Ruth Moore Berry

Moore family home, Ball Cottage, on Baltic Street

Moore family home, Ball Cottage, on Baltic Street

Imagine a time in Ortega without U.S.17/ Roosevelt Boulevard or when traffic consisted of a trolley running across the Grand Avenue Bridge.

Ruth Page Moore Berry remembers it well. Growing up in Ball Cottage on unpaved Baltic Street with neighbors Honesta and James Willis of Sunshine House right next door, Berry had plenty of freedom in the 1930s to roam the paths of what is now Ortega Forest and pursue a favorite activity – digging for Dangerous Dan’s treasure on the banks of McGirts Creek.

“A lot of people left in the summer, so Honesta and James and I spent a lot of time together. Every once in a while some boys would bring home a dead rattlesnake, but we never felt any danger,” said Berry. “We played bound ball, jacks, hide and seek, hopscotch. I rode my bicycle all over. We told ghost stories on the Willis‘s front porch. Then I was afraid to go home – all of 100 feet.”

The friendships forged on these childhood excursions lasted a lifetime; Honesta was in Ruth‘s wedding to James Joseph Berry at age 23, and Ruth attended James Willis’s funeral last year.

“From the day I was born at St. Vincent’s until the day I married, I lived in that house,” she said about Ball Cottage. “It was sort of in the boondocks in those days. We had water from an artesian well, which was at Cortez Park where the trolley turned around until Bus Number 30 took over. That sulphur water was hard as brick bats, but we thought we were being gypped when the city water came in.”

In addition to well water, Berry said there was no air conditioning back then. “We just opened the windows and the doors. In the winter we used the fireplace and an oil heater. Dad said it was colder in Florida than it was in New Hampshire.”

Ruth Moore with father Stanley Moore, June 21, 1948

Ruth Moore with father Stanley Moore, June 21, 1948

Berry’s parents, Stanley and Mary Moore, traveled from New Hampshire to Jacksonville in 1925 with three children (and young Ruth on the way) in their custom-made green Franklin automobile. Berry said, “It was the last Franklin in Jacksonville. It had a fan-cooled engine, the windows clipped in or out, but Dad couldn’t get parts for it so he sold it and bought a Ford sedan. I learned to drive at age 15 and drove all around Ortega even though I didn’t have a license. The roads weren’t very wide, most of them were not paved. I finally got my license in 1945 while I was in nursing training.”

Mary Violet Page Moore home schooled young Ruth, who learned to read at age five from the McGuffey’s Reader. “Most ladies just didn’t work outside of the home. If they had an education, they were educated homemakers. It was unusual for the time but mother had a liberal arts degree from Boston University,” said Berry. “I had an aunt who was a doctor. Dad graduated from MIT. That’s how we got down here; he was working on the development of Venetia and Ortega Terrace and worked on the first Vilano Bridge.”

Berry attended Ortega Elementary School from first grade until age 12, then went to St. Paul’s Catholic School in Riverside. “I was kind of an oddity because I knew a lot about mythology and those little Irish sisters didn’t know what to make of that. I could never make any sense of algebra and still can’t,” she said.

It was at St. Paul’s that she met her husband to be, James “Jimmy” Berry. “I asked him to a Sadie Hawkins dance in eighth grade. He seemed nice enough and, after all, we only had nine boys to choose from!”   

After graduation from St. Paul’s, she worked for the Navy as “the worst clerk typist ever” making $36 a week. “I hated office work and only lasted three months. While my sister Althea and I were visiting someone at St. Vincent’s one of the sisters went by, we called them ‘Sails’ because of those huge head pieces they wore, and Althea suggested I train as a nurse. I actually didn’t care one thing about being a nurse, I just fell into it accidentally,” said Berry. “Because Althea suggested it, I applied to St. Vincent’s Daughters of Charity nursing school and graduated in 1946.”

“Jim got in a year at University of Florida before the Army, then he was pulled out of the line of soldiers going to Dunkirk and sent back to school. His IQ tipped the scales,” she said.

Ruth Page Moore

Ruth Page Moore

Her husband was commissioned a Second Lieutenant in the Air Force, and they married June 21, 1948 at St. Paul’s Catholic Church. After a stint at McDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Jim resigned his commission and joined the Army Corps of Engineers.

“His parents weren’t well, so we moved to San Marco to be closer to them. We came back to Jacksonville with our first baby, Molly, in a brand new four-door Plymouth sedan,” recalled Berry. “We paid $1,906 cash for it.”

Ruth and Jim had five children: Molly, Jim, Tom, Steve and, at age 42, Brian, her “bonus baby.” The couple was married for 54 years before Jim passed away in December 2002.

“The only secret to a long marriage is just do what you have to do and know the kids are going to be awful,” she remarked in her wry manner. “Looking back, it wasn’t fair to anyone – I was working nights at the Baptist ER, and they were awfully young. But, I loved working ER, and I’d had all the children I could manage.”

Her children never let her forget the night she spent with Elvis Presley in the 1950s in the emergency room at Baptist Hospital. “They were so insulted that I didn’t bring home a towel or wash cloth or something that he had touched. I wasn’t impressed, but the kids had a fit at the breakfast table when I told them about hiding Elvis from the paparazzi,” she said. “We didn’t admit him, he just slept there, and I looked in on him during the night. It was the highlight of my emergency room career, and I didn’t even realize it at the time.”

Ruth Berry’s adventures did not stop with meeting the “King.” From her first airplane flight in 1945 in a DC-3 to see her sister in Pittsburgh, Berry has traveled the world from Ortega and San Marco to Mount Everest, British Columbia, Nepal, New Deli and Sri Lanka.

Berry has sailed the St. Johns, the Nile and the Rhine. She has eaten pineapples at a parade with 200 elephants in Para Hera, about which she said “It was fun for us, but I’m not sure how it was for the elephants.” She has attended the Bolshoi and the Kirov in Russia, explored Africa for three months and visited the Taj Mahal. She has traversed the U.S., including Alaska and Hawaii.

Ruth Page Moore

Ruth Page Moore

A conversation with her is filled with colorful stories and descriptions – details which carry the listener into the moment. Berry related how terrified she was on her first international flight. “My traveling companion and I split a beer to calm me down and keep me from running up and down the aisle in a panic,” she said. “Traveling is the most freeing thing I’ve ever done in my life – all the boundaries and limitations were in my head.” 

Berry said she regrets not finishing college and wishes that she had done more. She also observed the biggest changes in her lifetime have been trying to deal with technology. “But have I changed with it? No!” said the woman who has gone from reading a McGuffey Reader to using Kindle – her one concession to a hi-tech world.

About her last birthday on June 20, 2015, Berry’s eyes crinkled when she said, “It was surprising! How did I get to be 90 years old?”

Berry has seen Elvis in his jammies and shaken Gorbachev’s hand; visited five out of seven continents; raised five children, embraced seven grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren, yet denies she has done anything extraordinary.

Her niece, Edith Pillsbury, said, “She may not think she is extraordinary, but she is definitely a remarkable woman – one of the brightest people I’ve ever met and one of the funniest. She is the lynchpin for our far-flung family. Look up ‘love’ in the dictionary and you’ll find a picture of Aunt Ruth.”

By Peggy Harrell Jennings
Resident Community News

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