Possibly the South Bay’s oldest resident, Ruth Williams lives a full 106 years

Ruth Williams

Ruth Williams shortly before World War I.

Ruth Adeline Williams was ahead of her time. If she had only been born a half century later, the longtime Redondo Beach resident could have served as the spokesperson for Vitality City.

Her zest for life, healthy eating habits and exercise regimen were instrumental for Williams possibly being the South Bay’s oldest living resident at the time of her death on April 10.

Born May 22, 1904 in Spokane, Wash., Williams was six weeks shy of her 107th birthday when she died peacefully of natural causes at the Redondo Beach home she shared with her daughter Claire Ellis.

The matriarch of a close-knit family that included two daughters, 10 grandchildren, 26 great-grandchildren and seven great-great grandchildren, Williams lived a life as fruitful as the healthy eating habits that became her creed.

During the Great Depression, Williams met and married Chet Williams and the couple had two daughters. Claire’s sister, Audrey Weitzman, of New York City, was able to spend time with her mother prior to her passing.

Chet, who worked in the art department of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and built sets for the epic movies Wizard of Oz and Gone With the Wind, died in 1977 shortly before turning 103 years old.

“I know dad lived as long as he did because of mom,” Claire, 78, said. “They grew corn and beans and mom was a big salad eater, which was passed down from her mother. She instilled her lifestyle of healthy eating and exercise to her entire family.”

Ruth Williams

The image of Ruth Williams, left, was depicted on the former band shell in Veterans Park in Redondo Beach.

Like her husband, mother and brother, Ruth’s ashes were scattered at sea off the coast of Redondo Beach. Although not intentionally planned, it was seemed appropriate that the modest ceremony took place on Earth Day and Williams’ final resting place would be the Santa Monica Bay where she enjoyed so much of her life.

Williams and her family moved to Redondo Beach when she was seven years old. “My folks had a restaurant on the little pier,” Williams recalled in a 2009 interview with the Easy Reader while celebrating her 105th birthday. “I was free as a bird and could go anywhere I wanted. With the beach and all the games along the pier, it was a lot of fun growing up in Redondo.”

Williams attended elementary and high school in Redondo Beach before becoming a telephone operator. She recalled the pier area being the hub of activity in the city. “There wasn’t much else but a lot of sand dunes,” Williams said. “We would ride the (Pacific Electric) Red Cars to get where we were going.”

In 1913, the Lightning Racer roller coaster was built adjacent to the pier. “I remember watching the big roller coaster come crashing down,” Williams related of the devastation caused by a March, 1915 storm.

One of Williams’ favorite spots was the Salt Water Plunge. She became an avid swimmer and enjoyed swimming in the ocean for much of her life.

Ruth Williams

Ruth Williams and great granddaughter Genevieve Ellis enjoy shared memories while looking at old photographs.

As a youth, she met famed surfer and Olympic gold-medal swimmer Duke Kahanamoku, who instructed her on the proper hand technique of paddling. “He taught me how to use my hands and I tried my best to copy him,” Williams explained. “Boy, you could really get a good push in the water.”

In later years, Williams and a lifeguard would take to the ocean, swimming one mile out and one mile back. “The boat would come by with all the tourists and they would wave and yell at us,” Williams said. “I think they were surprised to see us way out there.”

Williams felt natural in a swim suit. “One year, they got a bunch of us girls together as a fundraiser for the war effort.” Williams recalled. A photo taken at the time was the inspiration for a section of the mural painted by Los Angeles artist Ray Constantine in 2001 on the former Veteran’s Park Bandshell in Redondo Beach that illustrated historical beach scenes.

Williams’ impression of a healthy lifestyle went well beyond painted stucco and her own family members. It touched a number of generations, including youngsters living 2,500 miles away.

Williams enjoyed visiting her granddaughter, Karen Ellis, who is a school teacher at Haleakala Waldorf School in Maui.

