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Ruby Lou and Me: Childhood in 1950

We were children when children were free. We reunited recently.

Ruby Lou Wolens, with her permission
Ruby Lou and Me, about 1950.
Source: Ruby Lou Wolens, with her permission

I opened Chapter 1 of my book Free to Learn with the following paragraph:

I’ve learned from hundreds of great teachers over the course of my life, but if I had to pick the single greatest it would be Ruby Lou. I met her the summer I was five and she was six. My family had just moved to a new town and, at my mother’s suggestion, I had gone door to door, by myself, up and down both sides of the street, knocking and enquiring, “Do any children about my age live here?” That’s how I found her, right across the street. Within a few minutes we were best friends, and we remained so for the two years that I lived in that town. Ruby Lou was older, smarter, and bolder than I, but not too much so, and that’s why she was such a great teacher for me.

Ruby Lou Wolens, with permission
Ruby Lou with the bicycle she taught me to ride
Source: Ruby Lou Wolens, with permission

I then continued on, for a couple of paragraphs, to describe some of what I learned from Ruby Lou: How she taught me to ride her bicycle before I had one (she told me to start at the top of the little hill on the street between our houses, so as to pick enough speed to keep upright as I learned to pedal), how she inspired me to climb higher in the evergreen tree in my yard, how I learned from her my first serious lesson about death and its impact, and how we took adventures together on our bikes after my parents bought me one. My point was to show what a normal childhood was like back around 1950; or, really, what a normal childhood was like throughout human history until the last three decades or so. Children, even five- and six-year-olds, were allowed to play outdoors freely with one another, and go on adventures, without adults present; and in that way children acquired confidence and learned skills that cannot be taught by adults and are hard to learn when adults are around.

Richard Wolens, with permission.
Ruby Lou and Me, reliving our childhood friendship, in front of the house in Trimont where I used to live.
Source: Richard Wolens, with permission.

A few weeks ago, I met Ruby Lou for the first time in 68 years. Here’s how it happened:

Dick Gallien, who lives in southern Minnesota and has been a regular, inspiring contributor to the Comments sections on my Psychology Today blog, decided, after reading Free to Learn, to make a project of finding Ruby Lou. He learned from me that the little town we had lived in was Trimont, Minnesota. (Actually, when we lived there, it was Monterey, Minnesota. Later on it joined with the neighboring town of Triumph to become Trimont). He went to Trimont and asked around. I had no idea what Ruby Lou’s last name was when I knew her, let alone what it might be now. So, all he had to go on was her unusual first name and that she would have been about 6 years old in 1950. Amazingly, he found someone who knew someone who might know her, and, indeed, that person did know her. That’s how the contact was made. She is now Ruby Lou Wolens (though now she usually drops the Lou), living in a suburb of Minneapolis.

Once contact was made, Ruby Lou and I shared memories by phone and email. I was relieved and delighted to find that she remembered things pretty much as I did. The one thing that differed is that she did not recall a hill on the street between our houses, where I remembered her teaching me to ride her bike by starting at the top. She said, “That whole town was flat as a pancake.” I immediately went to Google Earth and located our old houses and the street between them, and it looked to me like there was at least a slight slope on the street. So she drove to Trimont to check it out and, to my great relief, replied that yes, there is a small slope there. My memory distortion may have augmented the grade of the slope, but didn’t invent it.

 Ruby Lou Wolens, with permission.
Me, my brother Steve, and Ruby Lou. We apparently weren't happy about having this picture taken.
Source: Ruby Lou Wolens, with permission.

Finally, this August, we met and went back to Trimont to reminisce, along with her husband, Richard. I had been invited to give a talk at a conference of educators in southern Minnesota and eagerly accepted, partly so I would have the chance to visit Ruby Lou and Trimont.

What fun! The town has barely changed. Our houses and yards are pretty much as I remembered them, except the big evergreen tree we climbed had been cut down. The slope on the road is definitely shallower than I remembered it to be, but steep enough to increase at least somewhat the momentum of a bicycle going down it.

I also learned that Ruby Lou was not a full year older than I was—only 3 months older. So, I was mistaken in that first paragraph to say that she was six when we first met; we were both five. But she was definitely smarter, braver, and in many ways more skilled than I, even though I was much taller, as you can see in the pictures. I thought she was a year older because she started school a year before I did. I also learned that Ruby Lou’s father had died in the war and had never seen her, and years later was honored as a war hero. So her grandfather, whose death I described in the first pages of Free to Learn, had been her father figure. Ruby Lou also told me that sometime after I left Trimont, and before she left at age 9, she had, on a dare, climbed to the top of the Trimont water tower—one of many adventures she kept secret from her mother. That did not surprise me at all.

Ruby Lou Wolens, with permission
Ruby Lou in the big snow of 1950
Source: Ruby Lou Wolens, with permission

Ruby Lou also shared with me some photos of us that her mother had taken and passed on to her, which confirm some of my other memories. I’m sharing some of those photos in this post, including the one that confirms my memory of a huge snowfall we had in 1950, way over our heads and even in many places over the heads of adults, where Ruby Lou and I made tunnels and caves. What fun.

I can also report that I fully approve of Ruby Lou’s husband Richard. They have had and continue to have a great life, with two kids and five grandkids. I teased my wife, before that trip to Minnesota, by telling her that Ruby Lou was my first wife and that we had many children together—in countless games of House. Our kids were mostly dolls but sometimes included my younger brother Steve and my baby brother Barney. It is possible that Ruby Lou even taught me something about how to be a good husband and father.

Ingress Intel, free to use
The water tower that Ruby Lou climbed sometime between the age of 7 and 9.
Source: Ingress Intel, free to use

I hope you (and the editors at Psychology Today) don’t mind my focusing this post on this personal adventure rather than writing my usual kind of research-based essay with references to scholarly literature. People who have read Free to Learn often ask me about Ruby Lou. Indeed, at a book signing shortly before that Minnesota trip a person asked me to sign his copy of Free to Learn to “all the Ruby Lous of the world.”

Yes, here’s to all the Ruby Lous of the world! And here, too, is my fervent wish that we re-create a world where Ruby Lous can do what Ruby Lous are designed to do—play, explore, be brave, learn, and help others without the kinds of restraints that are put on young girls and boys today.

Ruby Wolens, with permission.
We played countless games of house.
Source: Ruby Wolens, with permission.

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