MISSOULA — Ruth Dona James Tomlinson died peacefully at home on the evening of July 28. She was 99 years old.
Ruth James was born in Great Falls, on Jan. 30, 1921, as the only child of Thomas Young James and Carrie Merriman James. Her maternal grandparents had homesteaded near Great Falls, and her paternal grandparents were Mississippi farmers. Thomas had come to Montana to work for the railroad and was Depot Agent for the Great Northern Railway in Armington. Climbing roses and apple trees surrounded their home, and her father put in a diving board where the current of the river formed a natural place to swim next to their house. During the school year, Ruth would run to the train station to meet her father when his workday was done, and they would stop at Mac's store for a treat, which they shared on the walk home. After eighth grade, 81 graduates in Cascade County were given state examinations. The result was that "Ruth James of Armington school was the ranking honor student among those taking the examination."
Ruth then attended Belt High School, which was two miles from her home. She played violin in the orchestra, was known as a "very good and hard-working biology student" and the "smart girl" in World History, belonged to the academic honorary "Eskimo" club, and was a debater and starred in dramatic plays. A classmate, who would become a doctor, wrote: "I will always remember you as the girl with the sweet personality and the salvation of hard Geometry problems I couldn't solve."
At the end of most school years, Ruth and her parents traveled by train or by car to visit her mother's relatives in Iowa and Oklahoma, and her father's in Tennessee and Mississippi. Ruth's Aunt Kate of Tennessee wrote in her autograph book: "I wish I had a girl just like you," and her Aunt Irma of Mississippi wrote: "You will never know just how much your sweet young life means to me." Ruth would graduate as Belt High School's 1938 class Valedictorian and then enroll at Montana State University in Missoula on scholarship.
Ruth excelled at the university in academics, social activities, and service. In May of her freshman year, she was invited to become a member of the sophomore honorary society, "Spurs." In the fall of that year, the sophomore class would nominate her for Homecoming Queen. She was a member of the Masquers drama group and was a Montana State University debater, who took part in a radio debate on Mexico's appropriation of American oil properties. On May 17, at the end of her junior year, the traditional Singing on the Steps of Main Hall included tapping University men and women to Silent Sentinel and Mortar Board Senior honorary fraternities. The “Belt Valley Times” reported on the girl whom the town thought of as the apple of their eye. "Her parents drove from Belt to be present. Highest honor bestowed on a woman student on campus." On Tuesday of the next week, Ruth received a small pink invitation to show up at the "…outdoor initiation at 5:30 a.m., Wednesday." Afterward, the elite young women breakfasted at the Students' Store, and Ruth was elected Secretary-Treasurer of Mortar Board.
During Ruth's senior year, she served as Counselor System Chairman of 15 counselors, whose purpose was to guide and to advise freshman women during their first week of school and throughout the year. A friend from her freshman year invited her to attend Mass at St. Anthony's church and meetings of the Newman Club, and Ruth was strongly drawn to the Catholic faith. At the end of her senior year, she student-taught at Missoula County High School. She then graduated with a B.A. in English Literature with honors, and with minors in Drama, History, French, and Political Science. There was a tea given by Professor Merriam for English Department graduates and their families, the Baccalaureate and banquet, and graduation exercises followed by a reception.
Ruth had recently met Donald, who was now a Second Lieutenant with the United States Army Air Corps. He was serious, diligent, and "such a good man." He was also a lot of fun. From the time they met at the Aber Day picnic, their joy in each other and their strong and focused wills were entirely united. They had many good times dancing at the Rockaway Dance Hall in Lolo, and spending time with their parents together. Don asked Ruth to marry him, and they bought rings in Great Falls. Ruth taught English, Drama, and Speech at Conrad High School the next year while planning their wedding for the spring. Don was soon stationed with the 7th Ferrying Command at Gore Field, and they married on May 23, 1943, in Belt, with a reception at her parents' home.
When the war ended, Don built a trailer and a large wooden box at her parents' place, in which they put all of their possessions. They then drove to Missoula to start their life together. Ruth revisited St. Anthony's with Don, and they had their marriage blessed. During the next nine years, their three children were born. Don and Ruth worked to establish a construction, a real estate and insurance business, and a development company. All projects were endeavors of them working together as a team. Don would inform their children — in case they hadn't realized it — "Your mother has an iron will."
As their children entered school, Ruth supported everything in which they were involved. When the numbers of students exceeded the ability of the teachers to teach, she and other mothers met to correct papers, and when a Cub Scout leader was needed she joined another mother to work with the boys. The other mother would become one of her dearest friends, whom she would hold close for the rest of her life. When the school needed a bus, Ruth and other mothers formed a "Bus Club" to raise money; when she and other women in town were planting flowers for their family homes, they formed a "Flower Club." For all of the following years — long after their purposes had been fulfilled — the women of the groups kept meeting. "Well, we just kept going," Ruth would say.
Her children were impeccably dressed and groomed. They were taken for haircuts, dental work, music lessons, dance lessons, and shopping for clothing that was carefully matched and of natural fibers. Inoculations were followed by a trip to Eddy's Bakery, where they could choose a favorite doughnut. Their lunch sacks were folded precisely. When they came home from school, there was always a homemade treat — most often chocolate chip cookies or cinnamon rolls. As well as Mass on Sundays, the family all gathered for spectacular dinners, cooked by Ruth with occasional help from her mother. Ruth's father had transferred to Belt, and after he retired, Ruth's parents moved to Missoula and were included in all of their family life. Her father created another garden, as he had in both Armington and then Belt, and her mother canned the produce alongside Ruth.