“I remembered when I was small and she showed me the ocean for the first time,” Karen said. “The ocean will always remind me of her. She could swim so much better than me even when she was in her nineties. She used to be a member of the club down at King Harbor in Redondo Beach and swim in the pool there. When she came to Maui, she kept swimming while mom and my friends and I got out and sat on the beach. She could swim forever.”

After Williams’ death, Karen and her friends on the island celebrated Williams’ life with clam chowder and “Flying Carpets,” a traditional snack Williams would make for her family that consisted of a wheat cracker topped with mayonnaise, avocado, tomato slices, sprouts and jack cheese. Rose petals were tossed into the ocean tide as a remembrance.

“We toasted to Grama with champagne and poured some into the earth ‘for friends past,’ which is a Hawaiian blessing,” Karen said. “Grama loved to read poetry and we would have a glass of Blackberry wine (her mother used to do this also) and read, then she would go outside and pour some into the earth with laughter, love and great passion.”

Karen said many of the parents and students – past and present – who knew her grandmother and her stories of life brought flowers, card and pictures in her memory. A wooden bench and rose bushes are planned to be placed on the campus in her honor.

Ruth Williams

Ruth Williams, right, and a friend spend a day at the beach as teenagers.

A world of change

Family members feel Williams’ long life was in part due to her mindset of keeping up with the times. She watched the news regularly and had an open mind.

“I think one of the most amazing things about Grama was how she changed with the times,” Karen Ellis said. “She was so interested in the news, discoveries, and all possibilities. She was open to all of them. I guess she had seen so many improbable things become reality in her time. I remember going to POP (Pacific Ocean Park) and Marineland – what fun. She used to drive everywhere in her VW bug and take all us grandkids hiking.”

Williams drove until the age of 96 and on her 105th birthday, recalled receiving her license as an octogenarian. “When I got my license I was happy when I looked at it. I said ‘It took 80 years, but I finally have a good picture of myself.’”

From two World Wars to air and space travel to the ever-changing computer age, Williams lived through many events that shaped the world as we know it today, and enjoyed discussing current events with her family.

The year Williams was born Henry Ford set a new automobile land speed record of 91.37 mph. The current record for a piston engine, wheel driven vehicle is 415.896 mph set in 2008.

That same year, U.S. Army engineers began work on The Panama Canal and Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany became the first person to make a political recording of a document, using Thomas Edison‘s cylinder.

Also in 1904, Cy Young of the Boston Americans threw the first perfect game in the modern era of baseball and the third Modern Olympic Games, which opened in St. Louis as part of the World’s Fair, consisted of 12 countries and 681 athletes and was the first Olympic Games where gold, silver and bronze medals were awarded. Williams saw the world’s greatest sporting event grow to include 204 countries and 11,028 athletes at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, China.

During Williams’ infancy in 1904, Republican incumbent Theodore Roosevelt defeated Democrat Alton B. Parker for his second term becoming the first of 19 presidents during Williams’ lifetime.

Williams out lived notable figures with 1904 birthdates such as musicians Glenn Miller (d.1944), Jimmy Dorsey (d. 1957) and Count Basie (d. 1984), actor Cary Grant (d. 1986), American gangster Pretty Boy Floyd (d. 1934) and children’s author Dr. Seuss (d. 1991).

In 1906, on the day Williams was celebrating her second birthday, the Wright Brothers received a patent for their aircraft. It marked the beginning of an air and space industry that captivated William’s interest. She would take her kids and grandkids to watch airplanes arrive and depart from various airports.

“Mom would take us to Clover Field in Santa Monica,” daughter Claire said. “My uncle was a navigator on a B-24 Liberator and I remember he was leaving for a mission in World War II and flew over our house. My uncle had the pilot dip his wings as it flew over so we knew it was him.”

Claire’s oldest son Mark Ellis, of Long Beach, remembered Williams picking him up in her VW bug when he was six or seven years old.

“She would drive to Playa del Rey and we’d hang out by the sand dunes and the airplanes from LAX would fly right over our heads.”

