Performing arts champion takes final bow

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By John Roe, Edited by Michael Burgess
Page 5, 2/28/03

Ruth French Chapman, a former school board member, teacher, and volunteer for which the Eastlake High School performing arts center is named, died at Sharp Chula Vista Medical Center Feb. 21, one day after she turned 96.

Chapman was a passenger in a car that was involved in a traffic collision in early January. She was released from the hospital the next day. But she had to go back to the hospital almost a week later and she remained there until she died.

A public memorial service will be held at Eastlake High School, 1120 Eastlake Parkway, Chula Vista tomorrow at 10:30 a.m. Jennifer Noriega, a SCPA student, will sing “Wind Beneath My Wings” at the service.

A fund has been set up to support Sweetwater Union High School District performing arts programs. The family requests that donations be sent to: Ruth French Chapman Performing Arts Fund, c.o. The Chapman Family, 324 Hilltop Drive, Chula Vista, CA, 91910.

William Virchis, Sweetwater Union High School District’s visual and performing arts department director, was working on an opera production over the weekend and said he couldn’t believe it.

“I’ve known Ruth and her family since I was in junior high. It was a tremendous loss,” Virchis said. “She was a real champion, man. She was a real champion. She was so truthful. What Ruth did, she said. It came from the heart. The district owes her a lot, especially for the creative and performing arts.”

Ida Ruth French was born Feb. 20, 1907, on a Nebraskan farm. At age 22, she started teaching in Wilsonville, Neb., earning $900 a year and living with her students’ families, a custom at the time. The surname Chapman came from her second marriage.

Around 1942, she moved West to teach at schools in the Los Angeles area. In 1954, she moved to Chula Vista and started teaching at Hazel Goes Cook Elementary School in 1955. There, she established the first library in the school district and was honored by Cook Elementary’s PTA in 1957. In 1972, she retired from teaching at Cook Elementary but continued to volunteer there until last year.

In 1973, she was elected to the Sweetwater Union High School District board of trustees and routinely won reelection until 1998. While Chapman was on the Board, she frequented school functions such as concerts, plays, sporting events and other events through late last year. She was present to read a poem at the Chula Vista High School Spartan homecoming assembly on Oct. 25, 2002. Her moniker was “Spartan Mom,” for her support of the school.

Ed Reed, formerly a Sweetwater district music teacher and now director of the National City Community Concert Band, remembered she was full of love.

“She loved kids. She loved students. She loved teachers as well,” Reed said. “She was a tremendous supporter of the arts because what she saw it did for students. For individual students, for groups of students. The vitality and focus it brought into their lives. With fine arts, it reaches into a different part of a person, it reaches into the soul and the heart.”

About a week after Chapman’s defeat in 1998, the Chula Vista Elementary School District Board of Trustees recognized her 25 years of dedication and service to students and the community. Chapman was the recipient of the San Diego County “We Honor Our Own” Award, the Chula Vista Elementary School District’s “Golden Apple” and the Hazel Goes Cook Community Service Award.

“I think her passion and dedication to education were inspiring. Her spirit and her energy were awesome as well, especially at such an advanced age,” said Bryan Felber, who has been leading the drive to have an elementary school named after her.

Chula Vista School for the Creative and Performing Arts facilitator Ron Bolles recalled an amazing story he had heard about Chapman’s hospital stay.

“They found that she had internal bleeding. And the doctor wanted to put some sort of scope down her throat to determine the cause. Ruth said she didn’t want that procedure done. The doctor said, ‘Then you’ll just have to stop bleeding.’ The next day they ran more tests and discovered she had stopped bleeding.”

Chapman is survived by sons Kent Wages, an English teacher at Eastlake High School who lives in Chula Vista and Brian Wages in Solana Beach, grandson Jason Wages in Dallas, Texas, granddaughter Emily Wages in San Francisco and niece Nancy Stiles in Angel Fire, N.M.

I received this e-mail on 3/2/03:

Hi John!

I didn’t see you at the memorial service, but I may have simply missed you.

I wanted to let you know in case you had not been able to attend that one of the sons made specific reference to your article (and you by name!), and indicated how pleased the family was with it. He said that “Ruthie” would have been so happy that somebody finally got it right!

It made me proud to know the impact that SCPA students*, past and present, had on remembering her life.

– Ron Bolles

* Ron Bolles is the Chula Vista SCPA Facilitator. For my last year of high school, I was an independent study student attached to SCPA as a music student and departmental teacher’s aide, though primarily to Dr. Luzak (head of music). Loved it.

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