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Ruth Carter

December 25, 1936 – July 28, 2013

5th City Preschool Director for 40 Years

Ruth and I were tied at the hip for the 3 years in the late 60’s when I was the director of the 5th City Preschool and she was my right and left hand. She and I climbed many mountains together — attending a national preschool workshop because the curriculum received a National 1st place award from the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO), receiving teaching machines from IBM for the 4 year olds which got our picture in the newspaper because of the audacity of believing machines could teach, making really cool uniforms for all the teachers, designing the new preschool building on 5th Avenue with Sheldon Hill —  the list goes on and on.


Yet there were also many valleys where Ruth never flinched, never complained. She stood firm in her belief that the 5th City Preschool was a demonstration to the world of the importance of  providing all children from four months on up with a positive self-image. In turn, Ruth Carter, became my mentor, my symbol of the Iron Woman standing in the desert with arms out stretched knowing that the desert could become the promised land. And it did because she lived — and still does in the lives of all she touched.

         ~~  Lela Jahn

Wow!!!! What a woman Ruth was, I met her last in 2000 at the 5th City Preschool, and was impacted once again then. John and I add our deep thanks to Ruth and all her colleagues for their pioneering work. The Winds and Waves team is thinking about devoting a whole issue/series of articles to would appreciate thoughts on this. How could I stay out of this Imag Ed. conversation!!!!…a relational way of life! ..a conceptual framework…transformational image/ paradigm change, (inquiry-based learning, relational, restorative practice – all with its roots in Imaginal Education)  is how I have used and translated this wonderful gift of IE over my years in schools.

          ~~  Robyn Hutchinson

I remember Ruth very well at Summer 1968, when a bunch of Aussie children came over.
I did not know her well either, and yet was very impressed with her style of ease and  competence. In peace,
~~  Isobel Bishop

At the beginning of our stay in the Fifth City house, June 1966, I was informed that my assignment was preschool.  I was rebellious. I told Slicker that wasn’t the kind of experience I was looking for; I had four kids under six!  He said, in true Slicker style, “Well, we need a trained theologian in the preschool and you are it for this year!”  I asked  if there wasn’t an alternative, like getting a job in the city.  His response:  “The only alternative if you don’t accept your assignment is for you and your whole family to leave!”


So I started working in the preschool the next day, with Ruth Marshall, Ruth Carter, and several others. There was no printed curriculum in those days. The four areas rotated among the teachers, each of whom was supposed to deliver us a slip of paper with instructions what to do before the class began.  Sometimes some of us JUST made it!  But I kept yapping about how the curriculum should be worked out in advance and published by the week the previous Friday afternoon.  The result was that I was assigned to preschool for two more years, to June of 1968. By then we had the first year long curriculum  “mimeographed” and had taught the three and four year olds to write and read their own “book”.  (My name is Jerry. I like apples. I don’t like potatoes. I have a brother. His name is Paul……” About 10 pages , one sentence to a page, that they could read aloud in front of the group and shock and horrify their older brrothers and sisters.  Ruth Carter’s son got in trouble the first day at Stewart School by asking when they would start reading; he was bored with toys!



Ruth was one of the great reading teachers and suggesters of curriculum.

         ~~  Nan Grow

What a wonderful piece of history, Nan. When Joe and I arrived in Chicago in 1968 I spent every other weekend on Emerging Generation (EG) – teaching the comprehensive curriculum to grades 4,5 and 6.  Whatever was being taught to adults on campus that weekend was to be taught to our children.  That year my students included 3 Grows, 4 Boivins and assorted others.  I loved it, although my permeation job was being a college teacher.  I recently reminded Keith and Brad how much that time meant to me.


My big  “deer in the headlights” response to an assignment came in January 1971 in Sydney Australia when Jim Bishop assigned Ann Duffy and me to “head up” the EG camp in Perth during the Aussie Summer program. At that time my permeation assignment was teaching high school – a far cry I felt from infant thru grade 8+ camp.  I  also realized this assignment would mean agonizing leave-taking from my 6-month old twins in Sydney, a continent away from Perth.  But after 2.5 years in the Order I was disciplined enough to say “yes” to my assignment, delighted Jeanette Stanfield would be surrogate parent to Jon and Ben, and eager to work with Ann, and so headed west.