In 1961, when Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space and completed a single orbit around the earth at 17,600 mph, it marked the beginning of space travel and an adventure that also piqued Williams’ interest. She enjoyed watching Neil Armstrong becoming the first man to walk on the moon and the Space Shuttle program created by President Ronald Reagan in 1984.

Numerous medical advancements were made during the span of Williams’ life including Alexander Fleming’s discovery of penicillin (1928), the first heart transplant (1967), the birth of the first test tube baby (1978) and the first cases of AIDS (1981).

Williams was alive when the first sonar and radar devices were invented and when she was six years old, the first talking motion picture was released. Other major inventions created during her lifetime were the neon lamp (’10), the bra (’13), the modern zipper (’13), stainless steel (’16), robots (’21), frozen food (’23), television (’27), aerosol can (’27), jet engine (’30), microwave oven (’46) and Velcro (’48).

She witnessed the computer age grow from a room-sized machine to one that fits in a pocket. Gasoline-powered cars became electric. Photography advanced to Polaroid to disposable to digital cameras. Credit cards, bar codes and ATMs came into existence.

During Williams’ life, the world was introduced to Lifesavers candy (’12), PEZ (’27) and bubble gum (’28). Crossword puzzles came along in 1913 and generations of children would spend hours playing Monopoly (’34), with the 1943 creations Slinky and Silly Putty, the Frisbee (’48), Hula Hoop (’58) and the Barbie doll (’59).

Williams was only two years old when the San Francisco earthquake hit but on her birthday in 1960, the strongest earthquake ever recorded hit Chile with a magnitude of 9.5. Williams said the 6.4 Long Beach earthquake in 1933 as being the most powerful she felt in her lifetime.

Williams survived the Great Depression and was alive when other disasters occurred such as the sinking of the Titanic, the Hindenburg explosion, the volcanic eruption of Mount St. Helens and the Chernobyl nuclear accident. She also remembered the devastation caused by the creation of atomic bomb in 1945.

Keys to longevity

Williams was an avid believer that exercise and a healthy diet are the keys to a long life. Claire remembers her mother working out while watching fitness pioneer Jack LaLanne, eating plenty of fruits and vegetables and no deep-fried foods. Williams would often say “Staying fit is a good hobby.”

Family members recalled Williams’ love of baking and growing alfalfa sprouts in pots long before they became a staple in most markets. She was known for her cabbage rolls and cole slaw with shrimp and made homemade yogurt and juiced carrots years before becoming popular with health food fanatics. Sour expressions appear on the faces of William’s grandchildren when they tell of receiving teaspoon doses of cod live oil when visiting their grandmother.

“She would tell us that if you eat a good, healthy variety then you can have dessert,” said grandson Sean Ellis, of Redondo Beach. “She was also very big on breathing. She would teach us to breathe while we exercised. It was part of her routine. Back then, nobody ever talked about breathing methods when exercising. It was taken for granted. She was an amazing woman who was well ahead of her time.”

Even during the cooler winter months, Williams was known to have a door or window open so she could enjoy her fresh air.

While Williams stressed the importance of maintaining a balanced diet she was not without a few vices.

“Every now and then, I would drive her to McDonald’s for a Big Mac and fries,’ Sean said. “She loved those french fries.”

Williams was also known to have an occasional splash of Bailey’s in her coffee.

Her true passion was the ocean. From an early age, Williams was enamored with the sea and passed on her enthusiasm to the rest of her family. When her grandchildren were young, she would give them sticks to poke into the sand as they waded into Santa Monica Bay, providing balance from the oncoming waves.

“She would take me fishing off the piers and sometimes on the half-day boat The Blackjack,” Sean recalled. “That’s not a memory most people have of their grandmother – a dad or grandpa, maybe.”

Along with swimming and walking, Williams stayed active mentally knitting and crocheting items for the family. She loved poetry, Shakespeare and music, particularly opera.

“Mom and dad enjoyed going to Las Vegas,” Claire said. “They went to Las Vegas when the El Rancho (opened in 1941) was the only casino in the city. They watched Sammy Davis, Jr. play drums as a boy with the Will Mastin Trio. Mom always had a knack of picking out the right slot machine.”

