If anyone can be a tiger and a pussycat at the same time, Ruth Watkins can.
County transportation chief Carl Balser called her "a very sweet woman, yet one of our harsher critics," and Courtney Watson, County Council vice chairman, said she is "so kind-hearted, yet sharp and tenacious."
Watkins, 83 and legally blind, is well-known for her staunch advocacy for seniors' issues in Howard County. When a speaker informed a meeting of Watkins' Low-Vision Group this week that the new operator of the county's bus system might not be able to provide charter service to the annual Possibilities Fair, sponsored by the National Federation for the Blind in Baltimore, Watkins spoke up.
"Here, again, is an example of the county not considering seniors' needs," she told the small gathering, adding that participants might have difficulty attending the highly anticipated event Oct. 18.
"Now, don't go throwing out the baby with the bathwater," said Karen Hull, county mental health coordinator, to Watkins' concern over this potential glitch. "This is being checked out and should it prove true, I'm sure the county can find an alternate plan."
"If they don't work this out," Watkins said with a smile, "then you-know-who will be raising a little Cain."
Known to raise more than a little ruckus at times, Watkins has been the facilitator of the 12:30 p.m. meeting of the Low-Vision Group each Tuesday at the Ellicott City Senior Center for about five years.
The 14 members have vision impairments of varying degrees and depend on Watkins' concern and perseverance to help them get the services they need. The Ellicott City site also hosts a Tuesday morning session, and low-vision groups meet in Glenwood and the Bain Center in Columbia.
Watkins was invited to take over the group soon after she began losing her sight to macular degeneration. She said her left eye hemorrhaged in 1998, eclipsing her sight by leaving her with a large black spot in the midst of a corona of vision. A year after that, her husband, Roland, died.
"This group was my salvation at that time in my life," Watkins said with emotion. Her right eye hemorrhaged last year, but newer medications have allowed her to retain some central vision in it. "I often use a cane, but I get around well, and I believe that God has put me here to help others who can't help themselves," she said.
Watkins walks with a purposeful, confident stride, and she carries herself with an unflinching dignity. Yet she acknowledged being "dreadfully afraid" of steps and lauded the driver for H.T. Ride, the curb-to-curb arm of the county bus system, for escorting her arm-in-arm off the bus and to the front porch of her tidy brick home.
Watkins began volunteering in her community in 1954 when she and her husband moved to Ellicott City to raise their family. When her oldest son turned 5 the next year, kindergarten wasn't offered in county public schools, so she and several neighbors started a co-op. They convinced then-schools Superintendent John E. Yingling to set aside a room in St. John's Lane Elementary School for them to use. A star activist was born.
"I have always been very active," Watkins recalled proudly. "It would have driven me crazy to sit at home and just do housework then, ... and it would still drive me crazy now. Being involved gives a purpose to my life and keeps me mentally alert."
While she said "her seniors" are appreciative of the level of services provided them as county residents, she was quick to note that "there is always room for improvement," and her goal is to stay on top of the issues. Transportation is one of her main concerns, especially since a new bus provider came on board July 1. She remains dissatisfied with the telephone system that seniors use to contact H.T. Ride and complains that the average ride using this service is too long.
Balser said he understands Watkins' position, up to a point. He attributed more vehicles being out of service over the summer to "a Band-Aid approach to vehicle maintenance" necessitated by a series of state funding cutbacks. This summer's heat wave put an added strain on the fleet's air conditioning, he said, removing more vans from operation.
Four of the county's 22 buses are out of service, though Balser said that number had climbed higher in the summer, and waits were longer on occasion. Contributing to it all was the recent transition to a new bus operator, which he said has not been without its share of expected problems.
"I do believe the county is trying and things have been improving," said Watkins.
Nevertheless, she said she has no problem "complaining with my big mouth" to bring issues to light. Watson said she has encountered Watkins' steadfast approach at county meetings and admires her "persistence and passion."
Carla Buehler, director of the Ellicott City Senior Center, said she doesn't know anyone quite like Watkins."When Ruth gets a hold of something she is like a terrier; she shakes it till she gets some action."
Next up for Watkins is preparing her testimony for a hearing on the county's senior property tax credit, for which she claimed she has been wrongly turned down.
"I am not trying to find fault," she said, but she is getting all her ducks in a row and is ready to use her "good, big mouth" to speak up once again.
"I quite enjoy what I do, and I don't leave many stones unturned," said Watkins of her activism. "I am deeply interested in getting seniors as much help as I possibly can."
Is someone in your neighborhood worth writing about? Is there an event that everyone in Howard County should be aware of? Neighbors columnist Janene Holzberg wants to know about it. E-mail Janene at firstname.lastname@example.org, or call 410-461-4150.