Dec. 28—I got an email the other night from a friend and former colleague who’s now living in D.C.
“Did you hear?” he wrote. “Ruth Slovenski has died.”
It took me a second or two, but the memory was not far down in my gray matter.
“The bike lady?” I asked.
It was. Ruth Slovenski was well known for many things in the Bates College community and elsewhere, but in my small circle, she’s known most famously for her bicycle.
A vintage Huffy, it was, more than 60 years old and the very same bike Mrs. Slovenski had been riding since she was a young lass in the 1940s.
In the spring of 2006, some wretch stole that bike after Mrs. Slovenski had left it leaning against a mailbox outside Maison Marcotte senior housing on Campus Avenue in Lewiston while she visited someone.
The rest, as they say, is history.
I first met Ruth Slovenski, who was 83 at the time, on April 9, 2006, the day after the bike theft was reported. I had come to ask her a few questions about it so I could write up a rousing account for the newspaper.
It wouldn’t take long, I reckoned. Just a few questions, a few photos snapped and I’d be out of there. No need to spend all day on such a simple matter.
It didn’t work out that way, though — I remember being smitten with the lady almost immediately upon arriving at her home.
Very sweet, was Mrs. Slovenski, and extremely kind and congenial. She had a down-to-earth way about her and she was not above cracking a joke or two when the situation called for it. Good jokes they were, too.
A Sun Journal photographer and I spent far more time with Mrs. Slovenski at her home than was necessary simply because the lady was a delight to be around.
She told us her story in a kind of laughing, offhand way. She couldn’t understand why such a fuss was being made about the theft of a bicycle, even if that bike was extremely dear to her.
The bike had wide fenders, she told us, and a large metal basket attached to the handlebars. She rode the bike as often as she could, she said, using it mostly to visit friends in the nursing home.
I was touched by her story. The photographer was touched and so were the police officers tasked with tracking the old Huffy down.
Eventually, the entire community and beyond would be moved by what had started out as a simple story of a pilfered bike.
After news of the theft hit the street, several people came forward to offer rewards for the return of the bike. The offers came from as far away as Oregon, where a man who heard about Slovenski’s plight said he wanted to offer money or a replacement bike.
Several former Bates College track athletes contacted the Sun Journal or Lewiston police to offer reward money, as well. Police said they had heard from others from all around the state who also wanted to help out in any way they could.
All of that on top of the phone calls, cards and letters of support that came piling in.
Ruth Slovenski and her 66-year-old Huffy had become famous and whomever had taken her bike was . . . Well, you get the feeling that person was starting to feel the pressure.
Roughly a week after the bike vanished, a local man wheeled that very bicycle, basket, wide fenders and all, down to the police station. He had no idea it had been stolen, the fellow insisted. Why, it had been given to him by a stranger and . . . Well, here you go, officer. No hard feelings, huh?
When the Huffy was returned to Mrs. Slovenski, it was a by-God media event. I was there outside her door with a photographer. A couple television news crews were there with their cameras, as well, and a clot of police officers had come, the chief among them, to officially return the bicycle.
What I remember best about the scene is Mrs. Slovenski herself, laughing with untethered delight in a way that was downright girlish. She clapped her hands together and expressed both shock and glee that the Huffy had been found.
“It’s mine,” Slovenski said after sitting on her bike and looking it over. “I know that for sure.”
Once again, I stuck around at her home longer than I needed to. We talked, we joked, we shared some stories. Before I left, she thanked me profusely and said that someday, she’d like a ride on my motorcycle.
As far as I remember, that was the last time I saw her, but I tell you: There was just something about Ruth Slovenski that sticks with you.
When I got the news Monday night, I wrote the police officer who had been in charge of finding that famous missing Huffy.
“Ruth Slovenski has died,” I told him.
“The bike lady?” he responded at once. “She was sweet.”
We mean no offense, of course, when we call her the bike lady. That’s how we remember her, in my little circle, but others remember her for a whole lot more. Ruth Slovenski had been around a long while and she had done plenty with her time.
Ruth and her husband, Walt, a legendary track coach at Bates, raised six children right here in Lewiston.
“For the first 20 years of motherhood, Ruth was a full-time mother,” according to her obituary. “She led weekly Girl Scout troop meetings, and made many car trips around Lewiston and Auburn shuttling her children to a range of activities that she scheduled for them, from swim lessons at the YMCA and YWCA, to ballet lessons at Miss Cooper’s Dance Studio. Ruth also taught Sunday school at the Lewiston United Baptist Church for 50 years.
“She worked as a summer camp nurse for 55 years beginning at the State YMCA Camp in Winthrop,” the obit continues. “She worked for many years at Camp Arcadia in Casco, Agassi Village Camp in Poland, the Bowdoin Day Camp in Brunswick, and Slovenski Camps in Raymond, where the camp infirmary is named after her. The Ruth Slovenski Infirmary is a tribute to her wonderful work as a camp nurse when she applied many band-aids and helped campers feel better when they got sick.”
Mrs. Slovenski would go on to hold nursing positions at Bates College before moving on to the same position in the Lewiston public school system.
So, it’s understandable that we all remember her in different ways. She wore many hats, did Mrs. Slovenski, and by all accounts, she wore them well.
My wife remembers her as a kindly school nurse who treated her bumps and scrapes. My friend in D.C. remembers her as a devoted wife of the Bates College track coach.
“She was a saint,” said Joe Gromelski, the friend in question. “Walt was always in high gear, and she just sat back and took care of everything.”
Her children, who apparently inherited Mrs. Slovenski’s good nature, remember her as a mom of course, and I have no doubt she was a good one.
“She had so many wonderful character traits that were called on as the mother of a big family,” said her son Peter, now living Nashville. “She was energetic, calm, supportive, and tough. But most of all she had a commitment to sacrificing for the good of others. She made a lot of sacrifices for her children, and as we grew up she gradually made it clear that we needed to start sacrificing for others as well. She was an amazing role model for sacrificing for her family and community.”
All of that and yet until I read her obituary Monday night, all I knew about Mrs. Ruth Slovenski was that she was a nice lady who once had her bicycle stolen.
I guess ultimately, I should be grateful to that long-ago bike thief because Mrs. Slovenski was a nice person to meet under any circumstances and I feel privileged to have made her acquaintance.