Ruth Woo. • Photo by Jon Honda
Ruth Woo. • Photo by Jon Honda

Among Ruth Woo’s many contributions to humanity was a positive and enduring impact on Washington’s children and on my career as a child advocate. As I think about Ruth, there’s a big smile on my face—the same smile that many people reveal at the mention of Ruth’s name.  

By the time I met Ruth Woo in 2004, she was already a legend. An elder in our community, Ruth was a mentor, advice-giver, and a unique power broker.

A dozen years ago, the Children’s Alliance was advocating to save health coverage for children in low-income families in our state. We needed action from outgoing Washington governor Gary Locke. A colleague, Tony Lee, suggested that Ruth Woo could help and he set up a breakfast meeting for the three of us at Zeena’s on First Hill.

I recall that meeting like it was yesterday. I was in new territory and was nervous. There was a lot at stake. Ruth was a serious power broker. And, among the elected leaders she helped rise to power was Gary Locke.

I was surprised and delighted when Ruth began by sharing her concerns that children in our state weren’t getting a fair shake. I shared the Children’s Alliance’s draft strategy, Ruth adjusted and improved our approach, and by the end of breakfast, we had a viable plan.

A month later—Ruth having opened the door for us—I led a delegation of kids health advocates into Governor Locke’s office (my first time in those high back chairs!). When Governor Locke greeted us with, “I hear that Auntie Ruth has a role in this”, I knew we were off to a good start. We pitched the plan and had a detailed dialogue with the Governor.

After some back and forth with the Governor’s staff, Governor Locke accepted our plan and took executive action to save health coverage for thousands of Washington kids. I’m still amazed. If this campaign had been a football game, our efforts amounted to a Hail Mary. Our pass was caught, children got the health care they needed, and my confidence as an advocate soared.  

I enjoyed many subsequent early morning breakfasts with Ruth and mutual friends at Zeena’s or the Silver Fork on Rainier Avenue. We talked about policy, politics, family, mushrooming, and more. Sometimes I would schedule other breakfast meetings at Zeena’s or the Silver Fork, hoping that I’d see Ruth there strategizing and eating her beloved grits.

When we reminisced about her role in saving children’s health coverage a dozen years ago, Ruth never accepted any credit. She insisted that she really didn’t do anything.

As I reflect, I see clearly what Ruth did and the unique and refreshing nature of her style. As an elder in our community, she opened doors and created an enduring pathway to power … and then she stepped back. Ruth didn’t need to be “in the room.” In fact, she expressly didn’t want to be in the room. She had confidence and trust in those to whom she offered advice and access. What a gift to me and the generations of mentees that Ruth influenced!

I, like many others, was attracted to the magnetism that Ruth radiated. And, I delighted in the mischievous thread that ran through her presence—she loved to gossip! Ruth had created her power base through values, relationships, and connections. In a departure from what is often the norm in politics, Ruth didn’t use money or positional power. It was all about relationships. She was an independent thinker, deeply rooted to her values.

I—and thus the Children’s Alliance—was honored to be a beneficiary of Ruth Woo’s mentorship. From our first meeting to our last phone conversation, Ruth Woo always made me feel like a rock star. I am grateful for her wonderful life and so many contributions to our community.

The Children’s Alliance sends our condolences to Ruth’s family and friends. And, we celebrate her life with a commitment to furthering her values.

There will always be a smile on my face when I think of Ruth Woo.

Jon Gould is Deputy Director at Children’s Alliance, a statewide public policy advocacy organization that works at the state and federal level to ensure that all children have what they need to thrive.  He can be reached at [email protected]

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