ON THE SHOULDERS OF GIANTS

If I’m making an impact, I’m not aware of it. People who make impacts don’t know. They are not thinking about, ‘Oh, how will I look from this angle.’

         Ruth Sharp Altshuler

Some people are just naturally “larger than life.” They instinctually rise above the fray with courage, strength and dignity. They look upon obstacles as opportunities. And when we are touched by them, when their paths cross ours, we instantly know that our lives are so much richer.

So were the lives of Ruth Sharp Altshuler and her husband Dr. Kenneth Altshuler. To go into all of their achievements, to detail the lives they saved, to articulate the many ways in which they left the world a better place would take far too many words and would involve reams of paper. So, I can only summarize the many ways in which they improved society.

Ruth Altshuler was born on March 10, 1924, and raised in a home on Swiss Avenue.  At an early age, Ruth found her calling to help those less fortunate that herself. During one interview, Ruth credited her acts of compassion to one simple thing: “Guilt!” She stated, “When I joined the Junior League, I realized how privileged I had been my whole life. It was fortunate because it made [volunteering] a career for me.” And so, she became one of the most tireless and influential volunteers and civic leaders Dallas has ever seen. Through her decades of philanthropic work, she raised millions for area charities.

In addition to raising millions of dollars, Ruth also donated millions of her own. She served as chairs of both the Carr P. Collins Foundation and the Sharp Foundation. She helped SMU’s students by creating the innovative Altshuler Learning Enhancement Center and helped recognize the university’s outstanding faculty by establishing the Altshuler Distinguished Teaching Professor Award. 

For nearly 50 years she served as an SMU trustee and was the university’s first female board chair. In fact, Ruth’s lifetime of service was filled with many firsts. She was the first woman to serve on a grand jury in Dallas, the one that indicted Jack Ruby for killing Lee Harvey Oswald. She was the first woman on the board of First Republic Bank of Dallas. She was the first woman elected Chairman of the Executive Board of Highland Park United Methodist Church, and first female Chairman of the Board of the United Way of Metropolitan Dallas. She was the first lifetime member elected to the National Salvation Army Advisory Board, and was a founding board member of the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation. She was also the first woman to serve as a board member of the Salvation Army of Dallas, Goodwill Industries, and the Dallas Citizens Council. 

President George W. Bush appointed Ruth to the Library of Congress Trust and she served on the board of the Laura Bush Foundation for America’s Libraries.

In 2004, Secretary of State Colin Powell named her to the United States Commission to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). In 2011, she became the first person in the U.S. to receive all three national service honors: the Outstanding Philanthropist of the Year Award from the National Society of Fundraising Executives; the national Alexis de Tocqueville Award of the United Way of America, and; the Distinguished Service Award given by the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges. She was one of three life members of the Salvation Army’s National Advisory Board. 

Ruth was undeniably a tireless and selfless champion for those suffering from mental health issues. And, she will forever be memorialized through her induction into the State of Texas Women’s Hall of Fame.

Toward the end of her life she ended every speech with her favorite quote by Albert Schweitzer, “Example is not the main thing in influencing others. It is the only thing.”  She left us on December 8, 2017 at 93 years old. And her passing left a void that cannot be filled.

So too, her beloved husband, Dr. Kenneth Altshuler also impacted countless lives and saved many more.

Over the course of a twenty-two year career at Columbia University, he became a pioneer in studying mentally ill patients with profound early deafness, and creating services for them. His work was made part of the State services for the mentally ill in New York, and was duplicated in several countries overseas. His awards for his work at Columbia University are too numerous to list.

He left Columbia University in 1977 to become the Chairman of the Department of Psychiatry at UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas. Charged with building an outstanding Psychiatry Department from one that was virtually defunct, he recruited outstanding faculty, raised fifty-two million dollars in departmental endowments, and increased the full-time faculty from five to over one hundred.

He received the Texas Star Award from the Texas Mental Health Association, the Outstanding Psychiatric Award from the North Texas Society of Psychiatric Physicians, and he was a two-time recipient of the Prism Award for community service from the Dallas Mental Health Association. On the national scene, Dr. Altshuler served as a Director of the National Board of Medical Examiners, as President of the National Association of Chairmen of Departments of Psychiatry, and as a Board Member and then President of the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology.

In 1999, Governor George W. Bush appointed him to the Board of the Texas Department of Mental Health and Mental Retardation (1999-2004). Dr. Altshuler left us at age 91 on January 6, 2021. According to those who knew him best, Dr. Altshuler was always a source of clear thinking and deep wisdom, a person to be counted on for kindness and intelligent support.

To recognize the tremendous impact Ruth Altshuler had upon the mental health community in North Texas, Mental Health America of Greater Dallas started the “Ruth Sharp Altshuler Prism Award for Community Service.” This award is given annually to persons or organizations who have made a significant contribution to improving the mental health of the Dallas community. Past recipients have tenaciously fought for years and sometimes decades to improve the mental health of the Dallas County community.

Approximately two weeks ago, I received a call from the Mental Health America of Greater Dallas. During this call, I was told I was to be the recipient of the 2021 Mental Health America of Greater Dallas Ruth Sharp Altshuler Prism Award.

I was not even aware that I had been nominated. And then, after conducting research into the rich lives of Ruth Sharp Altshuler and Dr. Kenneth Altshuler, and after discovering some of the past recipients, I seriously wondered if a mistake had been made. These people were giants. I became involved with the mental health community only after my beloved daughter, Morgan was taken on October 30, 2016. But for that personal tragedy, there is a substantial likelihood that I would not be actively involved in the mental health community. I also believe that whatever meager accomplishments I have managed pale in comparison to past award winners.

And yet perhaps the obstacles, opportunities, twists and turns presented on our soul’s journey are not meant to be fully understood. Perhaps we are only meant to persevere, to keep our egos and selfish wants and perceived needs on the sidelines and continue going forward.

As surely we must.

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