COLUMN AND PHOTOS BY
On Friday mornings at Grace’s Thrift Shop on Main Street in Nyack, one thing is certain.
In a back corner of the consignment shop filled with pots, pans, glassware and assorted clothes and trinkets, there’s Ruth Butler taking tags off items and bagging each customer’s newest treasure. She’s an independent sort, although she always loved being surrounded by friends and visitors as she was Sunday at Cornetta’s in Piermont at a party to celebrate her 100th birthday.
She often walks to work from home in Upper Nyack since giving up driving about a year ago. Around then, her granddaughter Courtney Bassett traveled from Michigan with her husband to see the Detroit Tigers play the Yankees. They tried to coax grandma to go along, but she said “If I’m not a baseball fan by now, I’ll probably never be one.”
Instead, she planned to walk to Nyack for dinner. When her granddaughter wondered aloud whether that was a good idea, she wasn’t dissuaded. “I’m 99,” Bassett recalls her saying, “I can do whatever I want to do.”
Ruth Butler, who was born Aug. 3, 1914 in Des Moines, Iowa, has done that since she was a young girl growing up in Chicago. She says she dated one boy all through high school, adding softly, “but I didn’t stay with him.” Instead, she followed a cousin to a college in Gulfport, Miss., and then explored her many creative interests at the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts.
During the 1930s, she designed ads for newspapers and did illustrations for magazines. She later worked as a commercial artist, designing and silk-screen printing cloth and in arts & crafts retailing.
She lived for a time with another cousin in Springfield, Ill. The cousin had met a younger man, George Prentiss Butler III, and soon introduced them.
Because she’s so tiny, Butler probably thought she was younger, when in fact she was several years his senior. It worked to her advantage that time, she says, but not always. She often couldn’t get a drink because someone that tiny couldn’t possibly be old enough for alcohol.
Butler indeed fell for the older woman, casting aside a well-to-do potential bride his family had chosen for an arranged marriage. After years of resistance, his family later acknowledged how good she was for their son.
George and Ruth married in Illinois and traveled the world together for more than a half-century. He had worked briefly in Wall Street banking, and in the early 1950s found a place to start a family in Upper Nyack.
Through the 1960s and 70s, the Butlers lived and worked in Africa – Nigeria twice, Kenya and Liberia – and then spent 14 years in Haiti, ending in 1992. That afforded their four children the opportunity to study in those places or in England or Switzerland.
Their only son, George Prentiss Butler IV, who hosted Sunday’s celebration, spoke of how his parents had to flee Nigeria because of violence. He recounted calling them in Haiti and hearing gunfire in the background. “Oh, that happens every night,” he recalled his mother reassuring him.
His father used his business acumen working with small business and industry to try to help Third World countries develop a middle class, bridging the gap between the very wealthy and the very poor. His mother, meanwhile, used her artistic skills to help residents connect with their nations’ artistic traditions.
After Haiti, the Butlers returned to the Upper Nyack home they had rented out all those years. Ruth has stayed on there since her husband’s death in 2001, busying herself with her art, reading voraciously, playing bridge, attending worship at Grace Church and working at the Grace’s Gift Shop – where she’s not the senior-most volunteer. That honor falls to Eugenia Duryea, who recently turned 102.
Ruth Butler says there’s no magic formula to her health and longevity, just that she’s always done the right thing, mostly eating good, balanced meals. She allows that there is one downside to being 100. She has outlived the love of her life, her sister Rosemary Shea, and two of her three daughters, Rosemary Stevens Butler and Elizabeth Ann Mulbah.
“A lot of my friends are gone,” she says, “so I’m just making newer friends.”
Although her daughter Barbara Butler DelPizzo, who lives in California, could not attend Sunday’s party, many of Ruth’s eight living grandchildren and five great-grandchildren did, along with friends old and new.
Renate Kulnik of West Nyack and originally from Germany, met Ruth’s husband in Liberia in the 1970s and it was through him that she met her Austrian husband. They married on the Butlers’ back lawn. “They sponsored us and helped us come to the U.S.,” she says, adding, “I call Ruth my American mother.” She and her husband live in a home once owned by the Butler family.
When Ruth needs a ride or help around the house, she turns to Romero Urias, a 40-year-old singer, songwriter and music producer from Mexico, who rented a room from her 10 years ago.
After playing his guitar and singing in the New York City subways, he one day rode Metro-North to Tarrytown and in the evening spotted Nyack’s lights across the river. Visiting the Nyacks a week later, he saw she had a room for rent. Urias’s girlfriend Lisa Retallack, who is Ruth’s neighbor, says “Romero came in the front door and walked to the back. He fixed the back door and never left.”
George Butler says living in Michigan, he finds it reassuring that Romero is there with his mother. He told Sunday’s gathering, “Romero has become the brother I never had.”
Urias says he arrived owning little and knowing no one. Ruth’s love and nurturing has helped him get established and build a life here.
“When I came in,” Urias says, “she asked me, ‘What do you want to call me, Mother or Grandmother?’ ” With a broad smile he says, “Miss Ruth is my Angel.”