Ruth Zettlemoyer Left a Lasting Impact at Liberty High School

Ruth Zettlemoyer could be more than 100 miles away from the Lehigh Valley, strolling the Ocean City Boardwalk with her husband, Don, and still hear her nickname, “Mrs. Z,” called out excitedly.

“She’s known by everyone. She made everyone laugh. She made everyone feel good — and she loved them all,” said her son Dan Zettlemoyer, recounting the story from his father. “She was so much larger than sewing on a button. Her impact, her involvement was just more than being good with needle and thread.”

Ruth Zettlemoyer, 79, died Jan. 26 from COVID-19 at St. Luke’s University Hospital in Fountain Hill. Known to thousands of students over her three decades of work volunteering as seamstress to Liberty High School’s Grenadier Marching Band, Ruth treated community as a verb, selflessly doting upon many through small acts of kindness that left a lasting impact.

“If my mom knew we were doing this, I’d get scolded because my mom did it for the folks she was interacting with,” said Zettlemoyer, Nitschmann Middle School’s instrumental band director. “My mom didn’t do it to be immortalized.”

Liberty’s Director of Instrumental Music Allen Frank, who worked with Ruth for almost a decade, described her as “nothing but a positive force.”

“She loved working with these kids, and so much of what she did was just because she loved working with the kids,” Frank said. “She loved seeing them in the uniform on a Friday night. She was like the grandmother of the group.”

Like a grandmother, Ruth would dote on the students, never hesitating to help. But, also like a grandmother, she nudged the students towards being proactive and responsible, especially when it came to their uniforms.

“There were times when she would have a line of kids showing up on a Friday night because they needed this done and they needed this done,” Frank said, chuckling. “You knew to steer clear of Ruth, because she would get on you a little bit. Like, ‘Why didn’t you come earlier?’”

During the band’s first trip to Hawaii in the early 2000s, said Kevin Long, former band director, the stitching on his belt came loose.

“I think I caught it on something,” Long said. “And so, before this big parade for the Pearl Harbor remembrance took place, she’s quickly stitching up my belt to make sure that it’s all good and ready to go. And I was ready with time to spare.”

And those are just two examples of Ruth’s commitment to the band — she always made sure everyone was looking their best.

“I love doing it,” Ruth told a Morning Call reporter for a November 2011 story about her work with the band. “I want to support kids who want to be a part of something good.”

At the time, she estimated she had sewn close to 20,000 buttons, hemmed more than 8,000 pairs of pants and made dozens of kilts.

Ruth’s work at Liberty went well beyond hemming uniforms and fixing buttons. Each year, she hosted a taco party at her home for graduating seniors and their parents, raised money for the band through fundraisers and by making pillows out of older uniform scraps for raffles.

“One of the band folks referred to her as the ‘Betty White of Bethlehem,’ and I can see that,” Zettlemoyer said. “We have a picture of her bouncing on a mattress when the band had a mattress sale. She was jumping on a mattress.”

She had a lively sense of humor, he continued, recounting a story about Ruth and a friend dressing up and heckling her other son during one of his bus routes when he drove for LANTA.

Ruth was also just a friendly person to talk to — whether she was greeting people in the neighborhood when she walked her bichon, Candy, or delivering her homemade brownies to the mail carrier and holiday cookies for the garbage collectors.

“There are a lot of times after maybe the rehearsal ended as the kids all left, I’m thinking about summertime now or even during the school day,” Long said. “If there was some free time, where we would just sit down and talk about, not even necessarily the band, just about family, life. You know, whatever was all going on.”

Outside of her work with the school, she was known for her friendliness and baking abilities, as well as her passion for gardening.

For Frank, she would make blueberry pies; for Long, she’d make strawberry rhubarb.

“All of a sudden, I’d get a phone call that she and Don and we’re headed into the area where I live and [ask if they] could they stop by, because she had a pie for me,” Long said. “Or, I find one on my desk when I got to work.”

Ruth was also an active member of Central Assembly of God in Bethlehem, where she was a pianist and youth leader, among other roles.

“Mom did everything with all of her heart,” Zettlemoyer said. “Mom was a devout Christian and she believed that — do everything with all your heart.”

During a trip to Florida when he was a boy, the family was at church when the congregation was told the pianist was out sick, he recounted. When asked if there was anyone there who could play, Ruth volunteered, playing the entire service.

It was these seemingly small actions of love from Ruth that made her stand out amid the community.

“My mom could make a rock grow,” Zettlemoyer said. “She would put together flowers for folks just to make them feel better. Sending out cards, you name it. She did it.”

Ruth’s death is a huge loss for Liberty’s band; since its start, there have been five directors, and she’s worked directly with four of them. The directors have changed over the years, but there’s only been one Ruth.

Although known for her work with the band, it’s her laugh, her smile and her genuine kindness to all that left an indelible impression on the community.

“The true story is, none of us expected the personality void — the impact of that person, every day, and how they impacted everyone’s life in a positive way, that disappearing,” Zettlemoyer said. “That’s what mom is going to be remembered as … She was much more than just a seamstress.”

By Molly Bilinski

Story by The Morning Call

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