Meet 1920 poster girl of Malibu East seniors

Posted on Thu, 02/01/2018 - 10:30am

By Tracy Poyser

Ruth-BettyOn Jan. 5 of this year, a very special, beloved resident of our Malibu East village, Ruth-Betty Spilky, celebrated her 98th birthday in the Windjammer Room with some 45-50 of her close friends and neighbors, many from the Emanuel Congregation just south of us on Sheridan. Her trusted companion/caregiver for the past 11 years, Josephine Banjoc, also an accomplished singer, serenaded Ruth-Betty with several songs, some together with Aida Calvopina, while other guests shared their favorite Ruth-Betty stories and anecdotes.

The birthday girl’s friends, including Aida and Sandy Chaet and other neighbors and members of our Social Committee, had set up a luscious table with a variety of sweet treats and pastry temptations. And, Ruth-Betty did the honors of cutting not just one, but two birthday cakes for her guests. There was only one symbolic candle for her to blow out (98 would have melted the frosting), but her smile lit up the room better than any candles – and I hope her photo reflects her wisdom and joy.

A milestone birthday like this deserves more than just describing a party. So, a couple of weeks later, I joined Aida and Josephine in Ruth-Betty’s apartment for tea and memories of her full and complex life. In no particular order, she shared memories that gave glimpses of stories that deserve a full biography. In Ruth-Betty’s words, her life had a lot of sorrow, but balanced with a lot of joy.

On Jan. 5, 1920, wide-eyed baby Ruth-Betty greeted this world here in Chicago. A few highlights of that year were documented in a page of “Top Headlines This Week” she had received for her 95th birthday:

  • Boston Red Sox sell Babe Ruth to New York Yankees on Jan. 5;
  • 18th Amendment prohibits sale of beer, wine and liquor;
  • League of Nations’ first meeting – Treaty of Versailles in effect;
  • A car costs $345; a house $6,296 on average;
  • Woodrow Wilson is president. And, in November 1920, Warren G. Harding wins the presidency in the first presidential election in which women had the right to vote!

Both of her parents were born in Chicago, her mother in 1892 and her dad in 1889. Her granddad was born in 1871 – the year of the Great Chicago Fire, and Ruth-Betty remembers tales of a great-aunt who ran outside with her hot iron during that tragedy. Ruth-Betty’s grandmother was born near Frankfurt, Germany – she died when Ruth-Betty’s mom was only 10. A beautiful blue-and-white glazed pitcher from that part of Germany is one of her most precious keepsakes, displayed in her dining room where she can always see it. Internet genealogy research by a cousin revealed that her great-grandfather, born in 1791, moved to the United States from London.

Ruth-Betty grew up in the Lakeview neighborhood, on Aldine near Buena and Broadway. She had a sister, two years her elder, who, sadly, died at only 55. Ruth-Betty remembers swimming in Lake Michigan at the Belmont beach before the boat harbor and Lake Shore Drive were built (the Drive was extended from Belmont to Foster in 1933, and in 1957 to its present terminus at Hollywood). She loved elegant luncheons at the former Edgewater Beach Hotel with its boardwalk right on the water, and going dancing there with her dates. She met her first husband there; they married when she was 31, and he died only five years later. She married again in 1969, but 10 years later she lost her second husband.

Despite these tragedies, Ruth-Betty lived her life with grace, grit and a zest for learning, a love of travel and meeting new people, and her devoted affiliation with the Emanuel Congregation, which started when she was only 18. She worked as an administrative secretary for a synagogue for 12 years, and at the University of Illinois at Chicago for 18 years – initially at UIC’s Navy Pier campus in 1948 and continuing through the 1965 move to its current location south of the Loop.

She discovered her love for travel in 1939 on a bus trip to the Great Smoky Mountains – and a girl sitting behind them on the bus became (and still is) a lifelong friend. Talking about friends, there’s a six-months-older woman in the suburbs whom she met at 19, and they talk almost every day. Another friend is 100 – she lives at the Hallmark assisted living facility next to St. Joseph’s Hospital near Diversey. Ruth-Betty regrets that they can no longer visit each other easily, but she cherishes their phone conversations. Surviving your loved ones is one of the downsides of reaching 98 – one cousin was killed in an auto accident not too long ago, and a very kind and generous man whose friendship she cherished, Alvin Shapiro (he was married to her cousin), passed away in mid-January at age 89.

With a curious mind and open eyes, Ruth-Betty traveled as much as she could – initially in the U.S., where she visited many national parks as well as Alaska, and then her first trip to England in 1970, starting with London. 1988 took her to Australia on a trip that included dinner with a Jewish family, and she still corresponds with the woman who served her coffee. She also had a godson who lived in Perth on Australia’s west coast. She was in Sydney on the east coast, so she ventured into the middle of that vast continent to meet him, and then spent one week in Perth. She can still visualize the fabulous sunsets from a coffee house on the Indian Ocean.

Now that she can no longer travel, Ruth-Betty pursues her interest in our world through the library and the internet. With Josephine’s help, she’s currently reading a thick volume about a distant relative: Sir Moses Haim Montefiore, (1784-1885) a British financier and banker, activist, philanthropist and sheriff of London. Born to an Italian Jewish family, he donated large sums of money to promote industry, economic development, education and health among the Jewish communities in Europe (check him out on Google). This is just one example of Ruth-Betty’s keen knowledge of history and vibrant mind.

She came to Malibu East by way of a scary incident. She had been living in a two-bedroom unit at 6118 N. Sheridan and got mugged in the building’s garage. After that incident, 24-hour security and having a doorman became essential, and she’s been happy living here since April 1992. What makes her so happy here is not just the safety, but the connection and friendship with her neighbors. She met Aida at one of the Social Committee’s Thursday-afternoon discussion groups, which they have co-chaired since Ilse Siegler moved away.

I asked Ruth-Betty’s companion and caregiver Josephine to share what makes Ruth-Betty so special. “I’m learning so much from her. Above all, it’s her positive attitude and the way she keeps in touch with all her friends. She doesn’t hold grudges – and is always the first one to reach out. She loves to eat, but everything in moderation. We laugh and sing together in the morning, and I think being her eyes brings me as much joy as it helps her. Being with her is not a chore; it’s made my own life richer.”

Aida loves and admires Ruth-Betty and is honored to be her friend. “She’s a shining example of a well-lived life, and an inspiration to all the elders of our building, including myself,” Aida says.

As for me, I came away from my afternoon with Ruth-Betty thinking how much strength, grace and wisdom it takes to be such a positive force still at 98, and how many lives she has touched and made better.

Please say hi and wish her a belated happy birthday when you see Ruth-Betty with Josephine or her other caregivers in the elevator or Lobby.