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Ruth Segel

Government Worker, Special Education Instructor
1913 – 2007

This obituary was first published in the Boston Globe on August 9, 2007 and captures the depth and complexity of Segel’s life.

by Bryan Marquard

When the twins, the last of her five children, entered high school, Ruth Segel went back to school, too.

No one would have begrudged it if Mrs. Segel, who was in her mid-50s, had wanted to kick back and add a few afternoons to her bridge games with friends. But she chose to become a reading teacher for children with developmental disabilities.

"She said she knew how to teach kids to read because she had had five kids of her own and had taught them, with me mostly on a rocking chair because I wouldn't sit still," said her son, Arthur of Brookline.

Mrs. Segel, whose career ranged from working for the US Securities and Exchange Commission in its nascent days to teaching in the early years of special education, died August 7 [2007], in the Orchard Cove retirement community in Canton. She was 94, and her health had failed in recent months.

"She, in some ways, was way ahead of her time," said her daughter Margaret Shapiro, of Philadelphia. "Although she had a nice life, once it became nice, she really wasn't satisfied until she had a career of her own. And she wasn't from a family or a community that encouraged women to have careers of their own. But she stuck to wanting to have her own skills and her own career."

Just after she graduated from Smith College in 1934, her career blossomed briefly, then was eclipsed after she married and started a family. She picked up professional duties again in the mid-1960s. Still, her children said, Mrs. Segel saw her family as a significant accomplishment. Long before the term blended family was in vogue, she had helped unite two families that had been touched by tragedy.

"It was especially amazing because she had two kids and my father had one kid that he brought into the marriage, and then they decided at about 40 to have another kid, and they had twins," her daughter said. "This was at a time when blended families weren't talked about, and she didn't talk about it, either."

Ruth Cohn was born in Concord, N.H., into a family of German immigrants. Her father was a tailor who liked to read Goethe, and the Cohns may have been the only Jewish family in Concord. When she was 11, her mother died, and her father sent her to boarding school in Cambridge.

After graduating from Smith, she went to Washington, D.C., to find government work during the first administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt. Years later, she would speak of visiting the White House, shaking hands with the president, and going to the same hairdresser as Eleanor Roosevelt.

While at the SEC, she met Joseph Wolpe, whom she married. They had two children and had been living in Philadelphia when he went out for an errand on a day when their house was packed for a move to Chicago and his new job. On the way home, he was struck and killed by a hit-and-run driver.

At the behest of her older brother, she moved to Boston with her children. A few years later, she was at a party when she met Arnold Segel, a surgeon and widower whose wife had died of cancer shortly after the birth of their son. They married, adopted one another's children, and later added the twins to their combined family.

For many years the Segels lived in Brookline. When the two youngest children started high school, Mrs. Segel studied to become certified as a reading teacher.

"She made lasting relationships with the kids and their parents," said her son, Jim of Needham. "Reading was just being recognized in the '60s as something that was so essential. Special education was just coming in, and she was right there at the beginning."

Mrs. Segel taught for about 15 years and in the process invented a game to help her students learn to read. The learning system brought her royalties.

A reader herself, she always had a stack of New Yorker magazines or copies of The New York Times nearby after she and her husband retired to Orchard Cove in Canton in 1994. Her husband died in 1996.

"She was very learned," her son Arthur said. "I don't think there ever was a book I read in high school or college that she hadn't already read."

"Before her time, she was a very independent woman," her son Jim said, "but she never underestimated what she had in terms of the family and happiness."

In addition to her daughter Margaret and sons Jim and Arthur, Mrs. Segel leaves another daughter, Anne Clark of Richmond; a son, William of Montpelier; eight granddaughters; five grandsons; three great-granddaughters; and a great-grandson.

Ruth Segel reflections - Ruth Fein

I am sorry that I never met Ruth Segel. I do know two of her five children, Jim and Arthur Segel. For me, she represents the generation of women which set about to change the expectations of the college educated woman in the United States. It's important to call attention to women like Ruth who set out on professional paths in a most adventuresome way and, by doing so, led the way for the next few generations of women.

Ruth Segel went to Washington as the New Deal was opening opportunities for college educated women in the expanding government sector. Since the federal government was one employer which did not turn them away because of their religion and ethnic background, many of these women turned out to be Jewish. As jobs expanded in number with American involvement during the Second World War, for many of these women, they became the path to professional advancement. Although most women found their advancement halted as they reached the top of the civil service ladder, they were still able to achieve professional recognition which would not have been available for them in any other environment.

I write all this because I still believe that there is an important story to be told about the role of the federal government in opening doors for women, and Jewish women especially, who aspired to professional careers in which they could contribute to society in a very significant way. I believe that it was the New Deal and the War that followed that, in significant measure, changed the roles women played in our society. For Jewish women especially, who were barred, as were Jewish men, from many fields and from advancement, the government became the employer which set them on their paths of achievement.

segel.jpg - still image [media]
Full image
Ruth Segel.
Segel family photo.

How to cite this page

Jewish Women's Archive. "Ruth Segel, 1913 - 2007." (Viewed on July 29, 2014) <http://jwa.org/weremember/segel-ruth>.

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