Nearing 105, and still the “perpetual volunteer”

Grandma Ruth honored for three decades of service to schools

Ruth Knelman in a kindergarten classroom at Jefferson Community School, where she's known as Grandma Ruth. Credit: Dylan Thomas

THE WEDGE — No one remembers exactly when Ruth Knelman started volunteering at Jefferson Community School, in part because the first teacher she worked for retired in the 1980s.

We know it was more than 30 years ago, at least. Knelman would’ve been in her early 70s then.

Grandma Ruth, as she’s better known to Jefferson kindergarteners, turns 105 this month, and in April she was honored at a School Board meeting held during National Volunteer Week. Interim Superintendent Michael Goar described Knelman as “one of the longest-serving volunteers in Minneapolis Public Schools.”
“She’s been with us for the past 32 years,” Goar said, pausing as the boardroom erupted in applause. (Knelman said later she’s probably “pushing 35 years” at Jefferson, but either way it’s been a long time.)

The petite Knelman stepped gingerly to join Goar at the podium. It was the end of a long day — Grandma Ruth’s Tuesday routine includes four hours of volunteering with the preschoolers at Temple Israel before her afternoon shift in Kim Wesley’s kindergarten classroom at Jefferson — and she wasn’t feeling so spry, she said.

But her sense of humor remained as nimble as ever.

Goar might’ve thought he was playing a joke on the 104-year-old when he held her at the podium for a photograph, and the audience chuckled as he fumbled with a telescoping selfie stick. But Grandma Ruth one-upped him.

“Let me fix my hair,” she deadpanned, poking at her white bob.

“I do what I like to do”

“Well, it was an honor,” Knelman said of the recognition a week later, sitting behind the teacher’s desk in Wesley’s classroom. “I don’t think I earned it, you know, because I do what I like to do.”

She was finishing a cup of coffee she’d picked up on the four-block walk from Temple Israel, where she teaches cooking classes in addition to helping out in the early childhood center. It’s been like this ever since she arrived in Minneapolis 61 years ago.

Knelman and her husband, Edward, moved here from Fargo, N.D., in 1954, the same year their son, Kip, entered kindergarten. She ended up volunteering in his classroom at Burroughs. She also volunteered at the old Mount Sinai Hospital for 32 years, up until it closed in 1991, at Sholom senior housing and with the National Council of Jewish Women.

“I’m a perpetual volunteer,” she said.

Wesley essentially inherited Grandma Ruth when her predecessor, Marian Altrowitz, retired and Wesley took over her classroom. Knelman told her Altrowitz would give her a ride home at the end of the school day, and when Wesley agreed to do the same that sealed the deal.

On a recent afternoon, Knelman’s job included dispensing the afternoon snack and some grandmotherly discipline, gently extracting a “please” and “thank you” from each child as she passed out bags of snap peas. On other days, she might work with students on math skills or staple together homework assignments.

“Believe me, Tuesday afternoons (students) know she is going to be watching when they walk back in the room and they are on their very best behavior,” Wesley said.

“Kids are kids” — Knelman added — “and they’re either fussing around with each other or not doing (what they’re supposed to do). I’m like a policeman. I am, really.”

Wesley said Grandma Ruth is adored by the students, who decided on their own to write her a letter on the day the district recognized her volunteer work.

“She has made giving of her time so appealing that I think we have raised a generation of volunteers watching what she does,” Wesley said.

“I do everything wrong”

Actually, Grandma Ruth has been around long enough to help shepherd more than one generation of youngsters through their first years of school. Rabbi Marcia Zimmerman said Knelman was working in the early childhood center when her oldest child attended, and he’s now 25 years old.

“They’re getting married, they’re getting graduate degrees, having children of their own,” Zimmerman said.

She said Knelman’s cooking “totally lives up to the reputation,” and noted she was still churning out hundreds of matzo balls for the temple’s annual interfaith Seder up until a few years ago. A catering company does the cooking now, but Grandma Ruth is the official taste tester, Zimmerman said.

Asked if she had any insight into the centenarian’s remarkable vitality, Zimmerman offered this: “I think it’s a combination of loving life so much and doing all the wrong things.”

“I do everything wrong” could be Knelman’s motto.

“I can go all day without eating, but I eat all night. And I don’t need lots of sleep,” she said. “And I don’t exercise.”

She takes “one little thyroid pill,” but no other medications. A specialist in stuffed cabbage, brisket, kugel and other Jewish delicacies, she is appalled by healthy eating trends.

“No diet stuff in my house,” she said.

“Mm-hmm,” Wesley, a frequent dinner guest, confirmed. “Lots of butter, lots of cream and sugar.”

“When I shop and it says ‘cholesterol free’ or something, that’s not for me,” Knelman said. “I don’t want it.”

The discussion reminded Wesley that she’d picked up two pounds of butter for Knelman at the grocery store. They were waiting in the school refrigerator.

Knelman still lives on her own, in a two-bedroom apartment near Lake Calhoun. Wesley is just one point in a network of friends and acquaintances who help out with errands and car rides. They meet her for coffee and stop by for dinner or even the occasional cocktail party.

“It’s easy to be Ruth’s friend,” Wesley said.

Photo by Dylan Thomas

Knelman and Wesley hand out afternoon snacks to Wesley’s kindergarten class.