Ruby Harlow: My 50 Years at St. John’s

Fifty years ago, Ruby Harlow finally gave in and interviewed for a church job – she was looking for something with more excitement and more people, but quickly discovered that an Episcopal church had both! She stepped away from her work as secretary in 1994, but has continued to remain on staff as parish wedding director, a position she took on officially in 1985. She has now decided to retire from that as well, after years of shepherding bridesmaids and groomsmen, mediating family conflicts and shaping and sharing newlyweds’ celebrations. For some of them, marriage was their second sacrament with Harlow – the first being their baptisms. Here is her letter to the church:

As I say goodbye to my parish wedding director duties (I handed back my secretarial title in 1994), I would like to accentuate my endless thanks for all that St. John’s, my second family, has so generously and kindly showered upon me and my family over these swiftly passing 50 years.

In 1967, when I decided to return to the business world, my two children were always busy with school activities and my husband was traveling a lot. The employment agency kept insisting that I interview at a church in downtown Roanoke for the position of parish secretary, and I kept resisting! I was looking for a job with excitement and the enjoyment of being with lots of people. Wow – was I ever wrong about the atmosphere of St. John’s!

After a delightful visit with the rector, Dr. Richard R. Beasley, and the constant flow of folks I was introduced to, I reported to my husband that night that I had changed my mind about working for a church. Now I was afraid I wouldn’t get a call back.

My grandfather was a circuit preacher in the Baptist denomination, and I grew up in the Baptist church. When I was small and visiting my grandparents, we would dress in our Sunday best, my grandfather would preach a powerful sermon and my grandmother would play the little pump organ. They were dearly loved and appreciated by all. I would sit on the front pew, wishing that my feet would touch the floor. Even now I remember how proud I was to call them my grandparents.

Well, I was hired in 1967 to be St. John’s parish secretary, I think mainly because Dr. Beasley was very good friends with my former boss, Dr. Walter E. Newman, the president of Virginia Tech. I don’t think Dr. Beasley ever looked at my resume.

I now had the challenge of my life! First I had to learn everything from A to Z about the liturgy. And I was determined to learn the names of each of the 1,200 members. And oh, those tasks that required printing were done on equipment from the Dark Ages and left me covered in black ink and tears.

My mentor was the lovable, patient, but exacting organist Jeryl Powell. I heard he had bragged to a friend that he only had to explain to me how to do something once. Thank you, Jeryl!

For the clergy, staff and dear parish members, I felt those were days that I should pay the church for my learning experiences!

Days turned into weeks, weeks into months and soon the years began to add up. The astounding people that I dealt with daily changed my life and my little family incredibly. I learned humility and kindness from the highest saints in Roanoke to very lowly street people who came to our door daily. I always knew that Norman Taylor and later, Robert Butler, would have my back. I never felt alone or afraid.

Shortly after settling down in my job, and after the shocking loss of our beloved “Dr. B.” in 1968, the sleeping giant of the worldwide Episcopal Church began to awaken! There were astounding changes in race and gender relations, a new Prayer Book, a new Hymnal, the ordination of women, same-sex marriages and many more issues that had to be worked out behind the scenes.

I always had the support of the St. John’s vestry and its outstanding wardens and officers, including Dr. Robert F. Bondurant, Purnel and Loulie Eggleston, Dr. William Robinson and others too numerous to mention. Talk to me, and I will give you a list of all those fine, dedicated folks! And I could not have done my job without the amazing support of the daily volunteers I screened and trained – the captain of the crew being Jimmy Moynihan and his wife Dickie and daughter Polly.

Last, but certainly not least, I mention my one-of-a-kind office mate, Patricia Lindsay, who has become a sister to me. A big, big thank you to Elizabeth Thomas, co-parish wedding director, and to all the helpful members of the altar guild for making the weddings a “piece of cake”!

Once I became a member, the St. John’s family soon became like my family – births, baptisms, burials, bridal arrangements. My husband, James, and my son, Stephen, await Carol and me and others in the Resurrection Garden.

I have been contemplating writing a journal, but the rumor is I would be paid not to publish it!

Thank you, St. John’s, and all the dear saints who gave me a half century of a fabulously rewarding life’s journey.

Sincerely,
Ruby Via Harlow

Images below: Ruby with a couple at the Hotel Roanoke; the cover of the Sunday leaflet from September 17, 1967.

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