ST. PETERSBURG — Whenever older radicals passed through town — usually people who had taken a stand for civil rights, labor or peace causes and paid a price for it — they always had food and lodging waiting for them at Amity House, the middle-class suburban home of Ruth and Willard Uphaus.
The house itself in Lakewood Estates said much about the couple's commitment to social causes. They frequently filled a large atrium with scores of folding chairs for conferences on numerous issues.
Labor leader César Chávez was a guest. So were Myles Horton, a socialist and a major influence on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.; NAACP chairman Julian Bond; Vietnam protesters Daniel Ellsberg and the Berrigan brothers.
Ruth Uphaus, a tiny elementary school teacher with bright blue eyes and a squeaky voice, was not as famous as her guests, or her husband. In 1959, in response to a New Hampshire investigation on communism, Willard Uphaus refused a court order to disclose names of guests at his World Fellowship summer camp and spent a year in jail.
"Willard was kind and nice in the way he spoke, but Ruth was feisty," said activist Watson Haynes, who organized for sanitation workers in the 1968 strike as Mrs. Uphaus taught striking workers to read. "She wouldn't back down, and I don't care how many people there were or who you were."
Mrs. Uphaus, who pushed for liberal causes with an air of buoyant optimism, died Tuesday. She was 98.
"Her social activism goes back to the 1930s, with labor unions in Ohio and Connecticut, all kinds of organizations," said University of South Florida historian Ray Arsenault. "She really was a paragon of the social gospel."
The Rev. Todd Sutton, her pastor at Lakeview Presbyterian Church, called Mrs. Uphaus "someone who really, really put her faith into action. She didn't just pray for it, she worked hard for it."
Mrs. Uphaus invariably met the people she wanted to help, no matter how far away in the world. She succeeded Willard, who died in 1983, as the leader of Amity House, which served as headquarters for the Gulf Coast Association for American-Soviet Friendship; and sailed on peace cruises down the Volga River.
In 1985, she represented several organizations at a United Nations women's conference in Nairobi, Kenya. "I went with the single-minded purpose of letting other women know that thousands of other women don't agree with the government's policies," she said on her return.
Born Ruth Allard in Madison, Ohio, Mrs. Uphaus attended Oberlin College and Kent State University before starting a 35-year career teaching elementary school. She lost her teaching job in Willoughby, Ohio, after running unsuccessfully as a candidate for the Farmer-Labor Party.
She moved to St. Petersburg in the early 1960s, and taught at Bay Vista Elementary School until leaving in the 1967 teacher strike.
She was soon caught up in the garbage strike alongside prominent black leaders and several white supporters. "She remained pleased and proud to have participated in (the strike)," said friend and activist Winnie Foster.
Her first husband, Charles MacLennan, a past president of the Greater St. Petersburg Council on Human Relations, died in 1973. Mrs. Uphaus usually got to church on Sundays, where she greeted visitors with an ever-present smile and a tight hug. A hearing loss limited her phone calls in recent years, but she still read constantly, and kept a stack of paperbacks and magazines beside her favorite chair.
Her death marks the loss of an activist who tried to save the environment, end discrimination and promote world peace. "People of that generation saw all of these things connected in a web of social justice," Arsenault said. "It was broader than the civil rights movement or the labor movement. It was a kind of holistic, deep personal commitment.
"It was her life."
Andrew Meacham can be reached at (727) 892-2248 or [email protected]