Thursday, December 18, 1997
Ruth Schmitt, an epidemic
of goodness

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Ruth Schmitt
Every once in a while - a great while - somebody comes along who is so thoroughly good that it is catching. Contagious, you might say.

When Ruth Schmitt was an insurance agent, for instance, she never forgot the person who sat down and wrote out a check for the premium. It wasn't a policy, she says. It was a promise. After she became a vice president, she trained the new agents to think the same way. When they got it right, I'll bet she rewarded them with a hug.

The Schmitt family is very big on hugging. Ruth's brother, Don, president and CEO of Shur-Good Biscuit Co., claims everybody needs at least seven hugs a day. He has an inexhaustible supply and throws in his choirboy smile for good measure. The smile falters just a little when he talks about his older sister.

Ruth Schmidt - business executive, golfer, poker player, godmother - has Alzheimer's disease.

It was shocking news for a family that calls Ruth ''the clown, the adviser, the listener, the voice of reason.'' This is a woman who was always the donor, not the recipient. Scholarships and jobs for Seton girls. A place to stay for a temporarily homeless family.

Periodically, she'd swoop down on a blind couple in her neighborhood and off they'd go to the grocery in her big car. Her treat.

Some early signs

Her sister, Vivian Riestenberg, says she first noticed some things that were ''very unRuthie-like.'' Some confusion with numbers. And dates. Diagnosed in 1993, Ruth continued for a while as usual. ''But then,'' she says, ''I just wasn't trusting myself anymore.''

She tried to be practical. ''You have to play the cards you're dealt,'' she says. But giving up her car two years ago was tough. Her automobile represented freedom.

Freedom, Aunt Ruth? You want freedom? You've got freedom, decided her 12 nieces and nephews. They rotated. A Ruthie week. They took her wherever she wanted to go, whenever she wanted to go there.

The plan was to give her the life she loved for as long as possible. So they put their own lives on hold. Just a little. The payoff, of course, was that if they were behind the wheel, the one in the passenger seat was Ruth Schmitt. Not a hardship.

''It was fun,'' Julie Hopkins says. ''Very therapeutic.'' For the drivers, not the passenger.

This worked for about a year. But then Ruth needed more help. Around the house. Maybe, her family thought, it might be time for Ruth to leave her beloved condo.

Not yet, said her friends. Twenty-one of them made out a schedule of ''sleep-overs with Ruth.'' These women - who began their friendship in grade school at St. Teresa Elementary School in Price Hill or at Seton High School or at endless poker games and parties - postponed the inevitable for 10 months.

This month, Ruth moved out of her home into Bayley Place, a Delhi Township retirement community sponsored by the Sisters of Charity. A new unit, called Woodlands, is designed for residents in the early stages of Alzheimer's disease.

Someone there told her gently that after the months of sleep-overs and tag-team help, ''now your friends will become just friends again.''

The day we met, she was going out to lunch with Vivian and Don. Neat, white tennis shoes, tailored khaki pants, magenta knit shirt, a careful touch of gold jewelry. Perfect makeup. Elegant.

She inclines her head with its halo of white curls and says, ''I'm so glad we had this time to talk.'' She clasps me in a hug. Just then, her blue eyes are clear and unclouded by confusion.

And for several priceless moments, I bask in the goodness that is Ruth Schmitt. Hoping to catch it.

Laura Pulfer's column appears in the Enquirer on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call 768-8393 or fax at 768-8340. She can be heard Monday mornings on WVXU radio (91.7 FM), and as a regular commentator on National Public Radio's Morning Edition.

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