On the bus that crossed the continent with participants from more eastern spots, Ann and I recruited the most wonderful EG Camp faculty: gems among which were John Hutchinson, Julie Braithwaite and Pat Smith.  That year we had a number of infant and preschoolers from Mowanjum, all of whom had serious dysentery and malnourishment, which Ann dealt with in her inimitable measure upon measure of love.  (She, too, had left an infant, David Duffy, in the care of Jeanette.) I wish I could remember the theme of our Camp and the songs we created.  It was outstanding, and we all returned to our original places enriched and so thankful that our capacities had been so terribly but wonderfully stretched!  (Thanks Jim Bishop!!)


I realize all of that would  not have been possible without the pilot demonstration “Fifth City Preschool!” Yes, may Ruth Carter’s name be raised with deep respect around the world.

          ~~  Marilyn Crocker

Working with the archives – and the living stories that have been shared with us – have made us (the archive team and volunteers) aware of the gift to the nation that Ruth Carter and the imaginal education approach to teaching used in the 5th City Preschool. Ruth and another preschool teacher were invited by the team that was putting together Sesame Street to come to New York and share with them the imaginal education curriculum being used in the successful Fifth City Preschool. Why?  Apparently the Preschool had been named one of the top two preschools in the nation.  Sargent Shriver had visited the preschool and said that the curriculum made it number 1 – but the facilities required he name it number 2. We have also heard that there was an article – and picture – in a Time magazine talking about the 5th City preschool – and that is why the Sesame Street planning crew asked Ruth  and  colleague to come to New York and talk to them.


That one bright shining moment pales in the face of the additional 50+ years that Ruth gave to caring for and nurturing the teachers and students of the 5th City Preschool. God bless you, Ruth.

          ~~  Jean Long


The last time Bud and I visited Ruth Carter was just over a year ago.  She was standing on her porch waiting for us.  A better welcome there could never be.


I made it a practice to call her from time to time.  It was always the same; she answered with a weak voice and ended with a “smile” and some renewed energy.  I talked to her 10 days or so before she died.  In an effort to help her reconnect to one of her energy sources I asked her if she ever went to the preschool.  She said, “Not much but they come to me.  They stand on the sidewalk and call ‘Ms Carter, Ms Carter, Ms. Carter. We love you”.  She said she would go out on her porch and wave and talk to them.   Neither the children or staff forgot her!  Nor did we!


And truthfully that is where she died according to Regina; on her beloved front porch.  When Regina’s son came home from baseball or basketball practice on the 25th he found her on the porch and couldn’t get her to move.  He called his mom and she came.  They called the paramedics who asked Regina what she wanted them to do.  She said “Save my Mama.  Save my Mama”.  They tried!  On the way to Mt. Sinai Hospital they did get a heartbeat and the hospital kept her on life-support for three  days or so.  Her kids and grandkids filled the room during that time  till they really got it that she was brain-dead, till they could let her go and asked them to take her off life support.


As Regina and I visited she said she really died on that porch she loved.  And I say just as she planned.  She chose not to have a stent or pacemaker and knew the consequences as did they all.  She waved to us on that porch.  She waved to the 5th City Preschool children and staff on that porch, she stayed connected to the community on that porch and no doubt waved to the angel of death on that porch.  Free, free, free to decide.  She knew it and she did.


Not too many days before she sat alone in the preschool yard.  One of her goodbyes?  I think so.  And on the day she left she was up and about her house…visiting with Regina, eating lunch, clearing dishes and wiping the table clean.  When Regina went upstairs to her home Ruth went out on the front porch to her home.


Hear her sing.  See her dance.  As we all rehearsed with one another…..Free, Free, Free to Decide. May it be so.

           ~~  Jan Ames


Regarding the question, “Was the curriculum which was developed in 5th City the foundation for what later became known as Imaginal Education?”, here is my opinion on the subject.  Imaginal Education was the basis for the 5th City curriculum, not the other way around.


I joined the staff of the 5th City Preschool in the last weeks of 1969, and the curriculum was in full swing.  Our basic understanding was that we were out to change the images of the children we taught, from victims of their circumstances to “iron men”, able to make free decisions based on compassion and a bright future.


I had a break from preschool on another assignment from September through December 1970.  During 1971 I was assigned to expand the daily preschool curriculum with appropriate activities to enact our three year goal chart, type it up, mimeograph it (for pete’s sake) and see that it was delivered to each teacher each morning along with needed supplies to teach to the day’s rational and existential aims.


I once had a full quarter of those daily curriculum sheets in my own files, but I have lost track of them.  I fervently hope that they are in the archives.  We shared our work with our sister preschool in Hong Kong, where they followed the same curriculum.  I hope that the three year chart of goals is also in existence in the archives, as well as the Tools Chart.


