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Ruth Alden Jones Ryan's life story is as remarkable as her art; and her character and personality win over all who come in contact with her.

She inspires both young and old, and her contributions, through her art, to historic preservation are legendary. Born on November 10, 1908, in Malone, New York, and christened Ruth Alden Jones, her lineage goes back 11 generations to the country's founders. Her ancestors, John and Pricilla Alden crossed on the Mayflower, nine of her relatives fought in the Revolutionary War, and her great grandfather, Dr. Calvin Skinner, was a celebrated Civil War surgeon.


As a child, Ruth battled chronic pneumonia. According to her mother, she was confined to bed for long periods of time and found contentment only when she was drawing pictures. When folks asked what she wanted to be when she grew up, she replied, "I am going to be an artist!"

Photo courtesy of Susan Tobias, freelance writer


After graduating from high school in 1927, Ruth studied fashion design and illustration at the Traphagen School of Fashion in New York City. Because of the depression, the employment opportunities for designers and illustrators were limited and she was forced to freelance in order to make a living. Somewhat disillusioned, she returned home and became a self-taught photographer. Photographing children with golden curls and treasured family pets, she developed her black and white prints in a darkroom in the basement of the family home at 35 Elm Street and then hand painted the prints in oils producing beautifully colorized photographs long before the advent of color photography. During the ensuing decade, she busied herself with photography, painting and setting up a gift center in a local clothing store. Eventually, Ruth and her sister Eleanor opened their own unique photography and gift shop called My Sister and I. With vision, determination, an acute sense of beauty and quality, and lots of hard work, the sisters created a Greenwich Village style shop right on Elm Street which, over the next 29 years, would gain nationwide recognition.


In 1949, Thomas Murphy, then editor of The Gift and Art Buyer trade magazine headquartered in New York City, conceived the idea of having a column dedicated to the day-to-day doings in a gift shop and set about finding a retailer to write it. He decided that Ruth was the perfect person for the job and persuaded her to take on the assignment. For the next 19 years, from 1950 until 1969, Ruth wrote the monthly column "From a Gift Shop Diary" and the country learned all about the gift industry from one who lived it. An editorial in the April 1960 issue of Gift and Art Buyer paid the following tribute to her column:


IT ALL BEGAN on page 44 of the April 1950, issue. "Of all things—a Diary!" the writer exclaimed: "it seems inconceivable that the day by day doings of such a small gift shop could be of interest to the outside world." That was ten years ago, and the writer, Ruth Jones of My Sister & I gift shop, Malone, N.Y., has been merrily exclaiming and adding skeptically ever since—not only about their shop and its "day-by-day doings", but about other people and other shops, about the gift industry and life in general.

"From a Gift Shop Diary" is different things to different people. Some have dismissed it as "corn." Some have accused us of making the whole thing up. However, the Diary is real, the people in it are real, and as its many devoted readers know, this reality is its charm. If this is reality that sees significance in little episodes, that finds unashamed joy in someone’s small kindness to another, then so be it. Yet here is plain-spoken honesty that delights in the humor of things—in the all-absorbing, time consuming task of the moment; in the absurd demands of some overbearing customer; in the comic disarray that occasionally prevails at 21 Elm. Should this seem like editorial boasting about a feature we regularly publish, permit us the indiscretion this once. We’re Diary fans, too.


During the late 1940's, New York governor Nelson Rockefeller appointed Ruth to the New York State Women's' Business Council as the representative for small businesses. She distinguished herself as a member of that board for more than ten years.


In 1971, after the tragic loss of her sister Eleanor to cancer, Ruth closed the shop at 21 Elm Street signaling the end of an era. The shop had become much more than just a gift shop, it had become a beacon for those searching for treasure. Every gift purchased carried the well-known My Sister and I seal, a cameo silhouette depicting the two sisters. Today, gifts from My Sister and I are considered heirlooms, priceless treasures to be passed down from generation to generation.


At age 66, Ruth married her long-time friend and dance partner Arthur Ryan. They shared a passion for ballroom dancing and graced dance floors from the familiar Crossroads in Moira, New York to Frances Langford's famous Outrigger Restaurant in Jenson, Florida. In 1984, they won first prize at Lake Placid's Spring Swing dancing to the music of Duke Ellington's big band at the Olympic Ice Center.


Ever proud of her roots as an 11th generation Alden of the Mayflower Alden's and determined not to let history slip by unrecorded, Ruth wrote the book "Star of the North Country." The book, which is based on the journals of her great grandfather, Dr. Calvin Skinner, details the pioneer beginnings of Malone, New York and the surrounding North Country and its earliest settlers. Dr. Skinner, along with Vice-President Almond Wheeler, were responsible for starting the Republican Party in Northern New York. As a delegate to the 1860 Republican Convention in Chicago, Dr. Skinner represented Franklin County, N.Y., in nominating Abraham Lincoln as the party's candidate for president. Dr. Skinner, a volunteer surgeon during the Civil War, was later commissioned as Surgeon Major of New York's 106th Regiment Corps of Surgeons.


With the death of her husband in 1996, Ruth made a fateful decision. "After my husband's death, I realized that I was alone. I didn't want to see people looking at me with sadness, I didn't want pity, but would like to return to my early love of drawing pictures. With recent creations and many dating back to the 1920's, wouldn't it be wonderful to share them all in some way?" Thus, with the enthusiastic support of her stepdaughter, she launched a new career creating note cards. She chose the name Hug Bugs Un-ltd and later, opened Hug Bugs Gallery Gift shop, which offers for sale her collection of original framed prints, gift and greeting cards, stationery and collectible porcelain gifts. In 2000, two of her originals were reproduced into limited edition Giclee fine art prints. Today, Hug Bugs is a hubbub of activity and a gathering place for citizens interested in preserving the town's past.


