At the October 25 meeting of Community Board 1, chairman Anthony Notaro was reviewing recent developments in Lower Manhattan, when he said, “last Thursday, Ruth left us…” At that point, the normally unflappable Mr. Notaro paused, and then added, in a quieter voice, “and that’s all I can say.” As a photo of Ruth Ohman appeared on the screen behind Mr. Notaro, the assembled crowed burst into applause.
For decades, Ms. Ohman, who would have been 86 years old on November 11, had been a ubiquitous figure in Battery Park City, where she founded the Battery Park Seniors group, served as a member of Community Board 1, volunteered with the grassroots Democracy for Battery Park City organization, and generally never stopped trying to make life better for everybody who lived here.
After the CB1 meeting at which he spoke, Mr. Notaro recalled being asked to give an address at the Brookdale Hallmark senior residence on North End Avenue shortly after taking over as chair of CB1, this summer. “I mentioned it to her,” he remembers, “and sure enough she showed up and added to the meeting, even though she had to use a walker to get there. She would always support seniors and neighbors.”
Ms. Ohman grew up in Beverly Hills, California, the daughter of a noted screenwriter. She came to New York in 1944 to attend Barnard College, and never left. She worked for many years as a professional editor, and in retirement, began volunteering full time.
CB1 member Tammy Meltzer, who worked closely with Ms. Ohman on a number of projects, remembered her as, “an amazing leader with a quiet, determined, yet gentle demeanor. She taught me to keep asking questions, even simple ones. Her combination of humility, optimism with fierce advocacy, and a smile inspires me daily. We often joked she ran circles around many people and I would just like to keep up with her. She was a true role model for being active and involved for decades.”
Community leader Rosalie Joseph said, “I always told Ruth she was my role model and my hero. She would just laugh. I am not sure if she ever knew the profound impact she had on the community. She never ceased fighting for Downtown residents and her fellow seniors. She was unstoppable and inspirational, caring, loving and tirelessly committed to the service of others. I will miss her sweet soul, but I know that Battery Park City is a better community because of her.”
True to form, Ms. Ohman continued working for the community until the last weeks of her life. Her final project was to launch a new, free program for seniors at Asphalt Green, an undertaking that she worked on for two years.
“We began meeting with Ruth about starting this program in 2014,” recalled Jennifer Coccia, director of Asphalt Green’s Battery Park City campus. “As a result, we’re now offering two free fitness classes for Battery Park City residents, aged 60 and over, on Tuesdays and Fridays.” Both classes start at 10:30 am, with the Tuesday session focusing on stretching, movement, and strength, while the Friday class concentrates on yoga adapted for seniors, who exercise while sitting in a chair.
This program began in September and is slated to run through June, but Ms. Coccia said, “as long as response is good, we’ll continue it year round.” (The classes are currently averaging eight to ten participants per session.) Any senior wishing to participate is urged to check in at Asphalt Green’s front desk (212 North End Avenue, near Murray Street) a few minutes before a class and fill out registration form, after which they can begin participating immediately.
Ms. Coccia remembered that, “Ruth always pushed for how important fitness was for seniors, as they aged. She was the catalyst for this program, and contributed many good ideas, working with us on times and days, and helping with informal market research.”
Ms. Ohman continued this work until mid-October, when the cancer that would eventually take her life became debilitating. At that point, she checked into Mount Sinai Hospital. Mr. Notaro observed, “when I visited Ruth in the hospital, she lit up. Not because of me, but because she loved her friends and even though she was near the end, she wanted to talk and laugh. We even talked about how she would move and what to do with her furniture and things. So we discussed spreading a rumor that she had money stashed in her apartment and how that would get folks to take everything, so there would be no need for her family to worry about moving.”
A week before she died, Ms. Ohman left Mount Sinai to spend her final days with her brother’s family in Virginia. On October 20, friends received a note from Ms. Ohman’s sister-in-law, Jaime Ryskind, which said, “Ruth passed away peacefully in her sleep early this morning. She had been in a near coma for about a day, but was resting quietly. She had a lovely, relaxed expression on her face and even a hint of a smile and no signs at all of distress, which makes us all very happy.”
Ninfa Segarra, chair of CB1’s Battery Park City Committee, who also worked closely with Ms. Ohman, recalled that, “when I moved into Gateway in 2002, Ruth was already a legend in the community. I was struck by her boundless energy, her giving spirit and commitment to community. Our best tribute to her will be to continue her work to provide a vibrant, creative, safe environment to the mature members of our community.”
Ms. Ohman’s family has not yet announced plans for a New York memorial service, but Mr. Notaro says friends and neighbors are collaborating on an informal gathering, plans for which will be available soon. In the meantime, Ms. Ohmans’ family asks that anyone wishing to make a contribution in her memory consider donating a local hospice care organization of their own choosing.