alum-purkaple.jpg

“I was just looking out for myself,” she says “I had an aptitude for it. I always got good grades, and studying math didn’t take me very long.”

Ruth Purkaple

Ruth Purkaple did not conform.

She came of age possessed of a discerning mind and a wanderlust generations before the modern liberation movement loosened the shackles on most women’s dreams. But rather than heeding the barriers of the day, she followed her heart and now, at the age of 100, she looks back on a full life with satisfaction and no regrets.

Purkaple (BA liberal arts ’31, MA religious studies ’33) was born and raised in southeast Denver, the eldest of four children of Charles and Nanaruth Haines.

The couple — even at the turn of the 20th century — were second-generation college graduates with advanced degrees. Nanaruth earned a master’s degree from the University of Denver in 1900, and later taught at DU; Charles, a Harvard law graduate, was for a time the Denver city attorney. So there was never a question, Purkaple says, of whether their children would attend college themselves. Purkaple, her two brothers and a sister all earned their degrees at DU.

A modest woman, Purkaple says she chose to major in mathematics and minor in international affairs because the subjects came easy to her and allowed more time to read about other countries.

“I was just looking out for myself,” she says “I had an aptitude for it. I always got good grades, and studying math didn’t take me very long.”

She completed her bachelor’s degree in just over three years then completed a master’s degree in religion and philosophy. Along the way, she was the president of the campus YWCA and was active in panhellenics, debate, and, as she puts it, “most anything in the politics of the school.”

“We had a great time,” she says of her extra-collegiate activities. “I sure know we spent an awful lot of time politicking.”

She preferred to be a force behind the scenes in student government, taking the chair of the political committee because she “liked running the show rather than being a nominee.” Furthermore, in that day, she says, the key jobs were held by men.

She made a career with the YWCA after college, first as a secretary for the organization at Kansas State University and then at the University of Washington. She remained active in the politics of social issues, demonstrating for peace, racial equality and economic justice. “We weren’t so involved with typical religion, but those issues were our trinity,” she says.

At Kansas State, Purkaple found a friend, Janet Samuel Tyson, who was as open to adventure as she, and they began traveling together around the world. Eventually, she says, she slept in every one of the 50 states and visited every continent except Antarctica.

Back in the business world, Purkaple hopped from the west coast to the east coast, where she worked for an international education consortium in New York. There, while attending services one Sunday morning at the Riverside Church in the late 1940s, she encountered a man she had known from the Kansas State faculty who was now at Columbia University.

William “Bill” Purkaple was a dignified man, she remembers fondly.

“He was very much the academic, a solid scholar,” she says.

They began seeing each other and wed in 1950. And though Bill Purkaple “was much more of a stay-at-home person,” she continued to whisk off to farther realms when opportunity knocked.

“I think he was sort of proud I was as revolutionary as I was,” she says of her husband, and it is clear she cared deeply for him. Sadly, they had little more than a decade and a half to spend together. Bill, a heavy smoker, died of lung cancer in 1966.

Purkaple eventually returned to Colorado and for 10 years was the director of the study-abroad program at the University of Colorado. She retired from CU in 1987 in order to care for her father.

“My father was 104, and I thought it would be good if I went home and cared for him,” she says. Charles Haines died at the age of 105.

Now Ruth is a centenarian herself, hobbled somewhat by age but still living alone in her sunny high rise apartment with a view of the Denver skyline. She counts herself fortunate to still have good eyesight as she is, she says, “a great reader.” And her interest in politics remains. Calling herself a “staunch Democrat,” she says she hasn’t failed to cast a vote for every one of that party’s presidential nominees since Franklin Roosevelt in 1932. Of the Democrat currently in the White House, she says, “I think he’s doing as well as anyone could,” but thinks President Obama may be “a little too much the intellectual.”

“If [former president Bill] Clinton could give Obama some of his informality, it would be good,” she says.

With a century of rich experiences to look back on, Purkaple advocates a philosophy of personal honesty and no regrets.

“People have to be true to themselves. I’m certainly glad I did,” she says. “I don’t have any particular regrets or changes I would have made. If Bill would have lived longer, that would have been the greatest thing.

Share
Ascend — The Campaign for the University of Denver