In recognition of Ruth's 90th birthday in 1998, the mayor of Malone issued the following proclamation:

"WHEREAS, Ruth Jones Ryan has for many years, given of her time and talents to the development of downtown Malone, and WHEREAS the Village of Malone thanks Ruth for her generous help and interest in the many projects for the betterment of the Village of Malone, THEREFORE, LET IT BE KNOWN, in celebration of her 90th Birthday, That I, as Mayor of the Village of Malone, do hereby declare that November 10, 1998, will be known as RUTH JONES RYAN DAY in the Village of Malone."


In the winter of 1998, Ruth undertook an effort which galvanized the entire Malone community...the restoration of Memorial Park. What was originally a lush green park with shrubs, trees, flowers and a wrought iron fence circling war monuments had been transformed 10 years earlier by the state Department of Transportation into a 5 million dollar travesty popularly known as "the concrete bunker." Stripped almost entirely of its greenery, raised to a preposterous height and embellished with tons of concrete, the park had become a littered eyesore that dampened the spirits of the entire village. Ruth, through her leadership and her art, united the town behind the effort to raise enough money to rip out the concrete and restore the park to its original beauty. With her "can do" spirit and the backing of the entire community, the mission was accomplished.


In February 1999, Ruth was chosen to be the Archbishop of Malone's Chamber of Commerce Winter Carnival. In his letter to Ruth, State Assemblyman Chris Ortloff writes:

"I would like to join with relatives, friends and the Malone community in extending my congratulations to you upon your selection by the Malone Winter Carnival organizers as the carnival’s archbishop. You have every reason to be proud of this honor, as you have contributed so much to the community and have provided a lifetime of exemplary community, civic and humanitarian service. Thanks to your un-failing efforts, Memorial Park in downtown Malone will soon be restored to its former beauty. I am delighted to see you receive this much-deserved public recognition for your unselfish effort for the betterment of the community. Again, congratulations. This is a fitting tribute to an outstanding citizen who has given so much of her time and talents to so many worthy causes. Sincerely, CHRIS ORTLOFF, Member of Assembly, 110th Assembly District".

Today, there stands testament to one person’s conviction of "CAN DO", in the town’s restored Veteran’s Memorial Park. Rededicated during the 1999 Fourth of July celebration, the ceremony was the highlight of festivities held for the first time in 20 years by the Village of Malone. (Not only did Ruth initiate the restoration, she is the single largest contributor of funds to the project with proceeds raised through the sale of her artwork.)

1999 Malone Winter Carnival


On Veterans' Day, November 11, 1999, Post 219 of Malone presented Ruth with an American Legion Citation for Outstanding Service in recognition of her efforts to restore Memorial Park. A long-time friend from Washington, D.C. writes:

"Congratulations Ruth, in my opinion, they ought to make you honorary mayor for all you’ve done to reacquaint the citizens with Malone’s dynamic past. That awareness engenders a feeling of wanting to make the town significant and beautiful once again instead of acquiescing in a continuing decline."


Early in the new millennium, the Malone Chamber of Commerce asked Ruth to design the winter carnival button. In keeping with the carnival's theme "stepping through time" she produced a design that showed a young couple dressed in 1930's clothing holding a small puppy with a church steeple and clock in the background. It became the best selling carnival button ever. The initial 1200 buttons sold out in three weeks and an additional 800 buttons had to be ordered. Not wanting to let another opportunity to help her town pass, Ruth offered to sign the back of the buttons for an additional 50 cents with that money going to establish a "Victory Fund" to meet Malone's future needs. She also sketched the commemorative pictorial cancellation and cache for the winter carnival in conjunction with the U.S. Postal Service which resulted in a record number of sales during its 4 hour offering at the Malone Post Office.


The Franklin County Chapter of the SPCA, chartered in 1907, was one of the first established in New York State. When it was slated for closing in 1968 due to a lack of interest and funds, Ruth and sister Eleanor stepped in to keep it open. By requesting donations for gift wrapping store merchandise and turning them over to the SPCA, they raised enough money to keep the chapter solvent. Today, at age 92 and well past normal retirement age, Ruth continues to serve as president of the Franklin County SPCA which has one of the most successful spay/neuter programs in the region.


Today, Ruth has fulfilled her childhood dream of being an artist and bringing joy and optimism to many through her work. She regards this "last hurrah" as she calls it, as a gift not to be wasted; an opportunity to make up for those early years of illness by using her senior years productively. But for many of us, Ruth is the gift, one we can all share. Her efforts to preserve Malone's treasures and history through her artistic talents enrich all of us and serve as an example for other small towns to follow. In recognition of her numerous contributions to the life of the community at age 91, Ruth has been nominated by Green Thumb, Inc. as Franklin County's candidate for its Prime Time 2000 award as New York State's Most Outstanding Older Worker. She was selected as Award Winner for District 5, and was honored with an Awards Ceremony, May 9th in Plattsburgh, N.Y. Ruth serves as an inspiration to all of us, young and old, that individuals, no matter what their age, do have a voice and can make a difference. Ruth encourages the young to hold on to their idealism and their dreams, because dreams can come true; she suggests moderation to those in middle age so they will be around to enjoy their senior years; and she urges the elderly to stand and be counted; to make their voices heard so that the best of the past will not be lost in the name of "progress." Ruth Jones Ryan is one person who has made a difference and her remarkable achievements have served to inspire others to do the same.

At Home with Siamese Abou, 2000

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