The Harvard Legacy of Silent, Selfless Leadership – Remembering My Grandmum, Ruth S. Felton ‘50

When people use the word legacy at Harvard today, they are often talking about a self-important undergraduate. When I think of legacy, I think of honoring my grandmother, Ruth Stuart Felton ’50 née Ruth Storey, who passed last week. While my family is not a Lowell, Roosevelt, Kennedy, or Winthrop, there is a Harvard legacy that I admire and that people like my grandmother embodied: one of quiet, selfless dedication to education and others.

What I admired about her, what her legacy is for me, is that she humbly and quietly served others, never taking attention or recognition and always embarrassed when it was thrust upon her. She used her degree not to get ahead, but to improve life for others. While many Harvard alumni make the news for their great accomplishments and I feebly admit that I announce even the most minor accomplishments on Facebook, there are thousands like my grandmother who humbly and quietly carry on the Harvard (“and Radcliffe, for goodness sake!” she would say) legacy. I would like to honor her and the legacy of all the other silent, selfless alumni by sharing her story with you.

A Rarity in Harvard History, an Awkward Reunion

Grandmum, as I called her, was a rarity in Harvard history. Admitted to Radcliffe College in 1945, she met my late grandfather, Harborne W. Storey ‘47 of Dunster House, in French class, in which she tutored him because his grammar was so terrible. She left Cabot House to raise 4 children across the river in Boston and then returned to earn her Harvard degree in 1969. By coincidence, Grandad’s 25th reunion was the same year as her commencement. During reunion week, she was in the ladies’ room when she overheard a woman say to her friend, “Can you believe that that man is married to a coed who is graduating this year? Who could it be?” She turned and interrupted, “Yes, that’s me!”

The First Female Trustee at Brigham & Women’s

If you met Grandmum, you would be forgiven for assuming that you were meeting a proper Boston Brahmin housewife. In fact, two young staffers from Northeastern University, where she earned a master’s in education, made just that mistake once. After putting their foot in their mouths, they realized that Grandmum, not Grandad, was the trustee emeritus of Northeastern’s board, past director of Northeastern’s National Council, and Harvard graduate with whom they were meant to meet.

Other than a brief time in Oregon, she lived her entire life between Boston and Massachusetts’ North Shore and dedicated her time to serving and improving these communities. She was the first female trustee of Brigham & Women’s Hospital. She went through 12 months of training to volunteer in the cervical clinic and maternity wards. A lifelong churchgoer, she served as Senior Warden at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Beverly Farms, where Gen. George S. Patton rose only to the level of vestry member. “Hope,” she told the minister Rev. Jim Purdy once, “is a gift from God, and the work we do to realize that hope is our gift in return.”

One of the Most Important Things in Life

“Education,” she always said, “is one of the most important things in life.” She taught school, was a member of the Corporation of the Winsor School and served on the Board of Trustees of her beloved St. Timothy’s School. Late in life, there were three things for which she would still travel cross-country: graduations, weddings and births. She delighted in going to graduations at all levels for her grandchildren, step-grandchildren, distant relatives, and friends. When I was a little kid, I remember she sent me a handwritten congratulatory note when I successfully read my first book. In her letter, she told me that learning to read was a great accomplishment and that it would serve me my whole life. She loved to read and always lit up when you asked her what she had picked up these days. When we visited in the summer, there were always the Boston Globe and the New York Times on the breakfast table and the Salem Evening News before dinner. As Grandmum said, “You can have your TV. You can have your texting. You have your this and your that. But really for me, the best thing is to read.” Even as she neared the end of her life, when I called to tell her that we were moving to Irvine, California, she said, “Oh! They have a good UC university there, I think, with a biomedical research program.” Of course, she was right.

My Favorite Memory

By happy coincidence, the year of my commencement, 2005, was the year of Grandmum’s 55th reunion. She had always said, “It never rains on Harvard Commencement Day,” and on that day in Harvard Yard, the sun was shining—”Blazing!” she said. When I walked over to meet her before the Alumni Parade in front of Massachusetts Hall, she got choked up, the first time I had seen that, and she said, “Oh what a wonderful day!” and then repeated, “Oh what a wonderful day!” with a tear in her eye. My step-father took a photograph of the three of us: my grandmother, my mother Claire Stuart Roth ‘74, and me—three generations of Harvard graduates celebrating our alma mater and the quiet, proud Crimson legacy that we inherited from that long line of alumni parading back to 1636.


Harvard Commencement 2005: Three generations of  alumni (L to R): Grandmum, me, and Mom


Bonus: Grandmum had a wonderful accent that is disappearing from the world. Thanks to Northeastern, you can hear a recording of her voice here.