Grave Tales: Mayor Mayer's Daughter Leaves Lifelong Legacy of Service

Ruth Joshel Barney lent her considerable talents to education and health care in Geneva for nearly 60 years.

While I usually seek Grave Tales subjects from Geneva’s more distant past, a reader asked me to write about Ruth Joshel Barney in honor of her nearly six decades of community service. “She was one remarkable woman,” the reader wrote.

At a time when most of Geneva’s European immigrants came from Sweden, Ruth’s father, Mayer Joshel, was a Russian Jew who landed in Geneva after fleeing discrimination and threats of genocide. Three of his brothers soon followed him to this new refuge, and at least three of the four Joshels became prominent Geneva businessmen and civic activists, according to Geneva, Illinois: A History of Its Times and Places.

Mayer Joshel opened a feed and coal store in the early 1890s; co-founded the State Bank of Geneva in 1903; and persuaded the Phelps Manufacturing Co. to relocate to Geneva in 1910. He served as mayor of Geneva from 1913-16 and 1921-22. I wish I could find his wife’s name: she must have been remarkable herself to have underpinned his extensive civic involvement.

Ruth, his only child, was born in 1901 and received the best education her father could afford. She attended Smith College, one of the Ivy League’s famous “Seven Sisters” women’s colleges, and earned two master’s degrees from Columbia University, according to her obituary in The Geneva Republican (thanks to the for locating it for me).

When she returned to Geneva, she brought back a progressive approach to education. In 1927 she became the first female principal of , and defied convention by keeping her job even after marrying Richard Barney a year later.

As principal of the Geneva Country Day School from 1929 to 1932, she ran a college preparatory program that issued no letter grades, but taught even the youngest students science, art, music, drama, French, physical education and industrial arts as well as the more standard reading, writing and arithmetic. Students wrote, directed and performed their own plays; published their own quarterly newspaper; and helped cook their own lunches. Boys and girls both made wooden toys in shop class and spun yarn in home economics class.

After retiring from teaching, Ruth spent years on the Geneva Board of Education, the Geneva Library Board and the Geneva Woman’s Club. Most people, though, remember her service as a 51-year member of Community Hospital’s board of trustees. She joined the board in 1929—just as the Great Depression began to threaten the hospital’s financial footing. In 1945, after working on troop support projects during World War II, she helped found the hospital’s women’s auxiliary. In April 1980, the board named its meeting room the “Ruth Joshel Barney Conference Room” to honor her contributions. She died seven months later.

Though Ruth Joshel Barney had no children, she left an enduring legacy of service and support to Geneva. An anonymous quote cited in Geneva, Illinois: A History of its Times and Places reads, “Her sensitiveness to the temper of the community; her sure sense of values; her recognition and rejection of anything of dubious quality, be it thinking or doing; her appreciation of the work of others, always expressed so warmly in her own graceful and apt phrases; her quick perceptive mind and gay sense of humor which always illumines her thinking—these are some of the qualities that have enriched the Board and that have truly helped to shape our Hospital.”

Though Ruth died nearly 31 years ago, there must be more Geneva natives who remember her. Why not post some of your fondest memories as comments for everyone to enjoy?


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