History, Heroes, Hospitality
Abilene Hero: Mary Ruth Shuler Dieter
Miss Mary Ruth, trustworthy teenager, spurred her horse Sunny Jim, its saddlebags loaded with the children’s books she would be delivering that day. Leaving the Pine Mountain Settlement School at sun-up, and being required to return before dark, she was eager to accomplish her mission: helping others to read. Seven decades later, Ruth still has a vivid mental picture of one particular five-year-old girl, in her green, cleanly scrubbed but shabby dress, waiting on the porch for the packhorse to arrive at their mountain home. The young rider herself was wearing jodhpurs to help her ford the creeks and navigate the mountain rocks. Ruth, entrusted with the route three days each week, not only delivered her books but stayed a short while to read a piece to her eager listeners and teach the youngest ones their letters. In her nine decades of life, notable Abilene resident Mary Ruth (Shuler) Dieter’s memorable joy is still her role in opening the printed word to disadvantaged children.
Saddling up Sunny for another trip to deliver books and hope.
Like other dedicated young women, when she was just sixteen, Ruth traveled as a “packhorse librarian,” delivering materials from the state library in Harlan, Kentucky, to isolated families in the state’s southern hills. Established in 1935 through President Franklin Roosevelt’s WPA (Works Project Administration), the Pack Horse Library Project provided reading materials to rural portions of Eastern Kentucky with no access to public library facilities. More than 100,000 people received this service. Although the program was relatively short-lived, ending in 1943 when funding ceased, the program did fill a critical need for reading materials among Appalachia’s underprivileged. Not until the bookmobiles of the late 1950s were introduced did readers in remote areas again have access to a library.
Poverty and hardship were familiar to Ruth Shuler as a child of the Depression. When her father deserted the family, she was placed in the Nettleton Home for Girls, Harrogate, Tennessee. Noting her scholarly aptitude, though, an aunt provided the financial means for Ruth to continue her education at the Pine Mountain Settlement School. Begun in 1913 by two daring women, and intended to prepare isolated Kentucky dwellers for transition to a 20th century world, Pine Mountain Settlement School was a self-sufficient organization with the goal that students would learn to live better lives. “Of necessity Pine Mountain was a boarding school, not only because there were no roads, but because the School needed to have the children in residence in order to give them, along with ‘book larnin’ an ‘education for life.’” (The Pine Mountain Story, 1913-1980, page six). Ruth learned much about giving of herself, about leadership, about hard work, and about human nature while she attended the school, in the years 1937-1940. “I felt very prepared for life when I left Pine Mountain Settlement School. It has always seemed like home to me.” (Mary Ruth Dieter, interview)
The school operated on a non-graded, progress-at-your-own-pace system. Each young person who was part of this educational system was expected to arise and work two hours prior to any classroom instruction. Mary Ruth’s task was keeping the director’s house clean. After these opening work hours, talented teachers from Ivy League backgrounds provided daily instruction in typical school subjects, such as accounting, which became Ruth’s skill for many subsequent years of career work. She remembers the not-so-typical classes, which were also part of school curriculum. She took courses in woodworking, in mechanics, and in agronomy.
As a second-year student, Ruth, like everyone else, participated in a hands-on educational experience, working in, and learning from, a cooperative store venture. Founded on the same principle as other area cooperatives, each student “invested” a minimal amount, like 25 cents, and received a percentage “rebate” with each purchase. Meanwhile, they analyzed the nutritional value of foods, they purchased stock, they worked as clerks in the store – all the while learning about economics. And by year’s end, everyone had made a small profit!
Third year curriculum required students to complete medical fieldwork in the local area. Ruth says: “I accompanied the doctor and nurse on their rounds in the community. My job was to take notes.” Sunny Jim faithfully transported her up those same stony mountains, which she would later ride with her books, not bandages. As secretary for medical personnel, her role was to transcribe accurately whatever the patient or the family described. These notes were then used as the basis for further diagnosis. Ruth was a skillful note-taker and was appreciated for her services. However, like the doctor and nurse who made these rounds, she also took precautions, in order to prevent unnecessary exposure to contagious disease or infection. Such was her “real life” education at Pine Mountain.
Eight talented young women sang for a president.
