Crazy Horse matriarch Ruth Ziolkowski dies
Published: Thursday, May 29th, 2014
Ruth Ziolkowski, the beloved matriarch of Crazy Horse Memorial, friend to many, champion of Native American causes and an icon in the tourism industry, has died.
Ziolkowski died last Wednesday night, May 21, while in hospice care in Rapid City at the age of 87. Despite recently being diagnosed with cancer, Ziolkowski remained active in the operations of Crazy Horse Memorial even until her death—a death that left a pall over the Black Hills and saw politicians, friends, family members, community leaders and business owners come together to mourn the death of the visionary who carried on her husband’s dream of honoring Native Americans long after his death.
“Ruth Ziolkowski, the remarkable matriarch of Crazy Horse Memorial, was loved and admired by millions who were inspired by her example to ‘never forget your dream,’”âï¿½ï¿½said Jack Marsh, a member of Crazy Horse Memorial Foundation. “Ruth, as much as anyone, advanced reconciliation between the Native and non-Native people of the United States.”
Ruth Ross was born June 26, 1926, in Hartford, Conn. She first met Korczak Ziolkowski at age 13 when she and a girlfriend mustered the courage to call at the sculptor’s home in West Hartford seeking the autograph of a well-known movie star who was visiting at the time. Two years later, Ruth met Korczak again when she was among a group of volunteers helping to raise money for the statue of Noah Webster, which the sculptor was carving as a gift to West Hartford.
Korczak came to the Black Hills on May 3, 1947. Ruth followed a short time later, working as a volunteer to help create a memorial honoring the North American Indian. The sculptor took on the project at the invitation of Lakota Chief Henry Standing Bear, who, referring to nearby Mount Rushmore National Memorial, wrote a letter to him saying, “We would like the white man to know the red men have great heroes also.”
Ruth helped in every step of carving Crazy Horse, a legendary Oglala Lakota warrior who helped lead the 1876 attack againt Gen. George Custer’s 7th Cavalry at the Battle of the Little Bighorn in Montana. She even helped prepare the logs for the log studio-home, as well as construct the 741-step wooden staircase to the top of the mountain.
Ruth and Korczak were married at Crazy Horse on Thanksgiving Day 1950. Together, they shared the hard work and the joys of undertaking such a massive project. While Korczak worked on the mountain, Ruth managed the visitor complex. She also helped run the large dairy farm and lumber mill which was started to help sustain Crazy Horse through the difficult early years.
Together Ruth and Korczak had 10 children, five boys and five girls, all of whom were born at home. Crazy Horse became very much a family project with John, Dawn, Adam, Jadwiga, Casimir, Anne, Mark, Joel, Monique and Marinka all growing up helping with what had become a family project. At the time of her passing, Ruth’s family had grown to include 23 grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren.
Realizing that Ruth might one day inherit the responsibility of carrying on the Crazy Horse dream, Korczak prepared three books of comprehensive plans for the continuation of the mountain carving. That day arrived in 1982 when Korczak passed away at the age of 74. Ruth served as the Chief Executive Officer of the Crazy Horse Memorial Foundation ever since, staying actively involved right up until the day she died.
Ruth was the inspirational leader of the Crazy Horse project and provided a steady guiding hand. Under her leadership, uninterrupted progress continued on the massive mountain sculpture, the Indian Museum of North America was expanded significantly, the Indian University of North America became reality and the foundation’s scholarship program grew to exceed $2 million in cumulative financial assistance awarded to Native American students.
Affectionately known as “Mrs. Z,” those who know her say Ruth loved her work. To her, it was simply a way of life and she lived each day with a sense of purpose and a strong spirit. Ruth possessed the inner strength and iron will needed to persevere through difficult and challenging times and she faced adversity with courage and conviction. Her legacy, they say, is one defined by faith and fortitude that anything is possible if you are willing to work hard enough and never give up.
“Ruth Ziolkowski’s legacy will be as lasting as the stone her family has carved for decades,”âï¿½ï¿½said Gov. Dennis Daugaard. “Ruth was Korczak’s partner at Crazy Horse and she tirelessly led the project for more than 30 years.”
Few knew Ruth as well as Rollie Noem, the former Chief Operating Officer at Crazy Horse Memorial who worked for Ruth the past 10 years but knew her much longer. After leaving Crazy Horse recently he continued to be involved with Ruth as a friend, last seeing her two days before she died while visiting her in hospice. His last few visits with her, he said, were more about reminiscing and being there for her than business.
“It was a great honor to be able to walk with her on this last part of her life’s journey,”âï¿½ï¿½he said. “It was a time of grace to be able to do that.”
Noem said Ziolkowski accepted her illness, showing tremendous bravery and setting an example for all to follow in her final days.
“Every extra day she had she lived with a great sense of purpose and a strong spirit,” he said. “It was such a privilege to be able to work for Ruth these past 10 years.”
Dave Bordewyk, general manager for the South Dakota Newspaper (SDNA) Association, joined all the members of SDNAâï¿½ï¿½across the state in expressing sorrow and condolensces to the Zioklowski family. For 13 years, Ruth hosted a journalism workshop for American Indian students at Crazy Horse Memorial. During the workshop, Ruth would hold a press conference with the students and would visit with them during the three-day event. By the end of the workshop, Bordewyk said, Ruth was a “rock star” among the students.
