Spirit of the 90s Ruth Bear Levy, lifelong dynamo, approaches 94 with high energy

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Ruth Bear Levy grabs a package of Berger's cookies out of the freezer. "Don't you just love them?" she asks.

Fresh from a music appreciation class, she is considering attending a current events class later in the day.

The following day, she plans to pack a picnic lunch and try the light rail for the first time. She wants to write an essay comparing the new transportation system with the streetcars that once carried Baltimoreans to work and play.

On Wednesday -- Veterans Day -- Mrs. Levy turns 94.

She has worn out six answering machines because she gets so many phone calls. At age 88, she researched and wrote a two-part article on her hometown hero, Baseball Hall of Famer Robert Moses "Lefty" Grove, for the Maryland Historical Magazine. And until not so long ago, Mrs. Levy faithfully packed a lunch (complete with homemade brownies) and delivered it to her son, Robert, an internist, at his downtown office once a week.

Well under 5 feet tall, with a determined jaw, twinkling eyes and thick, wavy white hair, she is a subcompact dynamo with the vitality of an entire freshman class.

Striding purposefully through life -- painting, writing, going to baseball games, the theater, to Lonaconing (her beloved hometown) -- Mrs. Levy leaves a wake of astonished friends and relatives as witnesses to her matter-of-fact zest for life.

"There's so much going on," she says simply. "I don't have time. Every day's different. I go out an awful lot. I want to paint. I want to write. I've got a lot to tend to."

Distilling the essence of Mrs. Levy is about as easy as harnessing any vital life force. "It's whatever that magic is that's born into a human being that we don't understand quite," says Gloria Melanson, admissions coordinator for Roland Park Place, the Baltimore retirement community where Mrs. Levy has lived for two and a half years. "How can we define talent and kindness and love and all those qualities in humanity? And she has them all."

At Roland Park Place, Mrs. Levy is a maverick. She "has contributed youth and spirit and energy and a whole philosophy of life that has not only picked up the spirit of the residents, but of the staff as well," Ms. Melanson says.

A mind ready for what's new

For Mrs. Levy, there is no other way to live. Growing up with the century, she has remained young by keeping her keen mind open to all that is new and wondrous.

And yet, Lonaconing, the small Western Maryland mining town where Mrs. Levy was born, remains the wellspring of much of her energy and creativity.

Although she has not lived there since leaving at age 17 to attend Goucher College, vivid memories of the plucky George's Creek Valley coal town have colored her imagination ever since.

In scores of impressionistic paintings, and in her 1983 memoir, "A Wee Bit O' Scotland: Growing Up in Lonaconing, Maryland, at the Turn of the Century" (published in 1983 by the Maryland Historical Society), Mrs. Levy looks with a child's eye at the once-thriving town where her father owned a men's clothing store on Main Street.

Like a spirited girl

It is as if Ruth Barbetta Bear, the only child of Linnie and Mose Bear, were still a spirited young girl catching a ball tossed by native son Lefty Grove, pulling pranks, listening to the town band and scaling Dan's Rock to view the four-state vista beyond.

And it is as if Lonaconing had never plunged into an intractable decline but remained the bustling commercial center it once was. In Mrs. Levy's mind, it's still the same old 'Coney.

"Many people don't regard their early life as deeply as I do," Mrs. Levy says, a member of the Lonaconing Hall of Fame.

An enduring love for her parents -- who spent their final years with her, in Baltimore -- is woven tightly into the fabric of Mrs. Levy's home memories.

"She scolded me a lot," Mrs. Levy writes about her mother in her memoir. "But lovingly. She had to scold me because nobody else in our good-natured family -- not Grandpa or Grandma or Papa -- ever would."

Of her father, a carefree man with a lively sense of humor, she writes, "He was my oldest and dearest friend, and he saw me as a good pal. We never missed a ball game, or a circus, or a walk in the woods, or a picnic, or a band concert or a parade."

Mrs. Levy graduated from college in 1921. She was a member of "one of Goucher's greatest classes," says Wes Poling, Goucher's vice president for development and alumni relations. About 25 of Mrs. Levy's classmates are still living, and they continue to get together on special occasions, including their 70th reunion last year, Mr. Poling says.

Romance in Baltimore

After college, Mrs. Levy planned to attend the Columbia School of Journalism in New York. But as she and her mother were traveling there, Mrs. Bear fell ill, and they were grounded in Baltimore. While her mother convalesced here, Ruth Bear met a young physician named Charles S. Levy. They fell in love, and Mrs. Levy never made it to New York.

Married to a busy doctor and with a young son to rear, Mrs. Levy, in many ways, was the traditional wife and mother, planning parties and tending her Baltimore household.

But her son grew up and her parents died. Mrs. Levy began to paint, with her husband's strong encouragement. "His words still ring in my ears, 'Pursue your interests. Don't depend on me,' " Mrs. Levy remembers.

With other doctors' wives, Mrs. Levy participated in a workshop led by the late Baltimore painter Herman Maril, and she fell to the task like a natural. Although an inspiring mentor, Mr. Maril urged her not to let lessons cramp her uncanny sense of color and composition.

