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10-year law student lauded for diligence; Paul Ruth ’48

Paul Ruth '48
Photo courtesy of Paul Ruth ’48

Paul Ruth ’48 pumped his legs to keep up with his parents as they marched a picket line with other members of the then-new Textile Workers Union in 1938. At 10, the lad knew that wages his parents earned working in a Reading hosiery mill were precious. Ruth had been
born with terrible eyesight. Expensive operations to salvage his vision had cost his parents their house.

Their David-and-Goliath fight for better wages stayed with Ruth, now 82. It contributed to his lifelong obsession with fairness and the law. And it drove him to overcome seemingly insurmountable roadblocks to a novel law education.

The Penn State Dickinson School of Law recently awarded Ruth a Citizen’s Diploma for 10 years of attending law classes at the Carlisle campus. “I’m overwhelmed. I’ve wanted to go to law school ever since I was a kid,” Ruth says. As an Albright College graduate, he was accepted to Dickinson as a young man, but his eye doctors ruled it out. They said law study’s unforgiving reading schedule would sabotage Ruth’s eyes. Instead, he studied finance and business at University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton school and spent his career working as a labor economist.

Then, in 1981, after he retired, Ruth’s yen to pursue a law education was revived. Mark Thomas, a Mechanicsburg (Pa.) lawyer and friend of Ruth’s, called to ask Ruth for help in researching a former federal employee’s claim that he was fired for whistle-blowing. Ruth’s yearning to fight for fairness flickered anew.

His eyes still lacked the strength to endure the reading load, but Ruth’s desire for a legal education was stronger than ever. With support from his wife, Lillian, Ruth turned to Dickinson. Harvey Feldman, associate dean for academic affairs, was blunt in 1998: Ruth could sign up for classes at a comfortable pace but would not earn credits toward a law degree. Feldman guided the retiree through scheduling classes at a discounted rate as an audit student, one who joins discussions but is not required to take tests.

“He gave me the break that I needed,” Ruth says. Feldman says he and some law professors created the diploma to honor Ruth’s diligence. “It’s the rigor of accomplishment, the thirst for education in its own right, intellectual curiosity,” he says. “I never thought he’d follow through much beyond the first semester. He’s outlasted two deans and six associate deans,” says Feldman, who retired from full-time teaching last year. Ruth continues to research cases for Thomas, working as a paralegal assistant might.

He’s working on a harassment case that will go before the Merit System Protection Board, which protects the rights of federal merit system employees. He’ll be a law student, he says, “as long as I’m physically able to and as long these guys will tolerate me.”

– Elizabeth Gibson
Reprinted with permission of The Patriot-News

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