When the irresistible force known as Ruth Bates walked into a classroom, wearing her signature red high top sneakers, her students knew immediately that it would be no ordinary class.
A teacher, gardener, cook, baker, traveler, hiker and sailor, Bates’s zest for life and boundless energy fired her students’ imagination, enabling them to tap into their own creativity.
Colleague Diane Perry said Bates’s passion for learning and teaching were equaled only by her love of the natural world.
“She entered my life first when I was teaching and I worked with her at Center School," Perry said. "She was a substitute teacher and planted so much love of learning. It just came so naturally to her; it was wonderful to watch. I watched her do literal planting of flowers and trees all over Mattapoisett and marsh grass on the beach to help keep the dunes and the waterfront from washing away. I watched her working with so many people and sharing her enthusiasm for life. And as I was thinking of all these things, a wonderful phrase came to mind that I think is really perfect for Ruth. I think of her as our own 'Ruth Appleseed.'”
Bates was known around town as an unabashed tree-hugger. And one of the many stories about her commitment to the environment dates back to an Arbor Day fundraiser 10 years ago. Nearly 100 white pine saplings went unsold at the event, so Bates loaded them into her car and planted them on the newly opened Nasketucket Bay state reservation, where they stand today lining both sides of the entrance.
Gary Johnson is the current president of the Mattapoisett Land Trust. He said Bates always was willing to fight for protecting the environment.
“What I respected most about Ruth was that she was always willing to speak her mind," Johnson said. "You could count on her at town meeting to speak up in favor of environmental petitions or anything that came up before town meeting, and she was a strong advocate for defending the environment. She wasn’t always successful. We failed when we tried to protect Eel Pond but she kept up the fight. She reminded me of the Dr. Seuss character The Lorax, because she spoke for the trees.”
Bates was born in New Bedford, and she graduated from the city’s high school in 1965. She went on to study English in college and graduate school before eventually making her way to Mattapoisett, where she raised her family. Among her many activities, she served as a trustee of the Mattapoisett Historical Society and was an original member of the town’s Tree Committee. She often was seen whizzing around town in her yellow VW bug. Neighbor Bo Perkins said Bates often entertained the neighborhood children, including Perkins’ three.
“She made a Christmas tree tepee with them once, which is like a tent with Christmas trees and you got to sleep in there once," she said. "Any time it snowed the kids would run outside, and she was either already in our yard making a sculpture, or they would go to her, and she would always include them. I remember she would randomly stop by with fresh bread that she’d made, wonderful warm homemade bread. My kids just felt like they were the most important people in the world. That’s how she made them feel.”
Elizabeth Leidhold is director of Marion’s Natural History Museum. When her son Jamie, was small, he went to Bates’ home each week for tutoring in creative writing.
“She was wonderful with him," she said. "A wonderful teacher, very passionate about what she was doing and very passionate about kids and education. She just brought so much to the kids. I’ll be forever grateful and I’ll miss her.”
Always busy, Bates never declined an opportunity to be of service to others. When Mattapoiset’s Kay Alden was teaching inner city kids in New Bedford she sometimes had trouble recruiting volunteers to help out.
“I always liked to invite guest teachers in to give a workshop," she said. "I met Ruth Bates one day and told her what I was doing and she said ‘Sure’. She came in and had decided to do a workshop on cookies, describing the cookie and what the cookies were all about. She not only taught the class, she brought homemade chocolate chip cookies with her. Some of the children may never have had a homemade cookie. She not only came for week one, she came for week one, two and three. The children never forgot it. “
For the last decade of her life Bates fought bravely as cancer slowly spread through her body. Finally in July of this year she decided to end treatment, according to her neighbor and close friend Deede Smith.
“Last summer," Bates said, "Ruth decided she was no longer going to fight her cancer, and she sent out a letter to all of her friends and family members and I’d like to read an excerpt of it: 'Take joy in each breath - each and every moment you still have life. Get outside and notice all that is Good and Beautiful in the world - sunsets, the moon and stars, animals, flowers, birds, bees, trees, wind, rain, snow, and most of all, the people who put up with you. Cherish them, tell them how much you love them and hold them close. And be thankful for whatever you are still capable of doing, feeling, thinking which means no dwelling on tomorrow and the negatives that may or may not come to pass. Ruth Bates.'
Ruth Bates died on November 12 surrounded by her family. She was 67.