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Society / Profiles

Dallas’ Most Influential Woman — Legendary Philanthropist Swears She’s Driven by Guilt

September’s Bomb Girl

BY // 09.02.17

After a conversation with Ruth Altshuler, one thing is clear: They don’t make them like they used to.

Chic in Prada loafers and a Chanel cuff, taking sips of lemonade between her sharp-witted stories, Ruth talks about her brief meeting and photo op with Diana, Princess of Wales, while in London for an event with the Library of Congress. She discusses her admittedly privileged, albeit humbling, life growing up on Dallas’ prestigious Swiss Avenue. (“I got a convertible when I graduated high school,” she says. “And I had a fur coat — but it was muskrat.”) She tells stories of her acquaintances Sophia Loren, Helen Keller (a family friend), and Ginger Rogers.

Still, as anyone who knows her will agree, Ruth is not a pioneer for her social successes — those far from define her. Rather, she is unparalleled for her philanthropic impact and innate generosity, which have led her to serve organizations and individuals, from launching a Visiting Nurse Association campaign to put televisions and air conditioners in the homes of the elderly and disabled to hosting a Thanksgiving food drive in her front yard.

“Don’t ask me where I got this,” she says. “My mother was never like this. Her generation didn’t know what volunteering was. She never thought about being on a board — nobody did.”

Ruth credits her acts of compassion to one simple thing: “Guilt!” she says. “When I joined the Junior League, I realized how privileged I had been my whole life. It was fortunate because it made [volunteering] a career for me.”

This month, the United Way of Metropolitan Dallas toasts Ruth with a luncheon, celebrating 30 years of its Tocqueville Society, which she founded. (Ruth was the second woman on the board of the United Way, having served with Bill Gates’ mother — the first woman on the board.) So we asked our September Bomb.Com girl for a few lessons and anecdotes from her well-lived life.

The occasion of this photograph.

Lord Mountbatten is about as big as you get. He’s the one who plotted for his nephew Philip to marry the little princess. One day, Downtown Neiman’s called and said, “Lord Mountbatten has agreed to come and open the British Fortnight, and Mr. Stanley wants you to be chairman.”

He was a war hero. He was the last viceroy of India. He was the head of the Southeast Asia Burma Command and the head of the Navy during World War II. He was very glamorous. I remember seeing his picture and thinking, ‘You’re just the best looking thing!’

Then Neiman’s said he’s coming to Dallas, and I’m going to be the chairman and I thought, ‘Gulp!’ … I introduced him in the receiving line that night, and after it was over, he said, “I will see you tomorrow, won’t I, at the Marcuses? They’re having a luncheon out at their house.”

When I got there, he was at the door waiting for me. So, I go in the house with the biggie. Poor Billie Marcus had to rearrange her seating. I was between Lord Mountbatten and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. The next year, Lord Mountbatten invited us to the Broadlands, and we stayed in the Royal Suite, where Elizabeth and Philip had stayed and where Charles and Diana had stayed — and here we were playing house up there.

That time with Grace Kelly.

Stanley Marcus called and said, “Grace Kelly and her husband are going to be in town. Come to the brunch we’re having.”

Well, I was so overdressed. Gypsy Rose Lee never had anything on me! Grace Kelly came in, in what my mother would call a housedress. And here I was so overdone. I still laugh at myself about that.

The first act.

When we walked through Parkland for the first time, I saw a very beautiful woman paralyzed from the neck down. This started it all. I came home and was crying around the house about this woman. My whole family would go see her. On Sundays, we’d bring her home and have Sunday dinner. She loved corny dogs. So we’d take her to the Fair so she could have a corny dog.

Advice you give.

I brought my children up on the Bible and on the quotes from Albert Schweitzer. He said — and write this down: “Example is not the main thing in influencing others. It is the only thing.”

Your legacy.

If I’m making an impact, I’m not aware of it. People who make impacts don’t know. They are not thinking about, ‘Oh, how will I look from this angle.’

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