A lesson that you're never too old to get out the vote
In a bustling CREDO SuperPAC suburban office under the direction of a 23-year-old supervisor, volunteer Ruth Farnham dons a headset, clutches her cellphone, waits for her laptop computer to dial a registered voter and asks a political question to the stranger on the other end of the line.
"Oh, I'm not active anymore because I'm 70," replies one woman, who figures that makes her old enough to sit back and let younger voters decide the path for our nation.
Telling that story draws a laugh from Ruth, who needs a mechanical seat to go up and down the stairs in her Hanover Park home, walks with a cane and will turn 80 in May. Ruth is a political puppy compared to her husband, Willis, who often goes by Bill.
A 91-year-old veteran of World War II, Bill might be the oldest precinct captain in Illinois. He can't canvass the neighborhood streets on foot like he could in his 80s, but Bill credits his monthly newsletter for the high voter turnout in his Schaumburg Township Precinct 19.
"He's been No. 1 or in the top three perennially in getting out our vote," says Rocco Terranova, president of the Schaumburg Area Democrats and active member since 1985. "He's been a very strong Democrat for us, very strong."
Bill's sharp mind sits under a mop of white hair. His cane, suspenders and long, wispy beard put you in ine mindof Santa Claus.
"He's nifty. Is that a word you can use, nifty?" Terranova says.
However, you describe the Farnhams, the couple remain energetic and motivated political activists.
"We haven't been the type to sit still and just let life pass," Ruth notes. As a schoolteacher who spent five years in Palatine Township Elementary District 15 and 29 more years in Elk Grove Township Elementary District 59, Ruth was very active in the teachers union, especially on women's issues.
"I remember one of the first things we fought for was the right to wear slacks," recalls Ruth, who chuckles at the memory of that 1960s victory coming with a stipulation that pants-wearing female teachers would be tolerated only when the outside temperature was 10 degrees or colder.
She met Bill while furthering her education with classes taught by Bill, an award-winning high school counselor and union organizer with a master's degree and an advanced certificate in psychology from the University of Illinois. A successful basketball and track coach, Bill was an early innovator in the 1960s when it came to using computers in education and was named counselor of the year in 1972-73 by the Illinois School Counselor Association. He spent most of his career at Willowbrook High School in Villa Park.
Ruth taught at Admiral Byrd Elementary School and retired from Rupley Elementary School, both in Elk Grove Village. They've been married for 40 years and share her two grown children, his three grown children, three grandchildren and one great-grandson, who is 18 and voting in his first presidential election this year.
Long retired, the Farnhams used to dedicate their summers to what is now the Bristol Renaissance Faire in Wisconsin. Having learned the art of brass rubbing during a trip to England in 1976, the Farnhams set up shop at the annual fair and eventually became in charge of their fellow merchants. Now they donate those volunteer hours to political causes.
"They are very serious about what they do, and I don't think they do it in a pain-in-the-neck way," Terranova says. "I wish I had a hundred more of them."
Ruth has been making political phone calls for a few hours a couple of days a week but says she's "stepping it up" this weekend with the election set for Tuesday. During her career as an elementary schoolteacher, Ruth honed the patience and personality needed to make blind phone calls to voters.
"We get a fair amount of hang-ups, some people who are angry, and some who are happy," says Ruth, who always introduces herself on the phone. "I use my whole name because I don't think they'll remember it anyway."
She's working to defeat 8th District Congressman Joe Walsh, a Tea Party Republican running for re-election against Democrat Tammy Duckworth. When she phones a voter who boldly proclaims an allegiance to Walsh, Ruth politely thanks her and says goodbye.
As a teenager, Ruth worked for the now-defunct Fredonia Daily Herald in her hometown of Fredonia, in southeast Kansas, "a little town that has gotten smaller." She listened to political conventions on the radio and got involved at an early age.
"At that time, politics were not to be something that involved women," she remembers. "The locals were very mad because a woman was running for office."
Ruth cast her first presidential vote for Republican Dwight Eisenhower, who also grew up in Kansas.
"The next election, I started voting Democratic and have ever since," says Ruth, who suggests Ike would join her in voting Democratic these days.
Bill was born in 1921, months after women earned the right to vote. He grew up in Whitewater, Wis., where he started kindergarten and earned his bachelor's degree in different ends of the same school building.
"I got interested in politics when the Depression set in," Bill says, remembering people looking through garbage for food. "I thought, 'This isn't right. There has to be a better way.'"
Bill's father, an electrical contractor, had no work. "We lived literally on what we raised in the garden and what he could hunt and fish," says Bill, who cast his first presidential vote for Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1940. When FDR spearheaded the rural electrification system that brought power to far-flung places in the country, Bill's dad had work.
"Every farmer wanted a pump for his windmill and a light in the kitchen," says Bill, who would help out by pulling wires through attics and crawl spaces that sometimes were home to pests. He still shudders at the memories of "bees and the red eyes of rats."
When Roosevelt cut back on creating government jobs and the economy lurched backward, Bill came to the conclusion: "Government was the answer to solving our financial problems." He still preaches that message in the monthly newsletter, in which he vows to bring facts to "low-information voters."
"They do not pay much attention to political and governmental affairs until just before an election," Bill says. This makes them vulnerable to the often-misleading messages of political ads, and they "frequently vote for candidates who do not share their values," Bill says.
Even during their busy careers, the Farnhams never missed the opportunity to vote. In retirement, they have more time to encourage others.
"After a certain age, you want to give back to society," says daughter Phyllis Benstein, 61, who often helps the Farnhams in their efforts.
"We encourage them to be active in grass-roots organizations," Bill says of the couple's children, grandchildren and great-grandchild. Bill's beard, which he starting growing in 1969 to make a point with a couple of fathers upset about long hair on boys, is a reminder of the power one man can have. Voting is another.
This is the first election for one 18-year-old grandson who lives nearby.
"Is he voting?" Ruth says, repeating a question she deems too ludicrous to ask. "If he wants Thanksgiving dinner, he is."
Politics: Both retired teachers, the couple have been politicially active for years