Column| A Look at Bygone Days: Long Beach’s first woman city councilmember

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Ruth Bach

If you pass by the Bach neighborhood library at the corner of Carson and Bellflower (4055 N. Bellflower) you may think the library was named for composer Johann Sebastian Bach, after all, other Long Beach community libraries such as Dana (Henry Dana), Twain (Mark Twain), Harte (Bret Harte) and other Long Beach libraries were named for famous individuals. You may also consider famous Long Beach author Richard Bach as a possible candidate. If you did, you’d be close. It was named after his mother, a remarkable woman, Long Beach’s first female council member, Ruth Bach. Her story, and name, has largely been forgotten. March, Women’s History Month, is the ideal time to remember her story.

On May 10, 1956, Roland Robert Bach fulfilled the vow he made 12 years earlier to his wife, Ruth. She had asked that if she should die first, he would deliver the final eulogy. Bach agreed if she promised to give a eulogy for him if he passed away before her. A pact was made.

Sadly, this was not the first wife that Roland had to give a eulogy for. In August 1932, Roland, a pastor of the Reformed Church, presided over the funeral of his 29-year-old wife Marjorie Fiske Bach. Two years earlier, he had done the same when their 3-year-old daughter Ruth Lorraine passed away. With Marjorie’s death, only he and 4-year-old son Roy remained, but he soon found comfort in another woman named Ruth Helen Shaw.

Ruth Shaw was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on May 11, 1905, to parents David and Cora Nicols Shaw. Already in the family was 10-year-old brother Harold, 8-year-old sister Irene and 2-year-old sister Alice. Ruth, the last member to be added to the Shaw clan, had a wonderful extended family to welcome and care for her– next door to their 825 Franklin Place home, lived her grandmother Hannah Shaw and her aunts Anna and Adelaide.

Following her graduation from high school in 1923, she visited relatives in Pasadena and was impressed by their faith in God. Here her interest in religion peeked and she decided to become a student at the Baptist Missionary Training School in Chicago. Upon finishing the course she became a missionary and spent almost three years in Puerto Rico before returning to the United States where she lectured throughout New England.

In 1930 Ruth and her sister Irene were living with their parents in Milwaukee. Thirty-three-year-old Irene was a buyer in a department store and twenty-four-year-old Ruth was attending the Milwaukee School of Social Work Training. Her experience as a missionary had shown her that there was much more to learn about helping others. After completing the two-year course at the Milwaukee School of Social Work Training in October 1931, she entered the School of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago and graduated with a Bachelor of Philosophy degree on Dec. 20, 1932.

In 1933 Ruth married 33-year-old widower, Roland Richard Bach. During one of her summer internships in Milwaukee, she had met Roland, who was the director of the agency where she was working. She had known him and his wife for several years and was saddened to learn of Marjorie Bach’s death in 1932. Ruth and Roland, who shared the same passion for helping others, fell in love and married the following year. Shortly afterward, Roland was called to active military duty as a chaplain in the U.S. Army. The family remained in Wisconsin until shortly after the birth of son Robert in 1934; two years later another son, Richard (the well-known author of the book Jonathan Livingston Seagull) was born while Roland was stationed in Illinois. Ruth, not content to remain idle, found time from motherhood to do social work wherever they were sent.

By 1943, Roland Bach had transferred from the Army to the Red Cross where he was assistant director of military and naval warfare, Pacific Area, stationed in the San Francisco area. Ruth worked as a Red Cross volunteer spending more than eight hours each day as trainee director for Red Cross aides. The family moved to Long Beach in 1944, after Roland became the assistant manager of the Long Beach chapter of the Red Cross.

In 1953 Ruth picked up another educational credential (one of only nine women nationally to have done so) completing the field course on national defense and economic mobilization from the Industrial College of the Armed Forces. The school later became known as the Dwight D. Eisenhower School for National Security and Resource Strategy, named for graduate Dwight D. Eisenhower. The knowledge Ruth gained with this degree was especially valuable in civil-defense planning when fears of Communism, the atomic bomb and another World War hung ominously over the nation.

On Feb. 3, 1954, Ruth H. Bach of 4256 Heather Road declared her candidacy for Fifth District Long Beach City councilmember. She was the first candidate from the newly annexed Lakewood Village area to announce her intent and the first woman to enter the council contest. She explained that the suggestion that she run came from other Lakewood Village members of the League of Women Voters. They had all agreed that one of them should be a candidate but everyone else seemed to have a good excuse so she decided to make the race herself. She declared she had “no axes to grind” but was interested in good government and wanted to contribute to the progress of Long Beach. In her 10 years living in Lakewood Village she had served as president of the University Women’s Club and the Lakewood Junior High PTA. She was also elected first vice president of the League of Women Voters, was a member of the Bureau of Franchises, the Park Commission and the Ordinance Committee and chairman of the Public Relations Committee. For two years she was also executive director of the Long Beach Day Nurseries. Her qualifications for office also included being a former member of the Lakewood Park District Board, winning election to office in 1953 by the highest vote accorded any candidate.

