By Sherrie Norris
A sharp, witty and entertaining Ruby Ragan Arnold began celebrating her 105th birthday last week— and she plans to continue the celebration at least through the coming weekend.
It all began with a few close family members and fellow residents of The Foley Center at Chestnut Ridge near Blowing Rock on her actual birthday, Wednesday, March 23.
A larger affair is planned for extended family members, friends, fellow church members and former neighbors to gather in her honor on Saturday, April 2, at Boone United Methodist Church, where she has been a faithful and active member for a number of years.
Mrs. Arnold (who prefers that we call her Ruby) told High Country Press earlier this week that her family is “making a big fuss over me,” but with a smile, she agreed that it’s not every day someone reaches the century mark — plus five.
“I never thought about living this long, since most of my family died in their 60s and 70s with heart problems,” she said. “But, here I am.”
And, only recently did she relinquish her independence and agree to move to the health care facility for what she thought would be a temporary stay for physical therapy.
“I did very well living alone and am quite sure I could still be on my own if I hadn’t fallen and got everyone shook up. I am legally blind, but I was able to get around well enough.”
According to Amy Townsend, facility social worker. “Mrs. Ruby is an amazing lady. To have remained at home as long as she did independently is definitely something to be proud of.”
Townsend said that “Mrs. Ruby” has adjusted well and is especially compatiblewith her next-door neighbor who has been a great encourager and motivator. They attend facility activities together, enjoy meals in the dining room, visiting with each other, and sharing stories and chocolate.
Townsend added that Ruby has very supportive family members who check on her often and are great advocates of her care.
Turning Back the Clock
Born Ruby Ragan on March 23, 1917 in Todd, she was one of 16 children, three of which were her half-brothers.
As the story goes, Ruby’s father, Wade Hampton Ragan, had hired Nancy Eveline Shelton to come into the home to help with Mary, his ailing wife, and their three small boys. Mary died soon after her third son was born. Nancy stayed on to help, and eventually married Mr. Ragan. To that union, 13 children were born, three of the girls dying young from childhood illnesses. Ruby was the youngest child and is today the lone survivor.
Ruby and her siblings were raised on the family farm. “We grew everything we ate, with the exception of flour and sugar,” she said. While her older siblings worked outside on the farm, she helped primarily with the indoor chores. But, she did love playing outside with the boys. “They didn’t give me much slack. They expected me to hold my own and I did.”
She has fond memories of attending Elkland School in Todd, where she played basketball “quite well,” and graduated at 16.
‘The ones in my class who went on to college ended up doing something spectacular, but I was not one of them,” she said.
Ruby went to work as a waitress in a restaurant in Boone. “I can’t recall the name of it, but it was located where Belk used to be.”
She was a good waitress and enjoyed the work, “most of the time,” she said. “I had to be on my feet all day long — and in those early days, there was no such thing as a tip.”
The first time someone left a quarter on the table, she didn’t know what to do with it.
After about a year, she moved on to work at Smithey’s before going with her brother and sister-in-law to Long Island, New York, where she stayed about six months helping with their newborn baby.
“I enjoyed my time there and had a boyfriend who took me into the city,” she said. “That was quite exciting for a country girl.”
Ruby met Carl Arnold when she returned to Boone.
“He was a mortician who was working at Reins Sturdivant Funeral Home at the time. He was invited next door to my cousin Jack’s birthday party and that’s how we met. I said to myself that day that he’s the one I’m going to marry. And I did, about three months later.
“We first moved to Logan, West Virginia. He worked at the funeral home and I worked at A & P and then in the bank. At that time, most of the men were away in the service, and the women were left to run the businesses.”
The couple relocated when Carl received a better offer in Winston Salem; Ruby first worked in a government factory there making rubber implements for military ships; then, she worked as a bookkeeper at City National Bank before they moved back to West Virginia for a longer stay, that time. “We followed the money.”
Eventually, they returned south to Burlington and then settled in Rockwell, where they built a home; her husband continued working in the local funeral home until his own demise in 1974 at the age of 65.
“His death was a devastating blow to me,” she admitted. “We did not have children, so I was basically alone. I stayed there for another 20 years before moving back closer to relatives in Lenoir.”
A few years later, she decided to move to Boone where her brother and sister-in-law lived, as well as other relatives nearby.
“I didn’t have any special male friends until I came to Boone,” she shared. “I had never thought of seeing another man, but there was this nice gentleman, Arnold Lester, who lived near me at Ivy Terrace that I enjoyed spending time with. I turned 100 while we were dating. We had a lot of fun over his name — I couldn’t get away from the Arnolds.”
Fifteen years at Ivy Terrace and a lot of friends later, Ruby was not prepared for the fall right before Christmas 2021 that landed her in rehab. “I was fortunate not to have broken anything, but it was decided for me that I should not return to living alone. So here I am.”
She describes the Foley Center as “a nice place and they treat me very well — but it’s just not home.”
For the last dozen years, she has been considered legally blind. “I can see large objects; I just can’t see people’s faces or features.”
She was in her late 80s when she had to give up driving her car. “That was a difficult thing for me, but I knew I could not put others at risk, so I hung up my keys.”
Has she enjoyed life? “Yes, I can say that I have. I always try to see things in a positive light and make the best of most situations.”
Does she have regrets? “Don’t we all? But, we don’t have to give into them.”
Is there anything she would like to do over? “Yes, a lot of it, if I could.”
For one, she would like to have continued her education. “But I couldn’t afford it. I would have studied something in the areas of hospitality — housekeeping, cooking, baking, things like that.”
She has always loved to cook and bake, and is known for a couple of specialties. “My peanut brittle and pound cakes have become favorites of several people. I shared my peanut brittle recipe with my late, great niece, Dawn Muirhead, who used a different kind of syrup than I did. It gave it a better taste. I had to admit, it was better than mine.”
And that pound cake? “I use twice as much flavoring in it as a normal recipe calls for – and I mix vanilla, almond, lemon and coconut flavorings together. It really is quite good.”
Blessed with a green thumb, Ruby has always loved raising flowers and working in a garden. And among her hobbies, she has also enjoyed knitting.
Ruby has seen a lot of changes in her lifetime, and not all good, she said. “I’ve tried to forget the bad things.
“There is so much happening right now and it is frightening. I never dreamed our country would be in the shape it is now in — and all because of one man.”
Does she vote? “You better believe I do! I have never missed a chance to vote. I plan to vote in the next election and more after that one, too.”
She has lived through several wars and has a long line of family patriots. “My great-grandfather was in the Civil War; my grandfather was in World War I. My father was born in 1863 during Lincoln’s presidency, but he was not of age to serve during any war. I had four brothers in World War II and several nephews in the Vietnam War. I am happy to say they all came back safely. Even with all of its flaws, I still think America is the greatest.”
When asked if there was anything else she would like to share about her life, she did not hesitate to reply: “I think I’ve already told you more than you need to know.”
Ruby will be retuning on Saturday to Boone United Methodist Church and is looking forward to visiting with family members and friends at her drop-in party, from 2-4 p.m. “I hope everyone will come and celebrate with me. I need to enjoy every minute that I can, and I plan to do just that.”