Remarkable life: Ruth Renfrow, who spent time in a prisoner of war camp before moving to Nevada City, turned 100 this year
After a whirlwind courtship and honeymoon, Ruth Renfrow and her groom spent 18 months in a Philippines jungle fleeing an invading army at the onset of World War II.
Ruth took it all in stride.
“When you don’t know any better, it isn’t hard,” she said.
This Super Senior story is a snapshot of the remarkable life of 100-year-old Ruth Renfrow, who has lived in Nevada City for three-fourths of a century.
In 1940s Manila, Ruth Mary Dosser was a beautiful and spirited young woman.
“One rainy day, friends and I were bored to tears and decided to call some guys,” recalled Ruth.
One of those guys was Clyde Renfrow (1916-2008), a Nevada County surveyor-forester who was in Manila helping locals improve their mining skills.
“We passed the afternoon talking and Clyde said he wanted to meet me. I told him to come the next day to the jewelry shop where I worked, and I’d be wearing a particular color dress.
“Of course, I didn’t wear that dress. I wanted to see if he was anything I’d want.”
When he arrived, the tenacious Clyde recognized Ruth’s voice and invited her to coffee.
“My boss, who knew Clyde, said I could go and from there a hot romance started,” laughed Ruth. “I thought he was rather homely, but he turned out to be a nice guy.”
They married on Ruth’s birthday 19 days later.
The couple honeymooned for a few days at a seaside cabin. When they returned to Manila Dec. 7, 1941, war had broken out and the Japanese invaded the Philippines. More than 3,500 Americans, including Ruth’s parents and three of four sisters, were forced into the Santo Tomas internment camp, the largest of the Philippines’ camps in which the Japanese interned enemy civilians.
“When the war started, some people surrendered to the Japanese, but others decided to take off,” recalled Ruth.
Believing they would be on the run for only a few months, the Renfrows and a half-dozen other families fled into the jungle.
“It was warm night and day, so we didn’t need a lot of clothing,” said Ruth. “We would sleep on mats out in the open, or in huts. There were banana and papaya plantations all around, so you could help yourself. I never had to eat creepy crawlies, like snakes and grubs.
“At first, most of the families stayed together. Some went their own way.
“Then I got pregnant, stupid me.”
MOVE TO NEVADA CITY
After a year and a half in the jungle, Clyde and Ruth surrendered and were taken to the Manila internment camp. Within days, Ruth had a cesarean section and delivered 10-pound son Willie with not much more than a shot of whiskey and a sleeping pill.
“They prepared a nice cot for me with a mattress,” Ruth said. “The Japanese respect pregnant women. They gave me special food Clyde didn’t get.”
During nearly two years in the internment camp, the Renfrows found enough private time together to become pregnant with their second child, a daughter they named Winifred or “Winnie.”
“We spent a little time in a little closet,” quipped Ruth.
“Still interned, mom did it a second time when I was born, again by cesarean section in almost unspeakable conditions,” said Winnie (Renfrow) Comstock, now publisher of “Comstock’s” Sacramento business magazine. “Mom saw the worst of the worst during those war years, including death, starvation and torture. She witnessed two of her girlfriends horribly mutilated, then killed before her eyes by enemy soldiers.”
After the war ended and prisoners were liberated, Clyde moved his growing family to his hometown of Nevada City.
“My mother-in-law gave us the choice of her rental houses, and I chose one near the church and school, perfect for young children,” Ruth said.
She has lived there 75 years.
Clyde contracted tuberculosis shortly after the war and their son contracted polio. About the same time, Ruth and Clyde were blessed with their third child, a daughter they named Suellen (Brattin).
Clyde survived tuberculosis but later developed Parkinson’s Disease. Ruth cared for Clyde during the final 11 years of his life, including physical challenges of lifting and moving him despite her petite 4-foot-10, 100-pound stature.
Today, Ruth takes joy in her three children, four grandchildren, and seven great-grandchildren.
“This may sound strange, but my mom always seemed to have the ability to be her children’s age,” said Comstock. “No matter how old we were, mom was always there doing what we were doing and enjoying it fully, playing with paper dolls, sewing doll clothes, dancing at school dances.
“I got my own car as a 16 year old, a ‘55 Ford. Mom, my sister and I drove to Sacramento and did the famous cruising of K Street. Guys were whistling and carrying on, radios blaring. Mom was enjoying the moment just like a teenager herself.”
Ruth turned 100 on Nov. 19. Friends and family honored her Nov. 1 with a “Honk for 100” drive-by birthday celebration. Ruth smiled and waved while seated on a throne-like chair, wearing a tiara and carrying a magic wand.
“It’s good to be 100, although it feels like yesterday and the day before,” said Ruth. “I’m moving slowly, but that’s better than not moving at all.”
Although she enjoyed bowling, walking, aerobics, and dance until recent years, Ruth is reluctant to credit exercise with her longevity.
“I have no idea,” said Ruth when asked why she’s still feisty at age 100. “You get out of bed, take a bath, get dressed and comb your hair.
“My favorite cocktail is a margarita, and when I drink one I always say ‘Viva La Pepa!’ It’s a saying like ‘Hooray.’ It means go for it and enjoy life.”
Ruth has other expressions she loves to share, including “He’s a bubble off center,” “That’s the way the mop flops,” “There is a lot of mama in that muumuu,” and “Crooked as a dog’s hind leg.”
Her favorite saying guides her life.
“You want to be nice and polite to everyone no matter what station in life they’re in. Always be kind.”
Lorraine Jewett is a Nevada County freelance writer who enjoys writing “Super Senior” feature stories. She can be reached at LorraineJewettWrites@gmail.com.
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