But, as a short answer to the question, the basic tenents of Imaginal Education were in place before the teaching in the preschool.  We were creating curriculum out of the structure which had been put in place by the leaders of the Ecumenical Institute–the Order Ecumenical.

          ~~  Karen (Wright) Bueno


I remember with great fondness working with Ruth in the 5th City Preschool in the early days of its creation. She was always an inspiration of hope and tireless energy. May the seeds of her hope continue to blossom in all children and adults who were part of and continue the 5th City Preschool.

          ~~  Wanda Holcombe

Ruth Carter Day, 1978



One Time When the Angel Came

And in my dream

The Angel shrugged

And said, If we

Fail this time, it

Will be a failure of


And then she placed 

The world gently in

The palm of my hand.

–Brian Andreas



It is with crystal clarity that I recall the moment when Ruth Carter was “placed gently in the palm of my hand.” I stood on the brink. My stomach was churning. “If we fail this time, it will be a failure of imagination.” The year was 1976. There was no fuzz in that vision, and the task to pave the way for her to be the community director of the Fifth City Preschool was my assignment; I had two years to bear fruit. Of course I could expect help from my colleagues, but my name was on that project.


Ruth and I lived in a Black ghetto on Chicago’s west side where, as a staff member of the Ecumenical Institute, I worked as a teacher and later as the director of the Fifth City Preschool. At that time, in the late 60’s and early 70’s, there were approximately 250 children in the school, and a staff of around twenty Caucasian women from the Ecumenical Institute, along with several volunteer mothers. Our vision was that over the years it would become a community owned and operated program, a demonstration of how imaginal education could transform a community. It was a program intended for the world to emulate. Ruth commanded the respect of her fellow teachers and the entire community, so it was the consensus that all efforts would be made to prepare her for the director’s position. 


Ruth was one of those preschool mothers who began her career journey as a volunteer and soon became a teaching assistant. She proved to be an incredibly talented and ethically strong woman capable of supporting her family and all that involved while assuming more and more responsibility for the preschool. She had such compassion for the children, youth and parents in the community. She felt responsible for giving them hope. Her hope came from the songs and rituals that were part of the preschool curriculum. The images rubbed off on her, because you can’t sing and recite to someone else without addressing yourself. Two of those songs and two rituals follow:

I’m the greatest,

You’re the greatest,

That’s the way life is.

When you know it,

Then you show it.

You are free to live!

I am always falling down,

But I know what I can do.

I can pick myself up and say to myself

That I’m the greatest too.

It doesn’t matter if I’m big or small,

I live now if I live at all.

I am always falling down,

But I know what I can do.

This is the day we have.

This is the day we have.

We can live this day

Or throw it away.

This is the day we have.

So, let’s pick up this day and LIVE!

Food is good. Right? Right!

Life is good. Right? Right!

All is good. Right? Right!

In 1976 I was the last Ecumenical Institute staff member working at the preschool. Ruth had begun to study for another attempt at her GED exam (possibly her 7th or 8th try), but in my heart and soul I knew that her chances of ever passing were doubtful. She had powerful stories to tell and much experience, but GED testing doesn’t take those things into consideration. So, under the rubric of “imagination,” Ruth and I talked about options. She chose to go back to high school, at age 37, to earn her high school diploma. She was filled with both excitement and fear about this prospect, but she embraced the opportunity with determination. It took her two years, and she graduated from St. Mary’s High School with a real graduation in a white cap and gown and a ceremony and all. Her grades were above average, her class participation was awesome, and her motivation was top notch. She went to school evenings and weekends while she continued to teach. No GED would have brought the joy or confidence of that “real” diploma. She continued taking college classes until she had enough credits to be legally recognized as a teacher, and finally the director. To celebrate her accomplishments and the announcement of her new role as director, the community held a Ruth Carter Day, with a big feast, much singing, and a memorable ceremony. One of their own had made it! What a grand day!


Ruth retired last month after 40+  years of dedicated service, 28 as the director. She worked with approximately 100 women from the Ecumenical Institute from 1962 to 1978. At that point she took on the leadership responsibility of Fifth City Preschool. On more occasions than I care to remember, Ruth took no paycheck so that others could have theirs. She took no raises for years. She believed in living life to the fullest, regardless of her external circumstances. She says her social security check won’t be very big, but it will be dependable. Of course there were no benefits like a pension, as is often true in non-profit settings, so colleagues were invited to shower her with checks to initiate the “Ruth Carter, Life is Good” Fund. And it happened!


I believe that this test of creative imagination was passed, and I know that The Angel is still smiling!

           ~~  Alice Baumbach, January 2006