Literacy Pioneer Ruth Colvin Turns 100, Receives Tolley Medal

For almost as long as she’s been an advocate for adult literacy, Ruth J. Colvin’s work has involved the School of Education.

So the School of Education and the University joyfully joined the recent communitywide celebration of Colvin’s 100th birthday. Chancellor Kent Syverud presented Colvin with the University’s William Pearson Tolley Medal for Distinguished Leadership in Lifelong Learning.

“Ruth has been ‘one of us’ for a very long time,” SOE Dean Joanna Masingila said at the event in Marriott Syracuse Downtown’s Grand Ballroom in November; LiteracyCNY hosted the centennial birthday celebration. “Beginning in 1968 with your consultation with Dr. Frank Greene, you integrated the very latest in research findings on reading and worked closely with our School of Education faculty to support your successful teaching methods for literacy volunteers around the globe.”

Ruth Colvin in 1965In 1969, an alarmed Colvin ’59, H’84 read that 11,000 people in Syracuse were functionally illiterate. The next year, she helped to initiate the adult literacy movement when she formed Literacy Volunteers of America. LVA merged with Laubach Literacy International, also based in Syracuse, in 2001 to create ProLiteracy Worldwide, the word’s largest adult basic education and literacy organization. Colvin continues to tutor.

Pamela Kirwin Heintz ’91, G’08, associate vice president and director of the Mary Ann Shaw Center for Public & Community Service, recalls the formation of an SOE course in reading and language arts in 1993. Heintz, Shaw, Colvin and Professor Kathleen Hinchman G’85 developed the course that allowed students LVA certification. Hinchman taught the course. Shaw, Hinchman and Heintz also all served on the board of the local LVA affiliate, now known as LiteracyCNY.

“Kathy and I co-taught the course for several years, and Ruth often participated as well,” Heintz says. “Teaching is a lifelong commitment of Ruth’s, and we believed it was important for SU students to meet Ruth whenever possible. Ruth loves mentoring, teaching and knowing as many people as she can, to share her passion and ignite the same in others.”

In her remarks at the celebration, Masingila cited the work of Hinchman and Professor Corinne Smith ’67, G’73 with Colvin.

ruth colvin shaking hands with president george w bush
Ruth Colvin receives the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President George W. Bush on December 15, 2006

“They remember well conversations, symposia and volumes of “TUTOR,” (“TUTOR: Techniques Used in the Teaching of Reading,” a textbook by Colvin and Jane H. Root) that have been a part of this remarkable collaboration over the decades,” Masingila said.

“On behalf of our emeriti and current faculty, I would like to thank you for your heart-filled, awe-inspiring tenacity to eradicate illiteracy, as well as your humility in asking for critique from others while you sought to always better the pedagogy you used. We are better because of you.”

“The field of adult literacy is not for the weak at heart. It’s an issue foundational to addressing our poverty issues, yet difficult to find supporters,” Heintz says. “Ruth has the gift of reaching people in ways many of us cannot yet do and inspires us to keep at it.”

Colvin received an honorary doctorate of humane letters from the University in 1984 and the George Arents Pioneer Medal in 1996. President George W. Bush awarded her a Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2006.

Colvin, who has lived in Syracuse more than 70 years, turns 100 Dec. 16.