Larry Phillips and Ruth Woo
Larry Phillips and Ruth Woo

Edi­tor’s Note: Respect­ed and wide­ly beloved Seat­tle com­mu­ni­ty activist Ruth Woo died this week at the age of eighty-nine. 

News of her pass­ing has sparked an out­pour­ing of tributes. 

Over many, many years, Ruth Woo was a won­der­ful friend and men­tor to count­less Wash­ing­to­ni­ans. She was a trust­ed leader with a remark­able tal­ent for bring­ing peo­ple togeth­er. Ruth was gen­er­ous with her time, her ideas and advice,” said Wash­ing­ton State Gov­er­nor Jay Inslee. 

“She was moti­vat­ed not by fame or access to pow­er, but by a con­ta­gious belief that we could always do more to make this a bet­ter place to live. She had a remark­able abil­i­ty to cre­ate and con­nect com­mu­ni­ties, a tal­ent that helped advance the cause of civ­il rights,” said King Coun­ty Exec­u­tive Dow Constantine.

NPI’s Gael Tar­leton was among those who knew Ruth Woo. What fol­lows are her reflec­tions on the wise and won­der­ful per­son Ruth was. 

So many peo­ple called her Aun­tie — I just called her Ruth.

We lost a great woman this week.

Ruth Woo nev­er worked in the spot­light. She’d hold court at Bush Gar­dens in the Inter­na­tion­al Dis­trict, in her favorite booth. I nev­er would have known her if I had­n’t run for office. When I decid­ed to run for the Seat­tle Port Com­mis­sion in 2007, sev­er­al peo­ple told me to call Ruth Woo. I left her voice mails to intro­duce myself. But I did­n’t speak to her until Octo­ber, just a month before the election.

She asked me a few ques­tions about the years I worked in Rus­sia. Then she said “I’m going to endorse you. Don’t let me down.”

In the years that fol­lowed, I’d call her to talk about the pol­i­tics of the Port. She always had a fas­ci­na­tion with the Port of Seat­tle. She under­stood the role of trade. But more than any­thing, she could­n’t believe so few women ever ran for Port Com­mis­sion­er. That’s when I real­ized Ruth Woo fought many fights in her life, but one of those fights was get­ting more women elect­ed to local and state offices.

She want­ed more women of col­or to choose to enter pol­i­tics too. And for her, that meant becom­ing a con­fi­dante. She was a safe and trust­ed advi­sor with a keen­ly tuned ear to the polit­i­cal fault lines every elect­ed offi­cial steps into.

So few women take the time to men­tor women who choose to enter the polit­i­cal are­na. Here was Ruth Woo, who lived eighty-nine years, and who devot­ed more than half her life to help­ing women and peo­ple of col­or win and then guid­ed them as they nav­i­gat­ed into the world of elect­ed office. She was intim­i­dat­ing, encour­ag­ing, can­did, and wise. Ruth Woo did it her way. We’re so lucky she chose our com­mu­ni­ty to make her home and make a dif­fer­ence. She is now at peace.

About the author

Gael Tarleton is an NPI Advisory Councilmember and former Washington State Representative who led two Russian subsidiaries during the 1990s and lserved as a senior defense intelligence analyst on Soviet strategic nuclear programs at the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency from 1981-1990. She served on NPI's board from its inception through 2021.

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