A Life: Ruth Joly, 1920-2012; ‘She Never Dwelled on It’
Ruth Joly picnics with her sons, John, Wesley and Paul, outside worker housing in Springfield, Vt., in an undated image.
Photograph courtesy of The Wesley McNair Papers,
Colby College Special Collection, Waterville, Maine
Ruth Joly is seen in 1943 with her first husband, Wilbur McNair.
The Wesley McNair Papers, Colby College Special Collections
Claremont — When Ruth Joly and her first husband came to New England, they were in search of a better life.
It would have been hard for her to have a tougher time than the one she’d grown up in. Life in the Upper Valley wasn’t exactly easy.
Born Eileen Ruth Willard in Plainview, Texas, Joly was the second oldest child, and oldest daughter, in a Dust Bowl-era farm family. Shortly after her birth, they moved to a small farm in the Missouri Ozarks.
“She remembered a house that wasn’t much more than a shack,” said Wesley McNair, one of Joly’s three sons.
It wasn’t until much later that Joly felt she had a home, on Windsor Road in West Claremont. She would leave the place she built with her second husband, the late Paul Joly, only a little while before she died, on Sept. 18, 2012, after a long series of strokes, at age 91.
Her parents, Truston and Daisy Willard, moved the family back to Texas, where Daisy’s parents had a cotton farm. While her parents picked cotton, young Ruth took care of her four younger siblings and did much of the domestic work.
“My mom was essentially the surrogate mom for years,” McNair said.
She wasn’t particularly close to her siblings, in part because she would be punished for their misbehaviors. Her grandmother was especially stern and unstinting in her punishment of the children.
School was a consolation. She attended a one-room schoolhouse, and once she was old enough to read she pored over the two books her home possessed, the Bible and Robinson Crusoe. She twice went to live with relatives to go to high school. Education became an escape.
She graduated at age 17 and spent a year at the University of Missouri. While she was living with family in Columbia, Mo., she met her first husband, Wilbur McNair, an Illinois farm boy who was selling subscriptions to Better Homes and Gardens.
“As far as I can figure out, their courtship was mostly by letter,” Wesley McNair said. Eileen Ruth McNair was 17, and like her 19-year-old husband had had to lie about her age to get hitched.
The young couple’s plan was to stay in school, but their first child, born when Joly was 19, forced them both to drop out. They tried their hands at writing, but weren’t able to support themselves and their young son. A relative told Wilbur that a paper mill in Groveton, N.H., was hiring and they moved east.
They came to the Upper Valley when Wilbur found a job writing for the Newport bureau of the Claremont Daily Eagle. Afraid of getting drafted, he found work at the Jones and Lamson machine tool company in Springfield, Vt., which was making war materiel. The family moved into the factory’s housing project.
Wilbur left the family to take up with a young woman who’d been helping him as a union organizer. By then, Joly had three sons, and no resources to fall back on. Child support was not forthcoming. (Wesley McNair, who went on to a career as a poet and professor, said he didn’t see his father again until he was 24.)
Joly took in sewing and cut the hair of neighborhood children to make ends meet. She divorced Wilbur in 1949, but never let go of her anger.
“She never forgot him, and she never forgave him,” Wesley McNair said. Her anger and her own rough upbringing could make her an unsympathetic parent, he added. “Don’t come crying to me,” was her frequent refrain.
In 1951 or ’52, a friend introduced her to Paul Joly at the Duck Inn in Springfield. After they were married, they lived in an apartment in Claremont for a while before buying the 13-acre plot on which they planned to build a house and start a plant nursery. Paul Joly had been to horticultural school.
The only structure on the property was a tarpapered garage, which the family lived in until the house was built. Their life was impoverished, but lively. They grew their own vegetables and kept chickens and other farm animals.
“She was the poorest person I know, but she never dwelled on it,” said Charlotte Bemis, a longtime friend of Joly’s through Claremont’s United Methodist Church. Joly tended the church’s flowers and made the Advent wreaths, Bemis said.
Although Paul developed New Hampshire Gold, a popular cold-hardy forsythia that is sold across the northern United States, the nursery remained a marginal operation. After Paul Joly died, in 1985, Ruth kept the nursery going as best she could, but it became a bit of a wilderness, McNair said. Her youngest son, John McNair, died of a heart attack in January 1986.
She and Paul had a daughter, Karen, who declined to speak to a reporter about her mother.
Joly championed Wesley, her middle son, calling the Valley News or writing a note whenever he won an award or a grant.
Joly never climbed far out of poverty, but she would have considered her life a success, McNair said. She saw her children off into the world and had a home for herself. She held fast to her home in old age, despite her diminished capabilities and what McNair called “a mountain of debt.”
In recent years the strokes she suffered, often without knowing there was anything wrong, diminished her faculties and made her “angrier than ever,” McNair said. But she never wanted to move away. In the end, a massive stroke forced her hand.
“It was a pretty important building for her,” McNair said. “There was no way she was ever going to leave the place.”
Alex Hanson can be reached at email@example.com or 603-727-3219.