The family atmosphere and the uniqueness of a small student body (50 men and 50 women) added to Pine Mountain’s success at the time. Ruth’s extra-curricular activities ranged from editing the school paper to participating in the women’s octet, from baseball to swimming, from dancing the Bacca Pipes jig with her partners to singing solos. She performed in the starring role of Buttercup, in the operetta “HMS Pinafore.” Her music groups were especially talented. The octet not only sang on the local radio station, they were later invited to visit FDR’s White House! Whatever the area of participation, Ruth remembers Pine Mountain as the place, which gave her, and every student, the incentive to make something of themselves.
Ruth completed her formal education and graduated from Pine Mountain; however, she remained at the school working as their bookkeeper. So much was she appreciated that the institution underwrote her attendance at Strayer Business College, in Washington DC, for further development of her secretarial skills. In her busy life at this point, Ruth was full-time bookkeeper, part-time student, and part-time country-dance teacher. Following these two years contributing at Pine Mountain, though, Ruth felt it was time to move on in the world.
Showing off dance moves for her group at Berea College.
At age 23, and two weeks late to start classes, Ruth enrolled at nearby Berea College. She easily passed the necessary achievement tests administered by the school’s staff. The Director of Admissions assigned her to a women’s dormitory and also gave her a job, in his own office. She served as his secretary for all three and one-half years of her attendance at the school, up to her graduation. Berea, one of the first colleges with a work-study program for students (as opposed to paying tuition) was another positive life experience for Ruth. Her favorite courses were in the English and History departments; she loved reading the classics and giving a variety of reports. Accounting was Ruth’s major. She recalls one accounting class with only three students, including two fellows and Ruth. Her mark was an “A.” She says the men were not graded quite as high!
Ruth’s time at Pine Mountain Settlement School and Berea College prepared her for a life of service and leadership elsewhere. In 1948, thanks to a one-way bus ticket from her employer, Dr. Don Dieter, she found herself in his home state of Kansas. Two years later, she married his brother, the attorney and judge John Dieter (1915 to 1999). Although Ruth worked initially as a medical receptionist for her brother-in-law, later for a popular radio station, and finally for a local accounting firm, Ruth herself wonders if her real calling in Abilene was to be caretaker – for her mother-in-law, for a favored aunt, and for her husband in his extended illness.
With her volunteer time and her personal resources, Ruth has supported numerous causes in Abilene, helping to build its current reputation as an inviting tourist location and a great place to live. Her interest in the Ladies Literary League continued her packhorse librarian story. Her participation with the Abilene Public Library, the Great Plains Theater organization, and most especially with the Seelye Mansion board all indicate Ruth’s love of education and culture. In addition, she served seven years as a state officer for her PEO (a philanthropic educational organization) chapter. The Abilene community surely benefited from the presence of this former Kentucky schoolgirl.
While living in Abilene, 40 years after her Pine Mountain graduation, Ruth had the opportunity to make an impact on the institution that had helped to shape her own life so significantly. In 1984, a return visit to her alma mater showed Ruth the dismal conditions that had ultimately befallen the school, by now an organization focusing only on short-term environmental education. She used her considerable influence as an alumna, contacted other former students, and together they re-established Pine Mountain into a successful enterprise. For her efforts, she received the distinguished “Kentucky Colonel” certificate, from the state government, in two separate years.
Ruth does not dwell on the formal or informal accolades she has received, either for her Pine Mountain renovation or for her local efforts. Rather, at the twilight stage of life she can still see the faces of impoverished children learning to read. She knows those mountain children would not have had an opportunity if the packhorse librarians had not come along and given them a chance. “That’s what life is, it seems to me,” says Ruth, “to feel like you’ve given something to someone else.”
Again in Ruth’s own words: “A tree’s life, much like a human’s life, is filled with moments and circumstances that will alter and determine how it grows. . . Many trees will grow larger year after year in the same location, witnessing the passage and changes of time. Other trees, though, will be transplanted after they have obtained some growth and be thrust into new ground to see if they can once again spread their roots into the soil and stretch out their branches to flourish and make this new place their home.”
“. . . A human being comes into life, and, if cared for properly, she will become large and strong. She may encounter and be affected by the wind and rain or storms, but these also can help her to grow stronger and pass the test of time. A life and soul that is treated right will bloom, blossom, and be a gift for those around it.” Mary Ruth Schuler Dieter’s “transplanted” life has been a gift and an example to others. Abilene can be proud to acknowledge this notable individual as one of its own heroes! Thank you, Ruth!