She never sought public recognition.

All Ruth Harrington wanted to do when she started organizing luncheons to raise money for scholarships at Central Washington University was build better relationships within the community while promoting a worthy cause.

Forty years later, she is regarded as an influential, albeit unassuming, force within the community she loves — and not just because of the scholarship luncheon program that has now raised nearly $900,000.

“The scholarship money is neat,” she said in an interview several years ago. “But the friendships are even better. It’s exciting.”

Harrington, a woman who lends her energy to a constellation of causes and knows that food for the soul comes from helping others, is the Daily Record’s Person of the Year for 2013.

The beginning

Flash back to fall 1973. Harrington, the mother of four children and wife of the late Dr. Edward Harrington, CWU vice president, sensed a coolness between the college and the town when she arrived in Ellensburg.

“When we got here people said, ‘You know the college people and the town people don’t get along,’” Harrington recalls. “It bothered me. We’d lived in San Jose for a long time and I never thought about whose husband had what kind of a job. I had friends in every situation. I thought, ‘What can we do about that?’”

Harrington’s idea was to establish regular luncheon groups to raise money for scholarships at CWU for high school seniors and single parents. Hosting responsibilities would rotate, and organizers would invite participants from outside the college.

“I love to cook and I sensed this as a way to bridge the gap,” she says.

Twenty-two women attended the first luncheon, quickly embraced the idea and took turns hosting. They paid $1.50 to attend each gathering. Consider that a seed planted in fertile soil and carefully nurtured by Harrington over the years. By the end of the first year, those 22 initial participants blossomed into 23 separate groups, each with 12 members. The effort netted $2,700. Eight $300 scholarships were awarded.

An idea that bears powerful fruit

Fast forward four decades.

The cost of a lunch is now $5. There are nearly 70 groups, including groups in the Upper County and in Yakima. The effort has evolved to include dinner and brunch as well as luncheon groups. Harrington has worked to involve participants from the college, business and the agricultural community. Most groups meet monthly during the school year. For Harrington, the personal touch is vital. She attends every event and sometimes attends three in a single day. She also makes sure participants are contacted directly by phone to remind them of the place and time, helps recruit new members when other members move or can no longer participate, and tracks the proceeds using a notebook. There is no arm twisting; but her polite invitations can be hard to resist.

Perhaps most amazing in an era when the Internet puts us in touch with “friends” we may never meet, Harrington doesn’t use email and contacts participants directly by phone. If she doesn’t get an answer, she asks them to call back.

“I’m very old-fashioned,” Harrington says. “I honestly don’t want to take the time to learn to (email). I like the personal contact.”

For Harrington, for CWU students, and for those who make friends with people they might otherwise have never known, the effort pays off.

“She is amazing. Ruth recorded over 600 volunteer hours last academic year,” says Vicki Dicken of the CWU Foundation. Of the nearly $900,000 raised, Dicken says $550,000 has gone to help close to 1,000 students, most of them local. An endowment will continue to provide scholarship support in perpetuity, even after Harrington is no longer involved.

The consummate volunteer

When people talk about Harrington, “amazing” is an oft-heard term. But Harrington, proud of what the luncheon scholarship program has accomplished as well as the role the broader community has played in making it happen, is uncomfortable in the spotlight.

“I feel guilty about your writing something. I don’t like to brag,” Harrington said during a recent interview she agreed to only because she was told the focus of the story was the scholarship luncheon program itself (a small but necessary lie because of the Person of the Year honoree is always secret until the story announcing it is published).

“I have to say she is amazing. She has a caring heart. She is selfless. She volunteers with so many organizations. Wherever you look, her name comes up,” says Sadie Thayer, executive director of the Kittitas County Historical Museum. “She’s been with us since 2004. She’s here every single Monday we’re open.”

She’s also a veteran of years as a volunteer at Gallery One, says Sarah Haven, retail manager at Gallery One. “Ruth? She’s amazing. I can’t say enough kind things about her,” says Haven. “She’s a genuinely sincere and kind human being. That’s what emanates from her.”

Among other activities, Harrington serves on the board of Hospice Friends, volunteers at the library, was a former volunteer with the Children’s Museum, helps with gardening at Olmstead Place State Park, and calls bingo and plays the piano at local nursing homes.

“I love older people,” she says. The affection is mutual.

“They love it. They love her. It’s just her heart. She has a great heart,” says Stacy Flores, activities director at Royal Vista Nursing and Rehab in Ellensburg.

Contributions noted

Harrington’s contributions haven’t gone unnoticed. This past year the Ellensburg Downtown Association honored her with the 2013 Town and Gown Award for her contributions supporting a strong and collaborative partnership between CWU and the Ellensburg community.

“What Ruth has done is absolutely amazing,” says Director Carolyn Honeycutt. “She is very humble. She doesn’t put a lot of attention on herself. She’s just a great lady.”

Warren and Libby Street, both retired CWU professors and longtime scholarship luncheon participants, agree. After Harrington’s arrival in Ellensburg, she “hit the ground running,” setting up small groups mixing in people from different areas of the community, Warren says, calling her “the engine that keeps this thing going.”

How instrumental has Harrington been in helping bridge the town-gown divide?

“Hugely,” Libby says. “She’s a bulldog. She’s a person who never asks anyone else to do what she isn’t willing to do herself. No one wants to disappoint her. Everyone wants to say yes to her.”

Harrington, an avid walker who power walks almost everywhere, “also has the metabolism of a bird,” Libby says.

The scholarship awards

While Harrington engages the community in the effort to raise scholarship money, she doesn’t see the applications and plays no role in awarding the scholarships. Those decisions are made at Ellensburg High School and at CWU.

But she delights in hearing from scholarship recipients who pause long enough to say “thank you” to those who have helped make the award possible. Sometimes they send a note. For Harrington — never one to miss a chance to invite someone new into the luncheon mix — it’s a new recruiting opportunity for the project closest to her heart.

“I always call the parents of the high school students who receive them and ask if they’d like to attend a luncheon,” she says. “And over the years, we’ve had lots of recipients come and visit us. We don’t right now but in the past, we’ve had some people who got our scholarship come back to Ellensburg join a group.”

She pauses.

“I love it when that happens,” she says. “It makes me very happy.”


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