They all attended the music recitals of their talented son, and Ruth helped with the carnivals and "hot dog days" at St. Anthony's. Every Friday in the summers, Ruth and Don loaded their car with her homemade fried chicken, ice-water chocolate cake, and everything else needed for weekends at Flathead Lake.
When their children were in college, Ruth and a few friends began to go on hikes together and called themselves the "Hippie Moms." The group grew until there were over two dozen members. It kept going, long after they no longer went for hikes. Ruth joined the philanthropic P.E.O. and the literary "As You Like It" clubs. She was overjoyed when she became a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution, and as the American flag was dear to her, she wore a jeweled pin of it every day in her final years.
Ruth's college friends from the freshman dorm North Hall, and the upper-class dorm New Hall, continued their close friendships until they passed away. When a college school mate retired from teaching, she signed on to teach in newly-freed Czechoslovakia. She wrote long, detailed letters to Ruth and her other dorm friends, who would share them by gathering together or sending them to each other through the mail.
Ruth and Don enjoyed deciding everything together that went into the homes that they built for their family. Their home on Arthur Avenue had a contemporary ranch-style design, their home in the Rattlesnake was authentic Colonial, and their home in Lincolnwood was contemporary Southern. In every one of her neighborhoods, Ruth could be counted on as a warm and reliable next-door friend. Throughout her life, Ruth took food to friends and others, and wrote notes of encouragement to those who needed it. She volunteered for Meals-on-Wheels and St. Patrick Hospital Guild, and worked with her friends on Registration at the university. She was a popular model for style shows hosted by the Missoula Mercantile at the Florence Hotel. These shows were significant town events, which over 300 women attended.
The places where Ruth and Don traveled were decided by their heart connections. They went to England with their son to visit his great-grandparents' homes and graves. They traveled to see the historic Colonial homes and monuments. They appreciated the Backroads of Montana programs, and set out in good weather to explore places where they had lived or otherwise knew.
As her parents aged, Ruth went to see her father every day in the nursing home and helped her mother to continue enjoying life by arranging her bridge group gatherings and taking her on outings. She assembled the recipes with which she had created a culture that sustained her extended family. They included ancestors' food from Montana, Mississippi, and England, and from her children's school days and friends. She had them printed as a book, which she gave to family members as a Christmas gift. It even included the "Mrs. Blaine's cookies" from the woman who lived next door in Armington, and "How to cook St Anthony school hot dogs."
Ruth gathered and carried forward the friends and relatives she had from childhood; from college; from Conrad; from the church; from volunteering; from all of the groups of which she was a member. She gathered in her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren; her brother-in-law and his wife, children, and grandchildren; her cousins and their children — she gathered them all in. It was the distinct fruit of her unique genius for relationship. She has now joined the the Communion of Saints, and has gathered them in her embrace as they gather her to them. That communion is certainly led by her husband Donald and her parents, whom she has missed so much.
Many years ago, Ruth's high school French teacher had quoted a poem in her student’s autograph book. The teacher then added a directive for Ruth — which she has fulfilled: "'But look, the morn in russet mantle clad/Walks o'er the dew of yon eastern hill.' See that every day looks happy and beautiful — not only in its approach, but also its ending. Then, it will be good."
Ruth was preceded in death by her dearest friend and husband Donald; by her parents Thomas and Carrie Merriman James; by her parents-in-law Harold and Margaret Tomlinson; and by her brother-in-law Thomas Tomlinson (Mary Belle). She is survived by her children Patricia Corning (Nic), Elizabeth Tomlinson, and James Tomlinson (Cathleen O'Callaghan). Ruth is also survived by her grandchildren Kristen Bedford (Slade), Joseph Thiebes (Julia), Lauren Grupp (Titus), and Cara Tomlinson; by her great-grandchildren Liam Bedford, Theo Bedford, Sloane Grupp, Leila Thiebes, and Alexandria Thiebes; and by multiple great-nieces and nephews and their children.
We would like to thank St Francis Xavier Parish staff; Dr. Michael Caldwell and the nurses of Providence Internal Medicine; Partners in Home Care; Osco East Gate Pharmacy staff; Brothers Mortuary and Crematory; Alpine Foot and Ankle staff; Dr. Jill Frazier and staff; Rocky Mountain Eye and Ear staff; Bone and Joint staff; Father Victor Cancino, S.J.; Father George Dumais S.J.; Father Jeff Fleming; Deacon Carlton Quamme; Father John Wang; and all other friends and helpers who have been supportive of Ruth and Donald and their family throughout Ruth's life. In lieu of flowers, please send memorials to St. Francis Xavier Parish, 420 W. Pine St., 59802, or to Missoula Food Bank, 1720 Wyoming Street, 59801.
The Mass of Christian Burial for Ruth Tomlinson will be scheduled for a weekend when family members can safely travel to Missoula. The date and time will be published in “The Missoulian.”
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