Earlier this week, I logged on to Facebook and saw a post from an old college classmate saying that a favorite instructor of ours had just passed away. Soon, there were a few other posts from other classmates expressing sadness and dismay over her death. Ruth McKenney taught acting and voice and various other classes in the theater department at Southwest Missouri State University while I was a student there in the 90s. She had a head full of fiery red curls and eyes that could look right into you and laser-focus on all the stuff you thought you were hiding so well. We joked that she didn’t just teach theater, she taught Intro to Life 101.
She had a tough love approach with all her students — one that I found bristling at times, but mostly reassuring. She was one of the few adults I’d ever met who could really tell it like it was without being patronizing and making you feel like a kid. And even though her word sometimes stung, you knew they always came from a place of caring. She just wanted us to be the best versions of ourselves we could be. She always saw our potential.
When I was 18, 19, 20, she represented a version of adult I hoped to know more of, if not grow into myself some day. She was wild and fun and full of life — the quintessential eccentric — and we loved her for it. And she loved all of us — her students and her actors and her colleagues. If you were lucky enough to know her, even just a little bit, she loved you. We were her “Poochies” and “Beasties” and “Turk-a-Lurks.” In class, she told us to nickname ourselves, alliteratively. I was Winsome Wendy (she was Ramblin’ Ruth, or Ruth Rambler, depending what season it was). Unlike most adults in our lives, she encouraged us to skip class occasionally and go have real adventures. “Oh, quit should-ing all over yourselves,” she’d say, when any of us would sigh in a world-weary way only a dramatic 19-year-old with a to-do list could. She told us to hug trees and howl at the moon. She told us to take care of each other.
On Facebook this week, dozens and dozens of us have turned her page into a digital memorial, sharing memories, posting old photos, and basically reminiscing about that special time in our lives when our “should-do’s” were small, our adventures great, and for most of us, things like death and loss and growing old seemed a million years away. And now this wonderful leader of ours who helped guide so many of us into adulthood and encouraged us to embrace our inner wierdos and be the best versions of ourselves is gone. And I missed my chance to tell her thank you.
There’s a photo of her on Facebook with a comment underneath she left a couple years back: “you’ll never know just how much i love you” goes out to ALL my darling poochies……….sing it out loud to yourselves, if you know that ole songie! xxoo r. rambler”
Here’s hoping she knew.