Ruth Wise, activist for better housing, dies

(Delmarvanow.com) -- The Eastern Shore of Virginia lost a dedicated community activist with the death of Ruth Ann Rogers Wise Kellam at age 74 on July 20.

Known to most people as Ruth Wise, she was a powerhouse who led in a community development project that changed the face of the New Road community in Exmore.

"She was one of the finest people I ever knew," said Hal Koenig, Wise's supervisor during the many years she worked at Eastern Shore Community College.

Funeral services were set for Saturday, July 29 at 11 a.m. at Northampton High School in Eastville, and a visitation was set for Friday, July 28 from 3 to 7 p.m. at New Mt. Calvary Baptist Church, 3254 Seaside Road, Exmore.

Wise had already had a long career at Eastern Shore Community College when she left to become executive director of the New Road Community Development Group in Exmore.

Her dream was to bring better housing and homeownership to around 250 low-income residents of what was at the time a neighborhood of substandard tarpaper houses with no indoor plumbing.


The New Road group was created in 1992, initially to work toward getting a sewer and water system to provide services to 90 houses in the community. Construction of the system finally started in May 1998.

Wise recalled that day for a 2004 story about the project written by Sonia Ospina and Jonathan Walters for the Research Center for Leadership in Action at New York University, after Wise had received a Ford Foundation Leadership for a Changing World award in 2001.

"We were like little kids when that construction equipment arrived," she said at the time. "There were tractors and trucks everywhere. We were hooting and hollering and yelling, 'Here comes another one! Here comes another one!'"

After it was founded, the group went on to leverage $1.75 million in grant funds for the new infrastructure and also secured a low-interest loan of $343,000 to buy 30 acres and 54 homes from absentee landlords, along with managing 20 rental properties and renovating five homes of elderly and low-income residents, according to a description from a 2000 Housing and Urban Development award the group received.

Wise said at the time that the project's essence was best expressed through the group's mission statement: "Our mission is to create a community of hope through environmental improvement and economic uplift where residents are empowered to guide our own social, economic, political, educational and spiritual destiny."

Wise was born in Willis Wharf and grew up in New Road. She began her education in a two-room schoolhouse before becoming valedictorian of the Northampton County High School class of 1960. She received a bachelor's degree from Virginia State University and subsequently worked as a high school teacher in Petersburg before returning to the Eastern Shore.

She later earned her master's degree in education from Old Dominion University.

She joined the faculty at Eastern Shore Community College in 1980.

Koenig first hired Wise to run a mobile learning center — a big Winnebago RV that had come into the college's possession, which Wise would drive around to the Eastern Shore's remote communities, where she would teach residents literacy skills and help students prepare for the GED test.

She left the college for a time and later returned to work there as an advisor to students in what is now called the workforce development program.

Compassion and hard work were Wise's defining characteristics, Koenig said.

"She was tough when she needed to be tough; she was conciliatory when she needed to be; she was smart ... She was compassionate and she was also fierce in defending her students" and all the people she fought for.

Delmarvanow.com


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