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Epilogue | Dr. Ruth Winston Cope

Family and ophthalmology still left time for adventure for Ruth Cope

Dr. Ruth Winston Cope squeezed a lot out of life.

Daughter of a railroad worker and a housewife, she attended medical school on a scholarship.

She and her husband, Paul, were among St. Petersburg's first ophthalmologists, correcting cataracts and eye diseases while raising five kids.

She made several trips to India in the 1950s treating poor people, living among remote villagers, sleeping on floors and eating with her fingers as was their custom.

After her husband and youngest child died in a 1971 plane crash, she found solace in ballroom dancing, with silky smooth Latin moves and a sparkling personality that — even in her 80s — had men half her age proclaiming her "hot."

"My mom was very cool, always upbeat, a remarkable woman," says Dr. Louise Moorhead, a Houston ophthalmologist. "She loved adventure."

Paul and Ruth Cope met during their residencies in New Orleans and moved to St. Petersburg after World War II.

They constructed the two-story building at 415 Seventh Street S. The ground floor held their offices and a two-bedroom apartment, where all five kids slept in one big room. The top floor contained small rental apartments.

He worked full time while she saw patients between ferrying kids to and from school.

In the mid 1950s she saw an article in a medical journal that India desperately needed surgeons to repair cataracts. So she went for months at a time, leaving the children in the care of their father and aunts.

"It was very unusual" for a female doctor, says her son, Dr. Winston Cope, a Seminole ophthalmologist. "She was a bit of a celebrity. She got to meet (Prime Minister Jawaharlal) Nehru and maharajahs."

Back in St. Petersburg, she wore saris to formal events.

About 1960, the family built a larger home in a rural patch of Pinellas County near Seminole. They had 10 acres, horses and lived next to a chicken farm.

The India influence was obvious in the decor, which Moorhead calls "Florida/Oriental" — palm trees mixed with carved teak furniture, alabaster lamps and Hindu figurines.

In 1971, Mr. Cope's twin-engine Beechcraft crashed after taking off from St. Petersburg-Clearwater Airport. Authorities determined that a steering mechanism locked up, attributable to both pilot error and a design flaw.

Cope, his 16-year-old son and two others died.

The family was devastated. Mrs. Cope cut back on her practice and stopped seeing patients altogether in the early 1990s, Winston Cope says.

Ballroom dancing eventually brought back joy. She danced two or three times a week at Suncoast Ballroom in Largo, made friends and won trophies, says her daughter-in-law, Candace Cope.

"She was tiny, a little pixie, and shapely, with a dazzling smile. Younger men, like in their 40s, would say how hot she was. She was just so beautiful."

She died Jan. 29 at age 91.


Dr. Ruth Winston Cope

Born: April 10, 1917.

Died: Jan. 29, 2009.

Survivors: sons, Winston and Richard; daughters, Louise Moorhead and Cheryl Troupe; and seven grandchildren.

Family and ophthalmology still left time for adventure for Ruth Cope 02/09/09 [Last modified: Monday, February 9, 2009 10:00pm]
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