Had it not been for COVID-19, tomorrow would have been jUNe Day here. Dozens of United Nations guests would have enjoyed a day in Westport — including an impressive display of flags from their native countries on the Post Road bridge.
That’s the same bridge where, earlier this month, hundreds of people massed in support of Black Lives Matter, and to protest the death of George Floyd.
The 2 events are related. The Post Road bridge — with both its flags, and its role as the cherished spot for political demonstrations — is named in honor of Ruth Steinkraus Cohen. A remarkable Westporter (and former secretary to Eleanor Roosevelt), she dedicated her life to social justice, world peace — and music.
With jUNe Day canceled, and political protests fresh in our minds, it’s time to learn a bit more about Ruth Steinkraus Cohen. Staples High School Class of 1981 graduate Laurie Cameron writes:
Back in the day I met a true Westport treasure: my piano teacher, Ruth Steinkraus-Cohen. She would have been 100 on June 8. She was also the grandmother of my friend and classmate Adam Weisman.
Ruth was a generous, warm person who made music and kindness. Learning piano from her was a great education; she made sure I knew Hadyn, Chopin, Brahms and Vivaldi in addition to Mozart, Beethoven and Bach. I learned about Vienna and the Music festival from her.
My brother Byl was the musician in our family. I had no gift for music, but I returned each week for almost 9 years. I was so fascinated by her travels, her art, her bookcase, her antique harpsichord, and hearing about the many jobs she had when she was not being a piano teacher.
My favorite time of the week was the hour that I waited for my brother Andy to finish his piano lesson, when I could stare at the paintings, books and sculptures in Mrs. Cohen’s living room.
Her colorful holiday parties were also our piano recitals. After each student performed, Ruth and her husband Herbert played a duet: she on the piano, he on violin. Their music was rich and melodious, but the joy on their faces was the true lesson for us.
Sometimes when Ruth could see me growing restless at the piano, she took me for a walk in her garden. It had a brick path that looked like the yellow brick road through the woods behind her house. It was so thrilling to me that I sometimes snuck out while waiting for Andy’s lesson to end, and ran down its wooden steps.
During her time running the UN Hospitality Committee, Ruth placed over 50,000 people into American homes for cultural exchanges. My family learned about habits and traditions of people from other cultures from those we hosted, thanks to Ruth. She was a great humanitarian with a desire to bring the world together, and bridge gaps between cultures.
When I came back to Westport after being away for over 15 years, visiting Ruth was an important stop for me. Even in her late 70s she was warm, joyful and busy making the world better for those who needed it.
I feel privileged to have known Ruth and to have learned so much from her. Her knowledge, openness, love of music, energy and patience were great sources of inspiration to me. She would be so proud to know that a bridge bearing her name is used to support people fighting for peace, civil rights and equal justice.
(To learn more about Ruth Steinkraus Cohen, click here for her New York Times obituary.)