yeats, Ireland’s Nobel Prize-winning poet, playwright and senator for a time.
Miss Slonim was a member of the 1951 U.S. Delegation to the International Conference of UNESCO, Paris.
During her 36-year tenure at WSU, she taught modern poetry and English literature. In 1967, Miss Slonim was the first woman faculty member to be invited to deliver the WSU Distinguished Faculty Address.
She was one of the first members of the WSU Honors Program faculty. Her work included research on Walt Whitman and reviews of other poets. Although she presented papers at professional conferences around the world, she kept her students, teaching and creative work her primary focus.
Students honored her with the 1965 Outstanding Faculty Woman award. She was an active speaker, invited to address national meetings of Phi Beta Kappa, the American Association of University Women, National Council of Teachers of English and the Oceanic Education Foundation.
Miss Slonim was elected to the WSU Faculty Executive Committee during President C. Clement French’s tenure and later served on the University Planning Committee while President Glenn Terrell led the university. She served on the International Education Committee from its inception.
For more than two decades she organized weekly public poetry readings for the English department. Miss Slonim also was responsible for bringing several major poets, including Gwendolyn Brooks, Richard Hugo, W.H. Auden and Galway Kinnell, to campus over the years. A poetry corner at WSU’s Holland/New Library was named in honor of the emeritus English professor in 1997.
She studied poetry with Czeslaw Milosz and knew great writers of her time, including Robert Frost, Carl Sandburg, Louise Bogan, Langston Hughes, Brooks and Auden. She had shared a platform with the likes of Stephen Spender and spoke at Cambridge about poetry.
“Ruth Slonim represented what is the very best in education at WSU,” said George Kennedy, chair of the Department of English. “She was a remarkably versatile and productive scholar, writing widely about English literary studies, but focusing happily on the creative side with a wonderfully prolific canon of marvelous poetry.
“But the very best of Ruth Slonim was her teaching. She coached, encouraged, nurtured, and inspired the very best in her students. She never let them down and she was never let down by them. They are her very best and most lasting legacy,” Kennedy said. “We will miss her, but her students will miss her most, and that’s as it should be.”
“Ruth Slonim was my English 101 teacher in the fall of 1951,” said Virginia Linden VanCamp, now of Friday Harbor. “Her classes all were exciting, and it was a rare event that anyone missed a class.
“When invitations were received by each class member to have “tea” with our teacher alone in her apartment, I was uneasy, not knowing what to expect (and not ever having been to a tea).
“Now, I know that hour was for me the most critical turning point of conscious awareness and self discovery of my life,” VanCamp said. “Many times as I prepared to teach my classes, I remembered Ruth, who was always my ideal as a teacher.”
“Ruth Slonim was one of my most memorable teachers,” said Ruth Ann Harms, a 1969 WSU graduate in education. “I can see her influence in many of the decisions I have made in my life. She inspired me to write, to travel and most of all, to teach.”
“I never forget my students,” Miss Slonim once told a WSU Hilltopics writer. “Each one has something unique about him which I cherish…and if I try to add my students, all whom I treasure to this day, I would be defeating them as well as myself.”
Her office and home were filled with interesting gifts and tokens given by grateful students -- grateful to be understood, respected and remembered.
Slonim’s poetry received wide acclaim. Her 1955 work, “London: An Appreciation,” brought praise from abroad, including an acknowledgment from Sir Winston Churchill and Queen Elizabeth II. It, too, inspired a composition by C. Bosanquet that was performed in London in 1965.
Veteran San Francisco columnist Herb Caen called her third volume of poetry, “San Francisco: ‘The City’ in Verse,” a “deft and beautiful book” when it appeared in 1965. Her fourth volume of poetry, "Outer Traces, Inner Places," was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry. Her other books include “Sketchings” “and “Proems and Poems.”
Miss Slonim received a 1988 Washington Governor's Arts Award for her “outstanding achievement and contribution to the arts in the state of Washington.” Then Gov. Booth Gardner congratulated her for a prestigious career and her efforts to encourage countless young writers to pursue their literary endeavors.
“Culture was her whole life, and it was the truest form of culture that comprehended the world’s sorrows and needs as well as its rewards and achievements,” said Virginia Hyde, WSU professor of English and a long-time colleague. “Nobody I have known in academe has had a sharper sense of ethical concerns, including the rights of African-Americans and Native Americans and the needs of those who suffer from prejudice, violence or war anywhere in the world.”
For holiday gifts to friends, she would contribute to UNICEF, Doctors without Borders, Quaker world charities and other well-defined service enterprises. Less well known were her private contributions to students, former colleagues, and others whose needs she knew and addressed with great tact and generosity, Hyde said. “She came from a family whose tradition was to render public service (Her father was a well-known pro bono attorney for many public service causes.) and she never forgot it.”
