Springfield neighbor remembered for the stories she shared in her sunroom

The Dec. 2, 1944, football game between the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame and the sailors of the Great Lakes Naval Station north of Chicago started at 2 p.m. Central War Time.

In my Nov. 21, 2005, story about a trip two Springfield Catholic Central High School girls made to South Bend for the game, my intent had been to give a glimpse of life on the home front 61 years earlier.

Ruth Anne Dingeldein’s passing at age 91 on Feb. 11 has given it a second purpose.

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Preserved for posterity on microfilm, the provides a lasting record of what it was like to sit in the intimate, sunny space just off her living room and listen to an engaging woman who never grew old do what she did so well: tell a story.

Time went by so quickly in her sunroom of the home across the street from me that when I returned to our house, my wife would ask “Where have you been?” leaning on the word been just as she had the last time I’d returned from Ruth Anne’s time warp.

That had happened a few times before I confessed to her an impolite thought that had occurred to me. The best way to identify Springfield’s liars, I told her, is simple: “They’re the ones who claim they had a short conversation the other day with Ruth Anne Dingeldein.”

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She laughed, recognizing my remark for what it was: a show of deep affection carefully wrapped in an insult.

But while laughter was liberally exchanged in the sunroom, friends who entered also felt at home sharing their troubles there, too. We all knew we were with a woman from whom “never was heard a discouraging word” and who had lived long enough to know the skies can be cloudy some days.

A slight form of trouble awaited me on every visit.

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How she expected me to keep up with which of her 15 grandchildren and 15 great-grandchildren she was talking about without a program, I don’t know. But keeping them all straight mattered no more than my never having met long gone friends she also told me about.

Her gift of friendliness and gab seemed to have inherited from her father, Jerry Riley, whom she told me had never met a strange and who loved to tell the story about the Wright brothers riding the trolley car he drove. (I’d also interviewed her about him.)

That same spirit enlivened the story of the trip to Notre Dame she made with her dear life-long friend, Kathryn Smith Chandler (lifelong friendships being another of Ruth Anne’s traits).

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Chandler’s own spirit shines through in the story, too. After describing Dingeldein’s parents as “tremendous,” she underscored their shared ancestry by saying that Ruth Anne’s sister, Eileen, “had the map of Ireland on her face.”

In the era of their trip to South Bend, the Army Air Force had set up a cadet program to then Wittenberg College, Ruth Anne said the two girls cast themselves in the role of inspectors general.

“We used to walk over there carrying tennis rackets,” Ruth Anne said, “and neither one of us could hit a tennis ball if our lives depended on it.”

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“Our mothers had sons in the service, so they were very sympathetic to these nice, young men who were away from home,” she continued. Although Dingeldein only remembered one of her dates as being “not terribly appealing,” she added that “when Kathryn coughed up the names of those two cadets on the phone” 61 years later, “I said, ‘You get out!’”

Although she had no memory of the score or even who won the game, Ruth Anne did recall the significant events of the Notre Dame trip.

“First thing we did when we got on the train was to light a cigarette,” Ruth Anne said, “because we thought we were women of the world. Back then it was very glamorous to smoke. All the beautiful movie stars smoked.”

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Just as they’d played dress-up as youngsters, they managed to muster up a sense of detachment in the presence of Navy men in their dress whites at Patricia Campbell’s home.

“We’d just look at them and melt,” Kathryn recalled, “but we never let them know.”

In return, the Navy boys never informed the girls what was in the flasks the sailors had taken to the games. “We were so dumb and so naïve, it was pathetic,” Dingeldein confessed.

With the same truthfulness she recalled that although her father’s interurban cars “weren’t really spiffy,” he was always dressed up in his blue wool uniform with the brass buttons wearing a tie her mother dry cleaned with a solvent from a crock in the garage.

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She remembered, too, childhood walks to Citizen’s Dairy for ice cream, potato chips fresh from the kettle in the Bushmeyer family’s side yard and shopping trips she and her mother, Margaret Lanigan Riley, took to Columbus compliments of the interurban train system.

She even smiled at the memory of Judge Ben Goldman’s visit with her mother not long after her father, whose memory was then fading, drove a car the wrong way on a street that no longer allowed two-way traffic as it had when he operated the street car. The judge, Ruth Anne said, recommended that Mr. Riley steer her husband’s interests toward walking.

To her family’s great credit, Ruth Anne’s personality enlivened her obituary and a treat to read. Among them was a love of martinis held with a perfectly manicured hand; her celebration of George Clooney, Frank Sinatra and dancer Gene Kelly’s birthdays; and her penchant for celebrating all holidays and everything Irish.

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My final thought is of the sort I’d sort I used to share with Ruth Anne she sat near the desk in the sunroom at which she wrote the birthday, sympathy, holiday and other greeting cards that decades of letter carriers picked up from her home.

When my grandfather passed away in his 90s during the 1990s, I thought those who had come to the service to comfort us weren’t telling the truth when they said there was a sense in which he would always be with us.

They were, of course, right.

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And that never felt truer to me than the moment I heard about Ruth Anne’s passing. When given the news, I immediately smiled when given the news, not because I won’t miss her but because at the mention of her name, I felt her great presence even in the knowledge of her absence.

In my mind, I will always see her opening her storm door; hearing her say, “Hello, neighbor, come on in”; and then, as she waves me toward my seat in the sunroom, watching her brow furrow in thought as she says, “There was something I wanted to tell you.”

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