A woman ahead of her time

November 2022

Thirty years ago, in October of 1992, the Government of Canada designated October as Women’s History Month. Since that time a number of activities have taken place to celebrate the outstanding achievements of women and girls. Starting in October of 2013, the City of Thunder Bay Archives began asking the community to submit nominations of women who should be considered for inclusion in an online exhibit entitled Women’s History Month, who have played important roles in the development and history of our community. To date, over forty women have been added to the exhibit which can be located on the City of Thunder Bay website.

Last month four more worthy candidates were added to the growing list of inductees, including Mona Hardy, Elizabeth Wieben and Dr. Penny Seraphina Petrone. The fourth honouree, Ruth Black, was a trailblazer and role model for women in a variety of ways. Whether it was in the sports arena, throughout her long and respected career in health care or through her volunteer and monetary contributions to her community, Ruth Black truly left a lasting legacy.

During the 1920s and 30s women began to participate in organized sports on a scale not previously seen and Ruth was one of the most prominent local athletes from this time period.
She demonstrated her versatility by being active and competitive in no less than ten different sports. A stand out on the basketball court, Ruth played on many championship teams for both Fort William Collegiate and the Fort William Vocational School. After graduating she was a referee for the Girls Intercity High School League from 1934 to 1936 and played for the
“Y” on many championship teams in the Senior Women’s League. On the volleyball court Ruth and her “Y” teammates won the Women’s Intercity League championship title for six consecutive years in the late 1930s and early ‘40s.

On the ice Ruth played senior women’s hockey for the Fort William “Y” team and was reported in the newspapers of the day as being a fine goal scorer and a strong skater with a powerful shot, leading her team in scoring one year while playing defence.

On the baseball diamond she played in the Senior Women’s Intercity League with a variety of teams including the “Y”, Golden Sprays and the Port Arthur South Ends. As in her other sport endeavors, she claimed a number of championships, regularly contributing to her team’s success at the plate and in the field, playing practically all positions. In 1937 her talents saw her recruited by Schreiber to play in the Women’s Ontario Softball playoffs. After little practice due to a stretch of cold fall weather and a long train ride, the Schreiber team successfully faced a number of challenges from teams from southern Ontario, posting their only loss of the tournament in a game against Toronto in the finals. A true pioneer in the field of women’s sports in northwestern Ontario, she earned entry into the Northwestern Ontario Sports Hall of Fame in 1985 in the Athlete category.

Along with her unparalleled athletic feats, this exceptional athlete, who was also an accomplished equestrian rider, would also leave her mark as a local hero for events that unfolded at the Lakehead Exhibition Grounds. In 1947 a team of rampaging horses suddenly began to run amok, galloping with a large empty hay wagon in tow and heading straight for the food booths. The description of the event noted that it was Ruth who ran from the YWCA booth, caught the running team, gained control and brought them to a stop. For her actions, she was awarded a lifetime pass by the Canadian Lakehead Exhibition and was presented with the National Dow Award for Bravery due to her selfless heroism, which saw her picture adorn the front page of the May 18, 1948 Toronto Daily Star.

She was also a trailblazer in her working career which saw her give close to 40 years of service to health care at a time when women did not hold positions of power in that field. Starting as a secretary at the newly opened Ontario Hospital farm in 1936 on the old Scott Highway, she went on to become the assistant administrator of the Lakehead Psychiatric Hospital, retiring from that position in 1973 as the lone female assistant administrator amongst the Ministry of Health’s twenty-six facilities which were operating at that time. Highlights of that career also included helping to coordinate the building plans for the LPH’s location on Algoma Street and organizing the hospital’s Volunteer Services Group.

In addition to her contributions in sport, and her trailblazing career in healthcare, Ruth also contributed greatly to her community as a volunteer with many organizations. She served on such boards as the YMCA, Visitors and Convention Bureau and St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church. One of her lasting legacies was her work on the development of Thunder Bay’s Soroptimist International Friendship Gardens which she, along with her dear friend Rose Frim, proposed as that groups Centennial Project in 1967.

As an individual who cared deeply for the well-being of her community, upon her passing in 1995 she left a number of financial bequests to a variety of organizations. She also contributed close to $900,000 to the Thunder Bay Community Foundation, which established the Ruth Black Fund which provides support to worthy groups each year to support mental health charities or programs that assist those with mental health needs.

I had the good fortune to know Ruth as she was a member of the Selection Committee when I first began working at the Northwestern Ontario Sports Hall of Fame. She would always assist us when called upon to participate in our educational programs. I always enjoyed listening to her talk to the students about how sport had changed since her days of involvement. She would also make a point to remind the young girls in the class to never doubt their abilities or be afraid to follow their dreams in whatever they decided to do along their life’s journey, regardless of what barriers might be put in their way.

I often wonder what Ruth would think about the progress women have made since her passing over a quarter century ago. No doubt she would be very happy to see that women are becoming more actively involved, recognized, and financially compensated in the world of sports. She would also be incredibly proud to see that since her trailblazing days in healthcare administration, when she was often the lone female, great strides have been made. Currently, all of the major healthcare agencies in Thunder Bay, including the Thunder Bay District Health Unit, St. Joseph’s Care Group and the Thunder Bay Regional Health Sciences Centre all have female leaders at their helm. It is because of women like Ruth Black, who blazed the trail so many years ago, that the glass ceiling has not only been broken, but in some cases, it has been shattered.

Diane Imrie is the Executive Director of the Northwestern Ontario Sports Hall of Fame. She can be reached at dimrie@tbaytel.net

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