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Rusty Ruff celebrates century of extraordinary life

Lance Shearer
Eagle Correspondent
Rusty Ruff was asked for proof of her age, and provided it. She turned 100 on Sept. 20, and is enjoying herself immensely.

Seeing how animated Rusty Ruff was on Sunday, it was easy to believe it was her birthday. It was a little harder to believe this was her 100th birthday, for a woman born in 1920, when Woodrow Wilson was President.

Just to be sure, a skeptical reporter asked Rusty (real name Martha, nicknamed for her red hair) if she had some proof of her age, and she whipped out her driver’s license, which confirmed she was born Sept. 20, 1920, as well as her legal status to drive, and displayed it with her trademark beaming smile.

Rusty and her husband E.L. “Bud” Ruff were a little late to her birthday party at the home of her friends George and Tricia Bernstein, because employees at Walmart had thrown her an impromptu party of their own ahead of time. At the Bernsteins, they celebrated with a dinner party, wine and cake, and easy flowing conversation.

Rusty moves fluidly, like the dancer she was, having perhaps lost a step, which is understandable given that she fell and broke a hip this year, often the onset of swift decline for seniors.

“My surgeon said I was the first 99-year-old he ever operated on,” she said, and now she is back to walking without a cane. She sees and hears well, and comes across as sharp as a tack.

Rusty Ruff is loving life. She has led a remarkable existence, from growing up in a tiny Missouri town, catching a talent scout’s eye, heading to Hollywood and becoming a dancer for 20th Century Fox at age 18, and then taking up ice skating when she fell in love with a skater, marrying and earning top billing with him as stars of Holiday on Ice, and embarking on a round of national and international tours.

When they retired from the skating arena, Rusty operated a dance studio for 30 years in Indiana. Her first husband, 10 years older, died at 76, and Rusty and Bud have been married for 42 years.

She is 10 years older than Bud, a relative stripling at 90, “so that makes me a cougar,” she laughed.

Ever one to seek out new thrills, Rusty got her private pilot’s license, and flew “Piper Cubs and Aeroncas — but that was years ago.” She also, at the urging of her son, an experienced skydiver, joined the select group of people who have “jumped out of a perfectly good airplane” at age 80 or over. “President George H.W. Bush did that, too, but he did it tandem. I did it solo,” she bragged. “I didn’t really want to, but my son talked me into it.”

“I was 70 when I retired from teaching dance, and we moved to Southwest Florida 35 years ago. We just didn’t know the summers would be so hot,” she said. They live on Mainsail Drive near Marco Island.

Rusty scaled back her daredevil activities in her nineties, but she is a competitive bridge player. Along with the Bernsteins, another duplicate bridge buddy, Helen Daniels, came by for the birthday celebration. Unfortunately, due to coronavirus, the in-person bridge club events have shut down, so Rusty misses the intellectual challenge and socialization.

“She is smart, funny, and the most positive person I have ever met,” said Daniels. Rusty said that staying positive is the closest thing she has to a secret for staying young while growing older.

“Plus hard work, exercise, and not too much alcohol. I never did smoke cigarettes,” said Rusty. “Not too much” alcohol still allows her to have a glass of wine on occasion — “red or white, it depends.”

Living to 100, she has seen her contemporaries pass away, but that ties into her secret for youthful longevity. “Yes, most of my friends are gone. You just have to make new friends,” she said.