Harvey Mackay

Life Lessons From 'Grandma Ruth'

During this season of Thanksgiving, I’m going to take a detour from business advice and focus instead on gratitude. I am immensely grateful for the opportunity to get to know a remarkable woman whose life lessons are an example for all.

I recently attended a service at Temple Israel in Minneapolis, at which a friend pointed out an elderly woman and said I should meet her. I was astounded to learn she was 109 years old.

I often seek out older people to ask them their secrets to living and how they’ve persevered. So I visited Ruth Knelman at her apartment and was amazed to learn she lives alone and does all her own cooking.

Ruth is chockfull of life lessons. She is affectionately called Grandma Ruth by all the children she reads to at Temple Israel. Every Friday for the last 30 years, she reads to seven classes of youngsters, ages 18 months to pre-kindergarten.

She is a strong believer in reading. She always read to her son and her grandsons because it makes you use your brain, builds self-esteem, improves creativity, increases your vocabulary and makes you smarter. She reads the Minneapolis Star Tribune from cover-to-cover, including the sports section.

Grandma Ruth has volunteered for 30-plus years at Jefferson Community School and many other organizations over her lifetime. Why volunteer so much? She said she always wanted to do good. “You have to do something good for your community.”

People who volunteer and help others have a healthier outlook on life. They are more inclined to be go-getters and consistently report being happier. Ruth is the poster child for happy.

Through volunteering she met many great friends, so she understands the importance of networking and friendship. She is so thankful and grateful for all her friends, and she tries to never take advantage of them.

“Friends have to be tolerant and patient,” she said. “Your best friend can hurt your feelings. You never forget this, but you forgive. If you took offense at things, you wouldn’t have any friends. No one is perfect.”

Ruth added: “Life can’t be all good. You have to have ups and downs. You always have more ups than downs.”

She thinks a big problem today for people is stress. She sees it every day when she watches people drive. She volunteered at a hospital for many years and remembers a man who had a nervous breakdown because he hated his job and his boss. If you aren’t happy, her advice is to find something else. Life is too short.

I asked Ruth what she would say to a college graduate: “You have to like people, be nice and be patient.” She also knows the importance of a good reputation and how one thoughtless act can destroy a lifetime of good work.

Ruth is often asked for advice, to which she responds: “Don’t be afraid to say you don’t know. You can’t know everything.”

Ruth has a fantastic memory. She always has people repeat their names when she meets them because when she hears a name twice, she remembers it better.

She keeps her mind sharp by playing bridge every week. She’s been playing that card game for 94 years, starting at age 15. Ruth also plays gin rummy, and I learned there is a little money involved too.

I couldn’t resist asking about her secret to living this long. She said, “I’ve done everything wrong.” She stays up late at night and gets up early. She eats late in the day. When she wakes up in the middle of the night, she drinks coffee and watches TV. She doesn’t drink water and prefers club soda. She takes only one pill.

She also is not a big fan of exercise. She said the people who exercise regularly have to have their hips and knees replaced. Her exercise is walking.

How does Ruth want to be remembered? She is so thankful for all the people who were so kind to her: “You have to like people. You can’t get bored. I always have something to do.”

While I was visiting with Ruth, the phone rang at least five times. It was like Grand Central Station. Then as I was leaving, we were greeted by another friend who was coming to visit her.

As I got ready to leave, Ruth had one request: “Can I give you a hug? You never know when it might be your last hug.”

Mackay’s Moral: Don’t count the years; make the years count.