Ruth Stiller is a people person, through and through. She thrives on family and friends and being in the public eye. So the gracious and energetic 90-year-old was right in her element on Sunday, June 10, as she greeted dozens and dozens of guests who packed the Martha’s Vineyard Hebrew Center to wish her Happy Birthday.
“I love it! I love a party!” said the sparkly-eyed birthday girl. “I get to see all my friends.”
And indeed she did. Seated in an armchair festooned with balloons, Ms. Stiller — Ruth or Ruthie to many — accepted good wishes, blew out the candles, then greeted a constant stream of party guests for two full hours. She hugged the revelers, welcomed them by name, chatted.
There were gifts! On behalf of the congregation, Hebrew Center president Alan Ganapol presented a silver necklace with the Jewish “Chai” symbol for good luck and a certificate of appreciation for lifetime service. Daughter-in-law Janet Stiller read a touching poem that she’d written. There were tributes and stories, two big Black Dog cakes, and balloons everywhere.
“Ruthie is the youngest 90-year-old I know,” said Linsey Lee, the oral historian who is a close friend of Ms. Stiller. “But she has the wisdom of all those years.”
Ms. Stiller seemed right at home in the midst of all the happy bustle. In many ways she was right at home. At home in the Martha’s Vineyard Hebrew Center, an organization where she’d been a member since 1938, when her family was among the handful of founders. At home in her beloved Vineyard Haven, on Centre Street, right across from the rambling white corner house where she was born 90 years ago and where she lives today.
Ruth Stiller was born Ruth Cronig on June 10, 1922, the youngest child of Samuel and Libby Cronig, sister to David, Carlyle, Anne, and Robert. Her father and his three brothers had founded Cronig Brothers’ Market in 1917 on Main Street in Vineyard Haven. Her brothers Robbie and David would grow up to take over the family market in the 1940s. Another brother, Carlyle (known as Carly) joined their Uncle Henry in Cronig’s Real Estate. Both businesses would have a major role in Vineyard Haven history. But in those days they were just a big family growing up in old Vineyard Haven, packed into one floor of the two-family home with their aunt and uncle, Tillie and Theodore “Tebby” Cronig, and their two children living upstairs.
Ruth established herself as an enthusiastic working girl and community-minded volunteer early on. During high school (then held at the Tisbury School) she was a Girl Scout and 4-H leader. At 15 she was Girl Scout camp counselor on Cape Cod. “I loved it,” she recalled. “I wanted to do it the next summer too.”
But her father had other ideas, and Ruth joined Anne, working at the family market on Main Street. “My father said ‘you’ve got to work to earn a living,’” she recalled. “‘You have to come to the store.’ That was what we did.” At first it was boring for the vivacious 16-year-old, but once she began waiting on customers she enjoyed it fully.
Ruth and Anne teamed up on secretarial duties at the Martha’s Vineyard Hebrew Center, rotating between taking minutes at board meetings and handling office tasks. A charter member, Ms. Stiller served on the board for many years, and now is an honorary board member. She regularly attends services and enjoys greeting guests and selling tickets for special events.
Ruth married Leon Stiller in 1948. After living and working in New York City briefly, they returned to the Island and settled on William Street.
“I wanted to have my children here,” Ruth told an interviewer. “I wanted to be with my friends and my huge family.”
Soon her life was even busier, raising four children: Gayle, Pamela, Miriam (known as “Goodie”), and Neal. But she kept up with commitments at the Hebrew Center and even invited the Girl Scout troop to her home for cooking lessons.
Many busy years of hard work and happy times with family and friends followed. Ruth was Tisbury School secretary for 25 years, and she still maintains warm friendships she made there.
“It was my favorite job,” Ruth said. “The school kept you busy, busy, busy, and any job that does that is something you always like.”
She joined the Bunch of Grapes staff around 1990 and worked behind the counter. In spare moments she would arrange the greeting cards, and soon was overseeing that section, ordering and displaying cards, stationary, and gift items. The job included fun buying trips to New York City with store owner Ann Nelson, always with visits to restaurants and the theatre. Ms. Stiller would also join some city relatives for a family feast at a traditional Jewish deli.
Even as she stepped back from full-time work at the Bunch of Grapes, there was one job Ruth continued for years: serving eggnog during the holidays, the traditional job she had shared with Ms. Nelson’s mother, Peg Littlefield.
As if she weren’t busy enough, Ruth also held a number of volunteer and part-time jobs over the years: working at the Felix Neck gift shop, doing office work for the hospital, chairing the Martha’s Vineyard Hebrew Center Cemetery committee. She served as secretary for the Tisbury Business Association, the Tisbury Finance Committee, and Tisbury Waterways Committee.
Ruth Stiller has lived through countless changes in Vineyard Haven. Main Street was two-way (“but there was always plenty of parking”); fires changed the face of businesses; horses were stabled at the site of the new Bunch of Grapes. There was a USO on Main Street during World War II and Islanders welcomed servicemen to their homes. Businesses moved, changed, changed again. It snowed more in winter; youngsters would sled on town streets. There were few ferries and locals seldom took their cars off-Island.
“People didn’t drive as much, we walked a lot more” Ruth recalled. And of course the town is busier: “And how! Even in the winter!”
“But I still love it,” she says of her home town in no uncertain terms, with her characteristic happy smile.
These days Ms. Stiller gets out less, but she can be seen at community and arts events, on shopping trips, or lunching with friends.
“My favorite activity was being alive, and doing things that were fun,” she told a friend making a birthday video. “And my children, they’re my treasures, and my grandchildren.”