By Brandon Harrington, TMV Contributor
In 1958, 19-year-old Ruth Sullivan went into the Navy and became a Women’s Army Corps (WAC) Captain. For that, Ruth is a hero. For a New York City student actress, rising talent, and mother, she was a hero and survivor.
No one could have predicted how a small baby with a foreshortened head would blossom into a remarkable artist and cultural advocate. You could drive a truck through her paintings or one of her poems. You could pound two hammers into a living room wall and she’d never bat an eye. She might have been the most delightful human being you ever met.
Ruth passed away on December 31, 2019 at the age of 97. Her many friends, family, colleagues, and admirers paid tribute to her life with a private funeral and private memorial. Much of her work will be collected and exhibited at “Gift of Ruth Sullivan: Inside/Out,” an exhibit at the New York Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) from February 1, 2020 through August 31, 2020.
Ruth Sullivan was a great mother, a writer, an actor, and a advocate. Some of her friends think she was kind of famous. To quote one old favorite, “Ruth had something called a connoisseur’s touch.”
Ruth was just 17 years old when she went into the Navy. In 1958, she sent a letter to her mother letting her know that she didn’t want to enlist because she believed in those dedicated young men. “I want to be, first of all, a woman first, and I’d rather be smart,” she wrote.
Although she didn’t want to become a WAC, she did want to teach music to children with mental handicaps. By 1960, she was ready to sign up.
She was assigned to the psychological support section of the Navy recruiting office in Chicago. In 1961, she married at the age of 21. The wedding was officiated by her mother, Bernice, whom she saw as a mentor, a lector, and a Mommy Dearest.
The two worked at the Navy recruiting office until she became pregnant in the early 1960s. The day before she was due, Ruth was told to go to the hospital, where her husband Tom was waiting to deliver their daughter, Linda. Ruth was 19.
Linda had Down Syndrome. When she was born, the doctors told Ruth, “Your baby has Down Syndrome.” Ruth’s face fell. She couldn’t bear to look at her daughter. Linda was her only child. Ruth loved her dearly. However, they struggled through it, from that moment on.
Ruth helped her husband come to terms with his daughter’s condition, and Linda was eventually raised by Bernice. Linda and Tom stayed close, but she didn’t live with her mother in the same home.
Ruth’s devotion to her family was shown in many ways. She worked closely with their kitchen help, cooking, serving, and cleaning. She made learning about and about the mission of the Navy and its people a priority. The women’s division at the office made a point of calling out her name. The men’s division shouted at her behind her back, and she reacted with determination and humour.
When she was recruited for the women’s tour of duty, she thought it was over for her. As it turned out, she was going to be called up as a Marine and returned to the women’s tour in 1965.
By that time, Bernice had died, and Ruth had never been married. When the nurses came to carry Linda out of the hospital, Ruth got ready to close the door behind them. She was just 12 weeks out from giving birth to her third child.
Linda graduated from high school and enrolled in a community college in East Orange, New Jersey. She studied art and worked for over a decade as a production assistant for live television and radio. When Linda returned to New York City, she had to drop out of school because of her disability. Fortunately, a patient at Beth Israel, Linda’s dialysis dialysis clinic, took her in.
She worked there for more than a decade as a billing clerk. Linda got her GED and attended state colleges, including Baruch College. She would go on to be a third-grade teacher at a children’s art school.
After Linda’s husband passed away, she lived with a few friends, including a photographer and artist named Wallace Miles. She died in September 2010.