Mrs. Levy painted prolifically and traveled solo to New York City to visit museums and to sketch. One of her paintings dating from that time captures the Whitney Museum and the many visitors sauntering through its galleries. It speaks of leisurely Sunday afternoons. Soft, dreamy and fondly idealized, it is also a tangible blueprint of Mrs. Levy's gentle yet unfaltering way of remembering her extensive travels and adventures.

Art in the park

As she honed her own style, Mrs. Levy also worked with another esteemed Baltimore artist, the late Walter Bohanan. She remembers bucolic sessions in Druid Hill Park where she would lug easel and canvas to a faraway place under a tree, and he would tell her, "Now, don't think of anything, except getting that landscape down on canvas."

When her husband died in 1972, Mrs. Levy threw out her oil paints, brushes and paintings, which her family wisely retrieved. But it was Mr. Maril who snapped her out of incapacitating grief.

"Herman called four months after Charles died. 'I want you to come out here,' he said. He wanted me to paint.

"I went out to him and told him I wasn't going to paint any more. There was no one to paint for."

"Paint for me," Mr. Maril said.

"I went right to work," Mrs. Levy says.

Today, Mrs. Levy's paintings hang in her apartment, her family's offices and homes, the Jewish Historical Society and the homes of the few admirers able to convince her to sell her work. Other paintings are stashed away, because there is not room for them all.

There are paintings of Baltimore, of European cities, of Lonaconing. The paintings capture piles of crabs, sailors gathered on a quay, heaps of old shoes, children jumping rope, and a train snaking through a green field in Western Maryland as BTC spectators wave. There have been numerous shows, at the Baltimore Museum of Art, the Jewish Historical Society, Peale Museum and galleries here and on the Eastern Shore.

Mrs. Levy continues to paint. "Everything I see I want to do," she says.

She also pays regular visits to museums and galleries, frequently with her friend and second cousin, Peggy Bohanan, Walter Bohanan's wife. "More than anybody I know, she's seriously interested and quite knowledgeable," Ms. Bohanan says. "She's also a pretty good painter. . . . She did have good instruction, but you can have good instruction and not know what to do with what you take in."

Like her artwork, friendships are critical to Mrs. Levy. Whether it is the people she sits next to every season at Center Stage, or an employee at her Cross Keys hair salon who asks her to proofread his college essays, she strikes lasting alliances. "I stay in touch with everyone I ever knew. That's the reason I'm so busy. I'm meeting new ones all the time," Mrs. Levy says.

A 75th reunion

Last summer, when Mrs. Levy returned to Lonaconing for her 75th high school reunion, she saw her oldest friend of all, classmate Jen Atkinson Holmes.

In "A Wee Bit O' Scotland," Mrs. Levy remembers: "Whatever Jenny did I thought was great. Jenny could make a sled go faster down hill, could get back up the hill quicker, could bat a ball further and pitch a stinging curve. I was always right behind her trying to keep up with her expertise."

When Mrs. Holmes, also 93, arrived at the June reunion, the friends embraced. "I love you," said Mrs. Holmes, a lifelong 'Coney resident.

Throughout the evening, the two said little. They were content to be next to one another and regard the spectacle -- a gathering of all Central High classes -- that surrounded them.

Today, one of Mrs. Levy's closest friends is her granddaughter Elisabeth Levy Malis, 33. The feeling is mutual. "I've always said that my grandmother was my best friend," says Ms. Malis, director of the department of regional promotion for Maryland Public Television. "She's always been very supportive. She always believed in me. Every kid needs someone like that. She was the one for me."

When she was 7, Ms. Malis fell in love with "The Sound of Music." At her request, Mrs. Levy took her to see the film five times at the Westview Cinema. And when Ms. Malis herself was a film student, Mrs. Levy starred in her documentary about an artist at work. Then in her 80s, she had to mount the steps of the Baltimore Museum of Art for 10 takes. No matter. It was for her granddaughter.

Recently, Ms. Malis also traveled with her grandmother by train to New York to see a Herman Maril retrospective. They stayed at the Plaza Hotel and decided to take a horse and carriage ride through Central Park. The driver's starting offer was $45.

"We don't want to buy your horse and carriage. We just want to ride around a little bit," Mrs. Levy told him.

With help from Mrs. Levy's disarming quip, the two tourists knocked down the price a bit and enjoyed a splendid ride in the park.

For all her energy and public spunk, though, she is also a bit of a closet worrier -- about money, about her health, about her three grandchildren. But a little chronic pessimism doesn't stop Mrs. Levy from looking to the future while, as always, treasuring the past.

"I do feel the best is yet to be," she says.

THE LEVY FILE

$ Born: Nov. 11, 1898.

Favorite saying: "I may be short, but I'm mighty."

Nickname: "Teddy Bear," earned when she was Ruth Bear, a Goucher College student.

Loves: Teddy bears.

Afraid of: Cats.

Makes: Great brownies.

Favorite television show: "Wall Street Week."

Knows: Everyone in town.

Has always wanted to: Visit the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y.

When in Lonaconing: Breaks into a Scottish brogue.

Admired for: Sharp sense of humor.

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