Moni Schiller: Ruth Schiller
The photo of Ruth Schiller in a red dress, sitting on then Prime Minister Chretien's lap reflects the unbridled chutzpah of this Okanagan dynamo. While at the official event Ruth said she saw the opportunity for a great photo, and took it. That pretty much sums up the determination of the woman who has worked tirelessly all her life to promote the arts. Ruth has always said, "when I want yes for an answer, I don't take no."
Ruth came to Canada in 1939 by ship, and during the voyage met many Jews who were leaving Germany at that time. As she'd been raised during the Nazi era, she had been taught that Jews were bad people. She said she found the trip transformational, in that she discovered the things she'd been taught were not true. Ruth's open-minded approach to all people had its roots in this voyage.
When Ruth left Germany in 1939 at the age of 14, her destination was the town of Osoyoos. She'd originally planned to come for six months in order to learn English, but as the war intervened, she found herself stuck at her aunt and uncle's, unable to return. She decided to make the best of things, attending high school in Oliver, and helping on their farm. Ruth still maintains that any job is better than picking tomatoes in the blazing heat of Osoyoos.
Ruth married Fred Schiller in 1945, and together they farmed the orchard he'd planted a few years earlier. At that time, there was no electricity or running water in their house. Ruth said she had to boil water on the wood stove in order to wash diapers by hand. Life was physically hard, but even then, she said the arts were an integral part of their lives.
When asked how her interest in the arts began, she credits her husband's influence. She said he had a great love for music and literature. Ruth said that in those days, with no T.V., people had more time to discuss and contemplate. Also, in a town of 500 people, complete with wooden sidewalks, one had to find their own entertainment.
As a result, Ruth said that she and Fred would drool with anticipation over the weekly Life Magazine that would arrive by mail. They had a group of friends who would meet at each other's homes to listen to pieces such as the Brandenburg Concerto. As she said, there was a very bohemian crowd of people living in small towns all over Canada.
Ruth has always had extraordinary energy, and began her life of volunteering in 1950 with the local drama club. Though referring to herself as a "very bad actor", she found her strength in rallying and lobbying others.
As others also recognized this, she was soon asked to be the president of the Oliver and Osoyoos Arts Council. Incredibly, through force of will, Ruth was able to bring the entire Vancouver Symphony to Osoyoos in the early 60's.
At this same time, Ruth was also a member of the Okanagan Mainline Regional Arts Council, becoming president in 1974. This was the first regional arts council in BC, set up largely in an effort to gain access to provincial funding.
While president of the local arts council, Ruth met a woman from Oyama named Alys Monod. Alys spoke passionately about the wonderful Okanagan, and suggested an arts event celebrating the area. Ruth happened to also be a regional chairman of the BC Arts Board, and used her contacts to make this event a reality. It was called Okanagan Image.
Ruth says with considerable pride that they were the only arts group of their size to be able to put on an event like Okanagan Image. They commissioned playwright George Rygas (The Ecstasy of Rita Joe) to write a play. Canadian ballerina Gweneth Lloyd choreographed a dance. Music was composed by BC composers and performed by the Okanagan Symphony. Ruth said people who were involved still talk about it, and some think it's time for another celebration of the Valley.
In the 70's Ruth was appointed to the Canadian Conference of the Arts and later the Canada Council for the Arts. It was there that she became friends with influential movers and shakers in the arts such as Maver Moor, Celia Franca and Hugh Davidson.
Most importantly for Ruth, though, has been the assistance she's been able to provide at the grass roots level. For example, as president of the Parent Teacher Association in the late 1950's, she was instrumental in bringing French instruction to the primary levels. In the 1990's she co-founded the Osoyoos Desert Society, whose goal is to preserve the last bit of undisturbed desert.
As a result of all of this, Ruth received the Lescarbot Award from the federal government in 1993; it is awarded for volunteerism in the cultural field. She received the Order of British Columbia in 1996. This was given for being a leader in the cultural, educational and economic development of her community.
At 83, this feisty woman is still a very active member in the town of
Osoyoos. Though these days she has cut down her world travel to only one or two trips
a year, and her large dinner parties to three or four per month, Ruth has
always maintained, "When you die, you should die of exhaustion."