Ruth loved and esteemed her own family, said Tamara Helm, WSU fine arts instructor and close friend. “She believed her strengths came from a wonderful mother, a teacher of languages, and her father, a generous attorney who dedicated his life to representing anyone with a just cause, without remuneration. Their home was always “open” to anyone.
“Brought up a child of the Depression and between two world wars, she bestowed her ever eager interest in humanity through literature and poetry to her students. She cared deeply about each student personally, and many students remember and kept in contact with her years after graduating,” Helm said.
She was a national officer of leading scholastic organizations, including the honorary Phi Kappa Phi, that award significant national graduate scholarships. “Not infrequently, she helped to fund such events from her own pocket, for she believed that the sharing of art is one of life’s supreme opportunities,” said Hyde.
“Ruth’s own poetry is animated by a sense of humanity, international vision and yet focus upon individuals, and by wit, humor, and sometimes a certain irony,” Hyde said. A reading of her poetry is planned by the English department and is likely to be held at the Holland New Library near the Ruth Slonim Poetry Corner, which was dedicated to her in view of her poetic accomplishments, long dedicated service to the university and the warm esteem in which she was held by students.
“She was entirely approachable, yet she made one know what it is like to be in touch with a singular creative talent and one who knew her own mind,” said Hyde. “It was indeed my good fortune to know her well and to be her colleague, neighbor and friend.”
“She always made me feel good about myself and the job I was doing with my family and teaching. She inspired me weekly on visits to her,” Helm said. “Ruth was truly a beacon, a refuge, and a promise to all who knew her. She was my mentor, my friend and my source of wisdom. I shall miss her dearly.”
Her love of children will long bring smiles to friends and staff at the care center. Miss Slonim saw in them the warmth, innocence, candor, humility, strength and humor of the human character, Helm said. “She loved ‘the family.’ She believed the close, tight bond of family was the answer to our nation’s woes. She made every effort her whole life to instill this into her students, colleagues and friends.”
“I don’t believe Ruth Slonim ever met a young person she didn’t like -- and didn’t remember,” said Dick Fry, retired director of the WSU News Bureau. “We took a 10-year-old granddaughter to Avery Hall’s Bundy Reading Room at WSU one evening years ago to hear Ruth read some of her poems. Tracey was fascinated. When Ruth finished, we went up and introduced Tracey, who asked Ruth to sign one of her books of poetry. As far as I know, that was the only time the two met. Yet when she saw us in the years that followed, Ruth never failed to ask us about Tracey, and she remembered our stories of her progress through high school, college and medical school as if we had put them in print for her.
“Ruth from Duluth, I often greeted her, and she would beam. Duluth, Minn., was her hometown,” said Fry. “I’ve never been able to write poetry, but I’ll bet I could have if I’d had a class from Ruth Slonim. My loss.”
“Ruth was the first person to call us when we moved to Pullman,” said long-time friend Sheila O’Rourke. “She opened her heart and home to us. Later, when she visited Ireland, she met our extended family and added them to her family, too.
“She had a love for Ireland and the Irish poet William Butler Yeats and often called herself ‘Ruth O’Slonim,’” O’Rourke said. “She soon became an adopted member of the ‘Irish clan’ in Pullman.
“She was a proud aunt to our three sons,” O’Rourke said. “Our grandchildren were a source of pride and joy for her, too.”
“I remember being somewhat anxious about inviting Ruth to dinner one Sunday 20 years ago,” Sue Hinz, a Pullman friend said. “I had invited the very famous – now retired – faculty member to dinner, but I wasn’t sure our young sons realized who they soon would meet.
“Bill, 8-years-old and always the host, met her at the door and at that point, the rest of us could have been in another state. He and his brother entertained Ruth the entire evening…wrote poetry, drew pictures, all which were received with enthusiastic and encouraging evaluation.
“We were very privileged to have ‘Miss Slonim’ as a part of our family,” Hinz said. “In her wonderful way, she taught John and Bill to reach for what would make them happy. And she was there to be delighted with every step they took.
“She taught us what it means to be a true friend,” Hinz said. “I am grateful.”
Miss Slonim was born in Chicago on Jan. 30, 1918, to Sigmond M. and Lena E. Slonim. She grew up in Duluth, Minn. Survivors include a brother, Edward E.Slonim of Duluth, Minn.; four nephews: Alan C. Slonim of Plymouth, Minn.; Marc H. Slonim of Phoenix; Lynn C. Slonim of Las Vegas; and John V. Slonim of Cincinnati; a great-niece, Jessica Slonim; and five great-nephews: Curt Slonim, Adam Slonim, Aaron Slonim, Reid Slonim and Joshua Slonim.
Miss Slonim established a scholarship at University of Minnesota, Duluth, in honor of her mother and father.
Cards may be sent to the family in care of Edward E. Slonim, 3800 London Road, Apt. 506, Duluth, Minn. 55804.
A service will be scheduled at a later date. Short’s Funeral Chapel in Moscow is in charge of arrangements