“It was amazing to see the hugs and gratitude expressed to Ruth by all the students at each workshop’s closing ceremony,”âï¿½ï¿½he said. “They experienced her generosity of spirit and kindness, her patience and good cheer and her smile. They also learned from her the value and importance of hard work and to never give up on your dreams. Mrs. Z will be so dearly missed, but her vision and her generosity of spirt and kindness will live on.”
“When we were creating the workshop and decided Crazy Horse was where it should be held, we called Ruth to see if that was possible and she immediately said yes,” said Larry Atkinson, publisher of the Mobridge Tribune, Potter County News at Gettysburg and West River Eagle at Eagle Butte. As president of SDNA, Larry appointed the SDNA committee that created the Crazy Horse Journalism Workshop. He also was a close friend of Ruth. “From the first event, her commitment to the workshop and to the students and staff who attended was far greater than our expectations. She was there for the students throughout each and every workshop. She also created a scholarship program for the workshop, providing funds for some of the top students to attend journalism school. She will be missed terribly, but she will always be with us in spirit,” he said.
Dave Ressler, executive director of the Custer Area Chamber of Commerce, said Ruth has left him with many fond memories over the past eight years, memories that will always keep her in his thoughts.
“Ruth would have wanted all of us to celebrate her life and that is reason enough for us to work even harder for the success of this area and to never forget the memories she created,”âï¿½ï¿½he said.âï¿½ï¿½“Look after all of us, Ruth...we are always here for you. You certainly will never forget your dreams.”
Donna Talley, director of the local Women Escaping a Violent Environment (WEAVE) shelter, said she will remember Ruth for her giving spirit and no-nonsense approach to life.
“It seemed that she didn’t always want recognition for her good deeds, but she would hand write thank you notes to others,” Talley said.âï¿½ï¿½“She has helped countless women with jobs and opportunities to better themsleves and their children.”
Talley said if it were not for Ruth and Crazy Horse there would be many less jobs in Custer, particularly in the winter, and she can “count on one hand” how many times she called Crazy Horse and the phone wasn’t answered by Ruth personally.
“She is one of the strongest women I have ever known,” she said.âï¿½ï¿½“To me, Mrs. Z will always be the voice of Crazy Horse.”
In nominating Ruth for this year’s Zonta Yellow Rose Award, which is given to a Custer community woman who is involved in advancing the status of women, club member Jill Kettle noted Ruth has been improving the status of women for over 60 years, employing over 40 women.
“For over 15 years, Mrs. Z has been supportive of the WEAVE program,” Kettle said.âï¿½ï¿½“She has encouraged the career growth and education of many young women, and very recently a young Native American woman has been hired at Crazy Horse to serve as cultural coordinator. Mrs. Z has successfully inspired many young people to get a strong education, seek out their talents and not give up.”
South Dakota U.S. Sen. Tim Johnson also mourned Ruth’s passing, acknowledging the historic advacements Ruth and her family had made with the carving, while also enhancing the project’s cultural and educational goals.
“In her own right, Ruth carved out her own legacy with her contagious smile, enduring courage, pioneering and humanitarian spirt and unwavering dedication to the memorial’s completion and future mission,” Johnson said.
Noem said when he began work at Crazy Horse 10 years ago, he did so to be able to serve Ruth.
“As much respect as I have for the project itself, it was about being of help and service to Ruth,”âï¿½ï¿½he said. “Now, at this point in my time here, which is winding down, being able to play a personal role for her during her illness and now, that’s a really meaningful way for me to culiminate my time here.”
Noem said Ruth’s grandmotherly appearance of a trademark smile, smock, handband and moccasins often belied the savvy business person she was.
“She was a great business woman,”âï¿½ï¿½he said.âï¿½ï¿½“She could be as tough as nails if the situation demanded it.”
That’s a sentiment echoed by Jim Hagen, the South Dakota Secretary of Tourism who spent four years working for Ruth at Crazy Horse.
“She was an astute business woman and could be tough when she needed to be,”âï¿½ï¿½he said.âï¿½ï¿½“I have never met a more gracious woman. I was amazed with her ability to make every guest feel special. She left a great legacy, not only to the Black Hills, but to the state and the world. She left an indelible impression on hundreds of thousands of people, maybe millions, who visited the memorial.”
Noem said Ruth’s defining quality, in his eyes, was her genuine gracious hospitality.
“It’s such a great example she set,”âï¿½ï¿½he said.âï¿½ï¿½“It’s such an engrained philosophy at Crazy Horse.”
With foresight and vision, Ruth worked with the Crazy Horse Memorial Foundation Board of Directors in preparing for succession of leadership. A three-member executive management team is in place to lead the continued growth and development of the non-profit foundation.
A celebration of Ruth’s life and legacy was held at Crazy Horse Memorial May 26-27. A public viewing was held Monday, May 26, from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. in the studio of the original log home built by Ruth and Korczak in 1948. A celebration of life was held Tuesday, May 27, at the memorial. A memorial fund has been established to the Crazy Horse Memorial Foundation. Ruth will be buried in a stone coffin at the base of the mountain next to her husband.
“She lived her life well and we should all be so fortunate at the end of our lives to say, ‘I made a difference with what I did,’”âï¿½ï¿½Hagen said.âï¿½ï¿½“Ruth really made a difference.”
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