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100-Year-Young Ruth Colvin Shares Lifelong Journey to Promote Adult Literacy

“I’m now 100 and I say age is just a number; it’s what you do with your number and I keep trying to do that,” said Ruth Colvin, lifelong adult literacy advocate, who spoke to a large group at the Santa Clara Senior Center on March 18. The event was hosted by Santa Clara City Library’s Read Santa Clara and San Jose Public Library’s Partners in Reading, both of which are adult literacy programs.

“We consider Ruth Colvin the mother of the adult literacy movement,” said Shanti Bhaskaran, literary program supervisor for the Santa Clara City Library. Bhaskaran added that Colvin authored about nine books, was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame and received the Presidential Medal of Freedom by former President George W. Bush in 2006.

“I never told my age during my 80s [because] no one put you on projects or boards because they thought you were old…until on my 90th birthday that President Bush gave me the Presidential Medal of Freedom, he told everybody I was 90 years old,” Colvin said. “So my secret was out to the world so I changed my attitude. Life is a matter of changes, it’s your attitude, how you look at something. Now I tell everybody my age because it makes them feel young.”

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Colvin shared her secrets for how she stays in shape and maintains her sharp wit.

“People say to me, isn’t it nice that you like to exercise and I say, ‘who says I like to exercise?’” she said. “Because I want to keep the quality of life I have now, I have to exercise and pay attention to nutrition. I do stretching and yoga. I lift weights. I play golf three times a week in the summer time. When I’m back in Syracuse I go to the gym and work on 15 machines and do 30 reps on each one. I do my arms and legs and then I go on to the treadmill. At Sea Ranch–my family has a place over here–I go swimming. I do reading and writing–I’m writing another book. My daughter got me into Sudoku (a puzzle game). And I’m still teaching.”

Colvin has two children–a daughter who lives in Northern California and a son who lives in Washington D.C., as well as six grandchildren and seven great grandchildren. She counts her blessings that she enjoyed 73 years of marriage to her late husband, Bob.

“Bob and I traveled together to 62 countries and we worked in 26 developing countries,” Colvin said. “In these developing countries, I worked on developing literacy and developing English as a second language and Bob worked on small businesses.”

Born in Chicago, Colvin’s role model was her mother, a widow at the beginning of the Great Depression.

“Being brought up in a one-parent family during tough times, she taught me that all jobs big and small must be done in top quality, that budgets must be kept, money saved for the future, and it’s never too late to get the best education,” Colvin said. “I didn’t complete my own bachelor’s degree in college (a degree in Business Administration from Syracuse University) until I was in my 40s. Now I have nine honorary doctorates.”

Over 50 years ago, when Colvin read the results of the 1960 census, she became aware that over 11,000 people faced literacy challenges in Syracuse. With support from women in Church Women United, Colvin started a literacy training program. Encountering challenges, Colvin sought help.

“I finally went to Syracuse University and to the head of the reading clinic, Dr. Frank Greene, and asked him would he help me because I was losing students and I was losing tutors and I didn’t know why,” Colvin said. “He said, ‘I know why, your methods are 30 years behind the times.’ I took shorthand as fast as he could talk and I met with 20 of his Ph.D. reading students. [I learned] when you have someone that is a non-reader…that is where you ask the student–because it’s learner-centered–what they’re interested in, why they want to learn to read. Then you learn that you don’t always start with ABC. You start with the letters that are the easiest to sound out–M, S and F….whereas B and C are very difficult…”

Sharing her knowledge, Colvin eventually wrote the book “Tutor,” now in its eighth edition.

“[After I founded Literacy Volunteers], Literacy Volunteers grew across the country and became Literacy Volunteers of America,” Colvin said. “In 2002, we merged with Laubach Literacy to become ProLiteracy, now having a thousand affiliates around the country. And you two are two of them, which I’m very proud of.”

Of course, Colvin was referring to Read Santa Clara and Partners in Reading, run by Bhaskaran and Pamela Cornelison, respectively. Also at the event was a panel of three women who talked about their experiences being literacy learners–Vicki Bravo, ReJoyce Ross and Zuleeka Mohammed, now a Read Santa Clara’s staff literacy advocate.

 

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