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Contributed photo / Ruth Thomas, the "Mayor of City Hall" in 1970.

"Visitors get their first impression of the company from the courtesy of the elevator men. Their efficiency affects the operation on the entire home office It takes good coordination, intelligence, and split-second timing ... " (June 11, 1951, Chattanooga News Free Press).

An operator had to possess a diplomat's skill. One who embodied those traits and more was Ruth Thomas, elevator operator for Chattanooga City Hall from 1943 to 1987.

Ruth witnessed and participated in much of the whirlwind that blew through City Hall. In her 44 years of service, she met mayors, governors, commissioners, executives, civic leaders and celebrities. Her career began as playground director on East 10th Street at Joseph H. Smith School. When asked to take on the elevator operator job, Ruth said without hesitation "yes." Her quick mind and outgoing personality turned a temporary job into one that lasted. In her early years at City Hall, Ruth, as an African American, dealt with grace the restrictions placed on her by "whites only" water fountains and restrooms.

Ruth treated everyone who took her elevator equally. The officials who rode with her became her friends. Sometimes, their children would have to wait for a late night session at City Hall to end. Ruth would entertain them with elevator rides. She often spoke of prominent public figures.

"George McInturff ... was a Rock of Gibraltar. Former mayor A.L. Bender was the kind of person who really cared about his people, about their welfare. And there's never been anybody like [former Public works Commissioner] Pat Wilcox before or since ... ." (Jan. 17, 1983, The Chattanooga Times). Ruth also liked Fire and Police Commisisoner James "Bookie" Turner. At a dinner honoring Riverside Coach Dorsey Sims on April 10, 1969, Ruth stood in as the official representative of Commissioner Turner. Ruth's job brought her friendship with Archie Moore, world light heavyweight champion boxer from 1952 to 1962. His letter to her in December 1977 made her Christmas very special.

Ruth counseled everyone in her elevator, decorated with smiling faces to inspire good will. In 1966, City Hall replaced an original elevator with an automated push button. Ruth's elevator, "Old Creaky," was left alone, only to be replaced when Ruth decided it was time to retire. In 1987, officials installed a new elevator, and Ruth took the first ride. (Nov. 18, 1987, Chattanooga News-Free Press)

Ruth's vocation was operator, but her numerous titles were locator, receptionist, public relations officer, public information officer, goodwill ambassador, counselor, "mother confessor," greeter and dispenser of good humor and philosophy.

City commissioners claimed that Ruth "ran" City Hall. In 1968, while discussing holidays after Thanksgiving, someone advocated for the Friday after, and authorized it by saying "Ruth said it would be all right," the News-Free Press reported in 1968. Ruth steered people to the right office to pay a fine or get a marriage license. She wrote letters to the newspapers about tax relief and lights for the Wilcox Tunnel. She found several lost items but the most exciting and tragic was the abandoned baby boy she discovered on Sept. 29, 1948, in the women's restroom in the basement. Since the health department was on the third floor, Ruth asked for help from them. The boy was adopted and named Al Graham (July 17, 2011, Chattanooga Times Free Press)

Ruth's passion outside of the elevator was playing the piano. Mrs. E.M. Banks gave lessons to Ruth at age 8. She continued her studies at Cadek Conservatory of Music and devoted more than 40 years of musical service to St. James Baptist Church. She and her friend and vocalist, Barbara Carter, had the honor of playing two selections in Atlanta for the National Alliance of Postal and Federal Employees meeting honoring its president, Robert White. The meeting's elegant food, surroundings, and prominent attendees prompted Ruth to write "What a Night!! I feel like Cinderella" on her menu. (May 4, 1978, The Chattanooga Times).

When the renovated City Hall reopened on May 19, 2007, Mayor Ron Littlefield made a special presentation to Ruth, an "institution who presided [over] and commanded every floor — from her special office. Ruth Thomas was a fixture at City Hall and earned the title 'Mayor of City Hall' without need of an election. I have no doubt that the votes would be unanimous."

Ruth Thomas reached her final floor on Nov. 16, 2014.

Contact Suzette Raney, archivist in the local history department at Chattanooga Public Library, at 423-643-7725.

Read more Chattanooga History Columns

 

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