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Ruth Johnson Colvin, 101

Founder of Literacy Volunteers: Changing people’s lives through reading and language

By Mary Beth Roach

Q: You are 101 years of age — how does it feel?

A: It’s just a number, and I happen to have a big number. It’s what you do with your number. You have to have an open mind.

Q: You will be the commencement speaker at LeMoyne College in May. Can you summarize what you are planning to tell the graduates?

A: The only thing I’ll tell you — because I don’t want to tell you everything — is first of all congratulations. Then I’ll remind them it’s a lifelong learning. Even now, I, at 101, am still learning.

Q: What are you still learning?

A: You don’t know what you don’t know. You think, ‘Well, I know all about that.’ There’s much, much more out there beyond us. I was not a teacher, so starting literacy work was absolutely a new thing to me. It opened up a whole new career and lifelong learning. I made a lot of mistakes, but I learned from my mistakes. Take risks. If you don’t take some risks, you never get ahead. And some of those, you’re going to make mistakes on. I find I learn from my successes. I also learn from my mistakes.

Q: What of your accomplishments are you the most proud?

A: I think I’m most proud of the fact that we’re changing lives, we’re changing students’ lives through the reading and language. I often remind myself you’re also changing the lives of the tutors, including me, because we have opportunities as tutors to meet and talk with people of a different culture, of a different religion, of a different economic background, different race. And when you work together on a project, you forget about those things. And you learn more about them. I feel we’re one little part working on peace. I’m also proud of the honors. I find they bring awareness to the problem of illiteracy. And they recognize our literacy organization, giving us more recognition and support.

Q: What keeps you motivated?

A: I’m still teaching. I’m always doing research. The volunteers are wonderful. They deserve the best training. Also the students. They’ve had too many disappointments and discouragements. They need well-trained teachers, too. So, I’m always doing research in better training across the country.

Q: You came to Syracuse in the ‘60s. What got you interested in the literacy issue?

A: I knew of illiteracy around the world. I was aware of it because I’m a dedicated reader. And I had heard Dr. Frank Laubach. That got me interested in looking locally. When the 1960s census came out and said it’s in my city. Who are they? Why can’t they read? What are we doing about it? I did a little bit of research. Then I went to Syracuse University and talked with Dr. Frank Green. He had me meet with 20 of his Ph.D. reading specialists. That opened a big door for me. There were new ways to do things. And I found at Syracuse University, they were doing it. You have the person tell you what they want to learn. And that’s what I learned — learner-centered. My whole program is not curriculum-centered or teacher-centered. Find out what the student wants and then you have all the techniques, you focus on those.

Q: You were presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President George W. Bush in 2006. What did that mean to you?

A: I was overwhelmed. When they called, I said, ‘Are you sure you have the right name?’ I couldn’t believe it. I was amazed. When I talked to my family, my granddaughter looked it up, and she said, ‘Grandma, there are going to be 10 of you, nine men and you. You are going to be representing all women.’ It’s brought awareness of literacy and the immense problem, and that’s another reason I felt honored and good about it.