On Oct. 16, 1953, Lakewood Village officially became part of Long Beach. The newly annexed territory was now part of the Fifth District, encompassing about one-fourth of the city’s population. Elected to the council in June 1954, Ruth Bach received 51% of the total vote against a field of five candidates (others: Antoinette Aldrich, housewife; John M. Brooks, real estate salesman; John W. Eberly, publisher; Clarence Wagner, incumbent). Ruth told the Los Angeles Times (6/3/1954) she firmly believed that women had a place in government, and that during her three-year term, she would hold meetings where she could have direct contact with women’s groups to discuss issues. She believed good government could only result from active participation of women and she wanted to get women interested in the problems.

Bach astonished city hall observers with the drive and time she was willing to devote to the job. She made a point of studying in advance practically all the documents and reports scheduled for consideration by the council. Her creed while in office was to “get Aal the facts.” She insisted in seeing all sides of an issue and never yielded to the temptation of making snap judgements. She told reporter George Weeks: “I have never turned anyone with a problem away, but I refuse to get emotionally involved. I try to reason with people and, if the answer is no, to tell them why.” (Press Telegram 2/20/1955)

How to develop the city’s vast tideland oil deposits was among the top issues she faced. She believed the City should move cautiously and know exactly how to meet any land subsidence problems which could arise. She reminded folk that the oil field wasn’t going to run away.

In February 1955, she proposed that only projects approved by the voters would qualify for city funds derived from oil production in upland areas. She also unsuccessfully voted against the sale of alcoholic beverages at the airport coffee shop. In January 1955, she solidly backed homeowners of Stratford Square, a 583 home track east of Clark and Spring, when they protested oil drilling near their homes. In April 1956, another site was substituted to the Bixby Land Company by the City council, but that site (northeast of Lakewood Boulevard and Willow Street) also inflamed residents in that area. The council approved the site 7-to-2 without allowing a public hearing. Ruth Bach and fellow councilmember Toby Wick voted against the measure.

In her new role as a councilmember, she discovered she was surrounded by law, such as zoning ordinances, charter amendments and oil regulations. She decided she didn’t want to continually quiz other people about the law and was determined to find her own answers. In September 1955, she enrolled in the Pacific Coast University and spent three nights weekly at its School of Law in Long Beach. She expected to gain a better understanding of the law in the four or five years needed to get her degree. After that, she would take the bar examination. Whether she would practice if admitted would depend on the circumstances at the time, she said. (Press Telegram 10/16/1955)

Her legal studies would not be completed. Ruth Bach died Saturday, May 5, 1956, in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin, while visiting her sister, Mrs. Irene Kinn. Ruth had been ill for several months from anemia and had been hospitalized in January. Only a few of her closest friends knew her condition was critical. Despite her slow recovery she returned to council meetings in March and attended regularly before leaving for the visit with her sister. She died one week before her 51st birthday. Her husband and son Richard were at her bedside. Her death was attributed to heart trouble. She left behind sons, Roy and Richard. She is buried in a crypt beside her son Robert in Westminster Memorial Park.

She often said she found her “gender” was “no handicap at all” in the sometimes spirited controversies in the council. Because of it, she was denied participation in only two community events – the annual Gridiron Dinner sponsored by the Long Beach Junior Chamber of Commerce lampooning councilmembers (they wanted to avoid casting caustic barbs her way, but said they would invite her to other events). The following year in partial revenge the wives of the Junior Chamber men issued her an invitation to attend the first annual “Steam Iron Banquet.” “We feel that it was very unfair of our husbands to send you an invitation last year and then turn around and tell you not to come. We will not be panning members of the council. Instead, we will pan the men who have been panning you all these years,” said Mrs. Marilyn Neptune, president of the Jay Cee Mrs. Club. Mrs. Neptune said male members of the council were also invited. (Press Telegram 3/6/1956)

Ruth Bach was also not invited to a simulated attack by the Navy on the Long Beach shoreline where council members were on board one of the landing craft. Her comment to that was “I could have worn slacks.” In her few spare hours she enjoyed playing the electric organ at her home and making mobiles and other abstract forms of art with her husband and son Richard.

Following her untimely death, the University Women’s Club established a scholarship in her name to be given to a student who had done outstanding work in political science. The Plaza Women’s Club of the Lakewood Plaza area followed suit, presenting a $100 scholarship to the “outstanding girl citizen” of Millikan High School. The Lakewood Women’s Club established the Ruth Bach Award, presented to the woman judged most outstanding in her contribution to the betterment of the greater Lakewood area. There was also the Ruth Bach Memorial Fund of the Red Cross and a room in her memory at the Masonic Club.

In October 1956, plans were approved for a new public library in Heartwell Park to be named for Ruth Bach. It officially opened on Feb. 21, 1958, and is still there serving the community. Many have forgotten Ruth Bach and her contributions to Long Beach, but when asked, Branch Librarian Chenda Yong will tell you, perhaps pulling out pictures, letters of condolence written to her family and her educational degrees and certificates. Ruth Bach was a remarkable woman, as I hope this article has shown, whose memory should live on.