When she earned her degree from Reed in 1938, Ruth Wetterborg faced a predicament familiar to many recent grads—a great education but dismal prospects in the job market. So when a friend mentioned that a school in Alaska was looking for a teacher, Ruth jumped at the opportunity, hopping aboard the next northbound steamship.
Petersburg, Alaska, was not an obvious destination for an English major with a thesis on Matthew Arnold and an education replete with the Iliad and a singing role in Aida. The remote fishing outpost was Alaska’s youngest town. It was a mere six years older than the 24-year-old Ruth.
Poised at the nexus of five fishing grounds, the foggy island location was shunned by local Tlingit and Haida Indians in favor of sunnier spots. The only ones undeterred by the bleak climate were Scandinavian fishermen. They were more concerned with reducing their gas mileage to fishing grounds and having a protected natural harbor to anchor boats.
When asked about the dramatic shift 70+ years later, the 94-year-old Ruth gives an answer that is at once intellectual and full of Alaskan pragmatism.
“Culture is not something you put in a bag,” Ruth says with a laugh. “Culture is in the mind; you carry it with you.”
What she doesn’t say is that culture is also something you introduce.
The culture Ruth brought with her from Reed has made an indelible impression on her adopted home. She served for decades as a librarian, church warden and cofounder of the local arts council and the public radio station. Designing town brochures and arts council stationery, Ruth incorporated flourishes learned in professor Lloyd Reynolds’ celebrated calligraphy classes.
As the town approaches its centennial, Ruth is now one of its most cherished elders—thanks not only to her contributions to the community, but also to her affinity for the color purple.
“In library school, they told me to pick something out that made me distinctive,” Ruth explains, “so I decided to be the Purple Librarian.” Her unique dress code succeeded in retaining loyal patrons, too. Ask about Ruth Wetterborg Sandvik around town and people smile as they share stories of the librarian in a purple skirt and hat, who played music in the library and let children read under the tables.
Ruth did not contain her purple passion to clothes either. The windows of her gabled cottage are lined with purple glass vases. When visitors stop by, she offers a purple goblet of water and pulls out her photo album for you to admire. Macular degeneration doesn’t allow her to see the pictures anymore, but she loves to hear them described.
There’s one of Ruth riding in a wheelbarrow on Canyon Day. In another, she walks a slack line for gym credit. Here she is in a purple African muumuu, holding a Taichi pose amidst a bower of foxglove. There’s Ruth the newlywed, in a black and white photo, receiving a bouquet of wildflowers—probably purple—from her husband.
Fast-forward seven decades to her recent birthday party. The snapshot is a sea of faces—children, grandchildren, friends, ex-students, and colleagues from the cultural scene—all dressed in purple. They are among the many Petersburgians whose lives she has deeply touched. And there in the center of it all is Ruth, still smiling the same shy half-smile from her earliest pictures at Reed.