ELLINWOOD — This year, the Ellinwood Rotary Club’s After Harvest Festival Parade theme will be “Small Town Strong,” and the parade officials expressed it is fitting their Grand Marshal for 2019 is Ruth Peters. The 99-year-old has made Ellinwood her lifelong home, and continues to live an active life, traveling the world with her daughter, Gayle Christie. It was when the two were visiting the city of Sorento in Italy at the end of April that they learned of the honor. Ruth was delighted, and while shopping in Italy, found the dress and shoes she plans to wear in the parade.
“It’s such and honor, and while we have friends who have been the Grand Marshal before, I never imagined that it would be me,” Ruth said.
We met Ruth and Gayle at their rural Ellinwood home the day after they returned from a conference they attended in Colorado Springs. For this trip, they drove, but as many who know Ruth, flying was an option. That’s because the family has been closely associated with flying since the 1940s.
Ruth met her husband, Lt. Col. Marlen “Ken” Peters (deceased 2009) when they were both students at Ellinwood High School. He was two classes ahead of her, graduation in 1935, and she in 1937. They began to date sometime that year she was a senior. After school, Ken went to study at the University of Kansas, and Ruth took the Normal School exam and scored in the mid-’90s, making her eligible for a two-year teaching certificate. She taught at the Hitschman school north of Claflin.
Ruth was no stranger to one-room schoolhouses. She attended one herself. She recalls her father driving her to school in a horse-drawn wagon, sometimes piling hay on her to keep her warm for the mile-and-a-half ride in the morning. She looked forward to entering the schoolhouse and warming herself by the wood stove. When she became the teacher, light the stove became one of the many responsibilities that fell to her in the mornings.
Ken was a member of the ROTC at KU. One year, he invited Ruth to come to Lawrence for the ROTC Ball that was held each winter. She arranged for the day off from the school with a substitute and returned home to Ellinwood the night before she was to leave on the train to Lawrence. A heavy snowstorm descended on the state that night, and the day of the ball, the trains were stopped. She was unable to get out, and so missed the opportunity. That was the last year Ken was at K.U.
They married in 1939, and later Ken completed his education at Kansas State University in Manhattan.
“Ken always wanted to fly, but his doctor said he never would because his heart couldn’t handle it,” Ruth said. That didn’t stop him. Ruth said he got better. Soon after they married, against the advice of his parents, Ken snuck off to Hutchinson to take flying lessons with Ronald Wells and got his license.
They had their first son, Douglas, in 1946. He was followed by Gayle and Bruce with a few years in between each. The kids flew their entire lives, Ruth said. Douglas was killed when he was 19 in a flying accident, which was a sad time for the Peters family. But it didn’t stop the Peters from flying.
The Peters shared their love of flying with their community, offering “penny-a-pound” airplane rides and fly-ins that brought friends from the International Flying Farmers organization to Ellinwood. Through their involvement with the organization, they’ve flown to every state and internationally. So traveling to far off places has never been an obstacle for Ruth.
Sometime in the 1980s, as the farm economy began to falter, many farmers could no longer afford to fly, Ruth said. Their family wasn’t alone in the decision to sell off their plane around 1985. But it was only temporary. Fortunate investment decisions and holding in oil and gas helped right the family. Ken’s father drilled the first oil well in Barton County, the second in the state of Kansas. Over 60 years later, the investment in that venture is still paying off, Ruth said.
While Ruth admits she never imagined she would receive the honor of acting as Grand Marshal for the After Harvest Festival parade, she’s no stranger to riding in the parade. When alumnae organized the Wheatland Elementary float, she was on it. She had planned to ride in a Soeken family float this year, but instead, she’ll be leading the parade.
The theme this year for the parade is “Small Town Strong.”’
“Strong families and strong foundations are what small towns are made up of,” Ruth said. “People have to work together to overcome the challenges they face. There’s a real sense of belonging and community.”
“We travel a lot and we haven’t been home for a while, but Ellinwood is home. And we see the same people at church, and they seem to be glad to see us,” Gayle said. “It’s still so important to us.”
The Ellinwood Rotary Club’s After Harvest Festival parade is set for Saturday morning, July 20.