Montpelier: James Madison University Magazine

Serenading the Century
Montpelier Spring 1999

When Ruth Farrar stepped off the train onto the grounds of Harrisonburg's State Normal School in 1920, a wide expanse of green lawn held five buildings around a quadrangle fronting Main Street. She felt dwarfed by the spaciousness. The campus seemed only a small intrusion in an endless sweep of rolling farmland under the vast sky above.

The school's new president, Samuel P. Duke, had not yet broken ground for the grand additions that would earn him the nickname "The Builder." But he had started his campaign for funds -- beginning with alumnae chapters around the state to help underwrite a building for alumnae and students plus a new dormitory. Every club that year included raising money in its projects.

And there were clubs galore -- ones for regions of the state, three literary societies, singing groups, first-name clubs like a Mary Club, a Virginia Club, an Ellen-Helen Club. There were clubs for tennis, basketball, cooking and singing, and even a ministers' daughters club "with the laudable aim of marrying a minister," according to Raymond Dingledine's history of the school.

Dozens of clubs afforded every girl on campus a fit in at least one and usually more. But the same was not true of dormitory space. However, the dorm shortage held little importance to Ruth and her sister, Mae. Both had registered as day students, arriving by train from their home in Elkton 14 miles to the east. They lived off campus but participated in music and literary offerings.

Seventy-eight years later, Ruth recalls those days with pleasure. "We boarded at noon and hopped off at the Penn Laird stop to buy cheese and crackers and such to eat on the train ride." As daughters of a train engineer, the ride to and fro was free.

Ruth and Mae disembarked on school grounds but usually caught their return ride from the station downtown. Unlike dorm students confined to campus, after classes they strolled freely along Main Street to window shop and linger over a Coke at Fletcher's Pharmacy. Classes ran only 45 minutes and daily chapel the same. Ruth took music and English, though she sometimes sat in on classes in French or German just for fun. Her excellent ear and amazing memory rendered conversations a breeze.

And those powers served music well. By the time she'd practiced a selection a few times, it was committed to memory. Miss Hoffman insisted on hearing her play at least twice a week to make certain she hadn't memorized an imperfection before it was too late to correct. Focused on performance throughout the year, Ruth drew special pleasure from any concert. For 1920's last one in May, she had the special honor of closing the program with Butterfly by Lavelle.

Margaret Hoffman had joined the staff in 1911 to teach Latin and German and help as needed in English -- later introducing a popular children's literature course. But she also taught piano and staged musicals with Ruth Hudson. Their ambitious H.M.S. Pinafore, had thrilled young Ruth four years earlier. So there was little wonder that Miss Hoffman became Ruth's favorite teacher.

Campus retained the family closeness in those years of a 300-member student body. Seventy-eight years later happy memories of her Normal years resurface as Ruth shows off her school ring. Now widowed and living at Orange Home for Adults, she relishes sharing her recollections with others. For example, JMU grad Patty Waddy Talley ('80) works at the home. And three grandchildren are JMU alumni: Nancy Barrett Howes ('74), Linda Barrett ('81), and Jim Barrett ('91). All eagerly listen.

A full lifetime of music flowed from her school years into the present. She taught a year at Penn Laird Elementary School. But her popularity as a performer also led her to play for various churches. And that soon kindled romance. Ruth happily reminisced, "I went over to play for his church, and Robert was a teacher. He said that was the happiest day of his life when he looked up and saw me sitting on that piano bench at the Elkton Presbyterian Church."

That happiness sustained their 67 years together, first in Alexandria, where Robert Keezel managed a Safeway and she continued to play at four churches. It continued through the loss of a child, a Great Depression, and the war years, and then as they grew old together. Ruth recounts, "Robert and I would go to the art gallery every Sunday, have supper over there, and then go to the concerts. They were all free -- had to pay for supper, of course. We had a wonderful time." Robert died three years ago. But their love continues through daughter Charlotte, her three children, and five great grandchildren.

At the nursing home, Ruth no longer performs for others at the piano, but she often sits at the keyboard, fingers lightly tracing the sounds still heard in her mind. And while the music is soundless, her literary talent continues to flow. Two books of poetry delight her family, and she shares an occasional poem with others.

Across almost a century, Ruth Farrar Keezel has serenaded the joy of living in music and verse.

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