SOUTH PASADENA — What many people do for family, Ruth Kaufman did for her friends. These she made easily, though without revealing much about her own life.
Her family, co-workers at St. Petersburg Junior College and her condominium complex knew not to ask too much.
But most of them have stories to tell about her.
"She was not just an acquaintance, she was a real true friend," said Una Liebig, who moved into Bay Isle, a 55-and-older complex, 27 years ago. Liebig was 40 then. She had met her then-76-year-old husband, Glenn Liebig, while waiting tables at a Holiday Inn.
Neighbors gossiped about Una Liebig, whom they presumed a gold digger. Ms. Kaufman taught her how to play bridge, and overlooked her mistakes at the game.
"She said, 'It doesn't matter how other people feel. It's how you and Glenn feel about each other,' " said Liebig, now 67.
Ms. Kaufman, who taught English at St. Petersburg Junior College (now St. Petersburg College) from 1961 to 1983, died on March 1, of coronary problems. She was 84.
Neighbors recall a heavy smoker with a gravely voice, a champion bridge and Scrabble player who could complete a Sunday New York Times crossword puzzle in the time it took them to walk the schnauzer.
She was equally quick to help them.
When downstairs neighbor Fran Vicedomini broke her kneecap and didn't want to go to a hospital, Ms. Kaufman insisted on driving, then did the grocery shopping for weeks.
Former SPJC administrator Ilda Littell saw Ms. Kaufman nearly every day at the hospital when Littell's husband was dying.
"She was taking me out to lunch," said Littell, 76. "She would say, 'Take a walk, I'll sit with him for a while.' "
As a teenager in Pennsylvania, Ms. Kaufman cared for her mother, who suffered from Parkinson's disease. She taught school for a while, then went to graduate school at Penn State in the late 1950s. She quickly found herself at the center of a controversy in her dormitory.
"Somebody refused to room with a black woman, and (Ms. Kaufman) took her in," said Ilze Lakstigala, 81, a New Jersey dentist. "She definitely stepped in there and said that she would room with her."
She was a confirmed bachelorette who didn't mind dating.
"There were two men in St. Pete," Lakstigala said. "She said it was heading (toward marriage) and she decided that she doesn't want to wash socks and cook for somebody." But Lakstigala, a friend of 50 years, also saw a tender side. When they met in a big city, they tried to see Madame Butterfly if it was on. It was Ms. Kaufman's favorite opera, and she always cried at the end.
Ms. Kaufman retired at age 58 without regrets. "She said, 'I only want peanut butter and hot dogs. I just want to have the rest of my life to enjoy,' " said niece Susan Heizen, who became closer to Ms. Kaufman than to her late mother.
It was just like Ms. Kaufman to offer to pay her niece's legal bills during a rough divorce (Heizen declined). Just like her, too, not to see doctors. It seemed she didn't need them, at least until congestive heart failure caught up with her.
When Heizen was going through Ms. Kaufman's belongings, she found a yellowed newspaper clipping in her aunt's wallet. It was a quote from Robert Louis Stevenson:
"You can go on and you must. Anyone can carry his burden, however hard, until nightfall. Anyone can do his work, however hard, for one day. Anyone can live sweetly, patiently, lovingly, purely, till the sun goes down. And this is all that life really means."
"That's Ruth," Heizen said.
Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this story. Andrew Meacham can be reached at (727) 892-2248 or firstname.lastname@example.org.