Longtime Sebastopol resident Ruth Halleck—“Noni” to her 67 grandchildren and great-grandchildren (and one great great-grandchild)—wanted to ride on a rocket for her 90th birthday, but Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic project has not kept up with the trajectory of her life.
“I wanted to go into space on my 90th,” the matriarch of the multigenerational Sonoma County family said. “I’m on Richard Branson’s list and I email him from time to time—but his ships keep crashing.”
Since Sir Richard did not step up, Halleck accepted an offer from Santa Rosa Shoes, donned a space suit, and took off in the Apple Blossom Parade on a float created by the iconic shoe store.
The parade went flawlessly, with no crashes or other mid-air mishaps, but the experience was a mild one for a woman who regularly outdoes herself in the birthday celebration department.
For her 85th, Halleck took 150-odd friends and family members to Infineon Raceway to watch her drive a racecar at more than 100 miles per hour.
“I asked how fast the car would go and [was told] 190, but they would only let me go 140,” she said. “I spun out in the mud, but the spinout was the coupe de grace.”
On her 80th birthday, she jumped out of an airplane for the first time.
“I was jealous because George H.W. Bush beat me to it,” Halleck said. “But we had 150 for our party at a pizza parlor and brought in a belly dancer from New York for entertainment.”
But monumental celebrations of her life are not the only high points of her life, as Halleck has literally lived from “horse and buggy days” to seeing men walk on the moon.
Throughout her long life, she has been a model, a pilot, a successful businesswoman, and she was even fired from a department store by Barry Goldwater two decades before he ran for president.
“I graduated from high school at the age of 15,” Halleck said. “When I went to get my Social Security card, I told them I was 16. I went to work at the ribbon counter at Goldwater’s in Phoenix, but when they found out I’d lied about my age, Barry Goldwater called me and personally fired me.”
Halleck was born in Lincoln, Neb. in 1927. Her grandfather owned the first car in Lincoln, a 1912 Ford Touring Car he bought for $700 that he eventually sold for $100,000. Her family moved to Phoenix, Ariz. when her father was diagnosed with cancer.
During WWII, she worked as a dispatcher for civilian planes, where she met a lot of famous people, including Errol Flynn, Gene Autry and she once had dinner with John Payne, known for his role in “Miracle on 34th Street,” among others.
After the war, she married Sebastopol native Ed Doty and they built the house in Sebastopol Halleck lives in to this day. The couple eventually divorced and Doty moved to Hawaii and remarried.
At the age of 42, Halleck began modeling and bought the June Terry School of Modeling in Santa Rosa. Modeling was a natural calling for the 5’10”, trim and classically beautiful Halleck, and she took to it like a fish to water, training generations of young Sonoma County women on the finer points of standing up straight and walking properly.
Around that time, she also became a chaperone for the Miss Sonoma County Pageant.
It was there that she met Council on Aging President and CEO Marrianne McBride.
“I met Ruthie in 1976 when I ran for Miss Sonoma County,” McBride said. “I became enamored with her energy and zest for life. She was an older woman at that point who I totally looked up to and admired. She was so beautiful and elegant and someone you could look up to and aspire to be as you aged.”
But that is not Halleck’s only connection to COA. Her granddaughter Alyssa Kutzer is COA’s Director of Development.
“It’s amazing years later to have Alyssa,” McBride said. “I had no idea they were related and when Alyssa told me it just blew me away.”
During her time with Miss Sonoma County, Halleck met then-governor Ronald Reagan through her work with the Miss California Pageant and Big Brothers of Sonoma County, and she also spent time at Bohemian Grove, where she was a popular figure.
“I dated quite a few of them when I was single,” she admitted. “It wasn’t a job, but I was single and modeling.”
Throughout her career, Halleck was in a lot of different businesses. She owned Hap’s Hangar Restaurant at the Sonoma County Airport and Kozy Katz dress shop in Rohnert Park.
“I used to go in early to light the fires in the kitchen, and go to the dress shop after waiting tables,” she said.
She was also an acrobatic tap dancer, has an extensive Barbie collection—she owns the original Barbie doll—and paints eggshells.
“I spent two years making eggs for the ’96 Olympics in Atlanta,” Halleck said. “I made about 700 eggs of varying sizes, but when they found out the licensing fee would have cost $1 million they killed the project.”
But all in all, Halleck has lived a life for which she has no regrets and is humbled by the changes she has seen.
“At 90 years old, I have lived through more changes in the world than most people,” Halleck concluded. “I was born during the horse and buggy days and saw men walk on the moon.”
As to why she has lived as long as she has with as much vigor as she has lived, Halleck does not credit lifestyle or genetics, but something more esoteric.
“The secret to my longevity is God’s will,” she said. “I can’t think of any other reason.”
She has no plans for the 95th or 100th birthday celebrations, but if Richard Branson is listening, it’s time to get that rocket off the ground.
By David Abbott, Associate Editor, Sonoma Seniors Today