Family members were thankful that Williams’ health enabled her to enjoy every last day of her life.

“Right up to the end, Grandma had a sharp wit about her,” Mark said. “She was always on the ball. I feel her joyful, optimistic personality helped her live as long as she did. She always looked on the bright side of things and when I had down times in my life, she always knew how to cheer me up.”

During her 105th birthday party, Williams related her credo. “My philosophy is to get along with people, no matter what the difference of opinions are. That way everybody’s happy.”

Fond Family Memories

Wonderful. Amazing. Incredible. Unique Warrior. Those are just a few of the words used by family members to describe Ruth Williams and all are in agreement that she was the cornerstone of the family.

Growing up in a tough childhood environment that would have made many people bitter, her experience had the opposite effect, teaching Williams how to appreciate life.

“She had such strength of mind, there was not anything that she could not defeat if she put her mind to it and nobody better get in her way,” said granddaughter Julie Croy, of Twin Falls, ID. “She was full of wisdom, love, laughter and independence. If there was something she didn’t comprehend, she would say ‘It passes all understanding.’ She lived her life as each day was the last and loved the same way.”

“Everything she did was for us kids, her grand kids and great grand kids,” Claire said of her mom. “She was always about other people. My mom and grandmother didn’t attend church but were spiritual people, respecting nature and love of family.”

When Claire’s marriage dissolved, it was Williams who was instrumental in moving Claire and her seven children from Texas to Redondo Beach.

Grandsons Mark, John, Jimmy and Sean and granddaughters Julie, Karen and Kathy attended Redondo Union High School where John, Jimmy and Sean became prominent athletes in the area, on the gridiron and inside the boxing ring.

Williams was a sports fan who enjoyed watching the Lakers but watching her grandsons play football brought her the most joy. Jimmy, also a CIF wrestling champion at Redondo, played football at Boise State and enjoyed a brief career in the NFL with the Los Angeles Raiders. Sean followed his brother to Boise State where he also played on the gridiron.

Williams was very supportive of her grandsons even when Jimmy and Sean followed older brother John’s footsteps into the world of boxing. She wouldn’t watch them fight, but followed their careers nonetheless.

“Grandma always pushed us to play sports,” said Jimmy, who still lives in Boise. “She would join us in our activities. She’d take us hiking, fishing or to the beach and play in the sand with us. I remember when I was young playing with a collection of old coins she kept at her house.”

John became a boxing promoter holding events such as Boxing at the Beach at the Redondo Beach Performing Arts Center. Jimmy was also a heavyweight fighter who once battled George Foreman in an HBO-televised match.

“I used to love to eat at Grandma’s house,” John said. “She always cooked such healthy meals and made sure I had the rights nutrients and enough protein to help me with my training.”

Williams’ lifestyle inspired granddaughter Kathy Ellis, of Torrance, to change career paths.

“I’m striving to become a fitness instructor in honor of my grandma,” Kathy said. “I feel she is passing the baton on to me.”

Kathy said her grandmother encouraged her to never give up on her art career and that Williams found inspiration through music.

“Music, especially opera, uplifted her soul,” Kathy said. “It really helped her during her hospital stay as she recovered from a broken leg earlier this year. She was such a humble, simple and sweet person. Vanity never applied to her.”

Living in Redondo Beach, Sean’s children James Ellis, a 5th grader at Washington Elementary, and daughter Genevieve, an 8th grader at Adams Middle School, felt fortunate to have been able to spend so much time with their great grandmother.

“She was incredible,” James said. “She was born in the early 1900s and was able to still walk, see and hear. I’d sit next to her and we’d watch TV. I’ll miss that.”

Audrey Croy, a 17-year-old great granddaughter living in Twin Falls, ID, remembered Williams with fondness.

“She was an amazing lady who always made me laugh and smile,” Croy said. “No matter how many grandkids or great-grandkids she had, she would make you feel like you were the special one.”

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