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Rubye Bull overcame barriers with strength and grace

Published Nov. 16, 2012

ST. PETERSBURG — As if on a mission, Rubye Bull proved countless times in her life that no unfair set of circumstances would stop her from reaching her goals.

Public schools in her native rural South Carolina didn't have any black teachers until Mrs. Bull came along in the early 1960s, armed with a master's degree.

She then pushed two daughters to integrate the schools.

She motivated herself with truisms — or "Ruisms," her family called them — like this one: "I see others doing things, and I know I have greater ability."

She was about as subtle as a Sherman tank, rolling over barriers of hostility and indifference.

"She really didn't hold her tongue," said Dr. Mendee Ligon, her daughter. "She had a comment on anything."

She had learned early that nothing worth having came without a fight.

Born Rubye Smith in Union County, S.C., she entered college at South Carolina State College at 16. She moved to New York, worked in a factory and taught in public schools while earning a master's degree from New York University.

She returned to South Carolina and married Dr. John Bull, a country doctor. Union County schools needed qualified teachers.

She fit the bill, even if some of her students' parents didn't think so.

She then nudged Ligon, who was in the fifth grade, and a sister in high school into what were then all-white schools. "She just told us it was time to help make a change, and that we needed to get a stiff upper lip."

Mrs. Bull pursued a doctorate in education, including a sabbatical year at Rutgers University.

Ligon, now 57 and a St. Petersburg dentist, recalled telling her mother she might not survive the final year of dental school.

"She said, 'You can stay in hell for a year as long as you know you're going to get out. Suck it up.' She always found some seed of resilience in tough situations."

Her husband, who was 11 years her senior, died in 1990.

Mrs. Bull was working on her Christian afterlife, too, and had read 11 volumes of the apocalyptic Left Behind series.

She did not understand a world where people cared more about what was on their phone than the person across the room from them.

She recently told family members, "You all are always glued to your computers and your phones. I feel sorry for you."

As her kidney problems worsened, she chatted with patients in waiting rooms, then quizzed them later to see if they could remember her name.

Mrs. Bull died Nov. 11 of kidney disease. She was 92.

Friends and family remember her persistence even at the seemingly futile projects, such as playing the Lotto. Mrs. Bull defended the gamble with yet another Ruism, one that might have defined her: "You can't win it if you ain't in it."

Andrew Meacham can be reached at or (727) 892-2248.