Myrtle's story-walking through 105 years of life

 

August 24, 2018

Myrtle Rutberg celebrating her 106th birthday, show here with caretaker Jessica (l) and longtime friend Karnine, at Chabad's annual Mega Challah Bake.

This article ran in the Nov. 18, 2016 issue of the Heritage shortly before Myrtle turned 106. She passed away on Aug. 18, 2018.

As I pulled into Myrtle Rutberg's driveway at the house she has lived in for 30-some years, her son, Gerald, greeted me at the door.

"My mother likes visitors to come in through the front door," he said as he led me to the front porch. Myrtle's dear friend Karnine greeted me at the door. Karnine stays with Myrtle and their relationship is like a mother and daughter.

Myrtle was standing on her back patio, gazing out into her backyard. She wore a royal blue dress. Her straight white hair was combed in a fashionable side sweep. She is very petite, and because of her height, she said people always thought she was younger than she was. She usually hung around with younger people, and her husband, Albert, was younger than her. Karnine and I teased her, telling her that women who marry younger men are called cougars. She laughed hardily. And even as I was talking with her, she seemed younger than her 105 years. I kept forgetting her age as she shared so many stories in such detail. She has a gift for storytelling-like painting a picture.


Myrtle Skop was born Sept. 17, 1911, in St. Louis, Mo., and she had a twin brother, Arthur, whom they called Archie.

"I have three older siblings," Myrtle shared. "My mother gave birth one and a half years apart for all three elder children. Then three years later God gave her two!" Myrtle gave a youthful giggle, which she often did as she talked about her life. Archie was born 10 minutes before she was, making her the baby of the family.

Myrtle's oldest brother, Morris Skop, became Congregation Ohev Shalom's first seminary rabbi in 1937. Two years later, when Myrtle came to Orlando, he introduced her to the congregation as his baby sister.

"When I came in, my brother announced 'here comes my baby sister!' Everybody turns around expecting to see a baby (she gleefully laughs) and here they see a 28-year-old lady!"

Myrtle treasures living in the United States. "People clamor to get into the United States. They'll do it every which way they can. I was very fortunate that my parents came here in 1904 from a small shtetl in Poland."

Her parents arrived in New York on July 4. "My mother saw those firecrackers go off and they got her very, very nervous. She said, 'Is this what America's all about?"

Her parents settled in Cleveland, Ohio, where the first three children were born. They moved to St. Louis, Mo., then back to Cleveland after the birth of the twins. Myrtle lived in Cleveland until she came to Orlando in 1939.

"These are all stories in themselves and it's hard to tell you individual stories because I'd be talking all night!" she repeatedly said throughout the interview as we changed from topic to topic.

Myrtle had just turned 18 when the Depression struck in September 1929. "We counted every penny we had because without that extra penny we couldn't buy certain items. Those weren't good memories. The song they were singing was 'Brother Can you Spare A Dime,' and they were selling apples in downtown Cleveland to make five cents. I was lucky to have a job. Men were being paid $8 a week, as was I, believe it or not."


Later, to get her to move to Florida, her brother helped her get a job at The Lerner Shop in Jacksonville. She arrived Nov. 10, 1939 and her brother contacted someone in Jacksonville to watch over her. "I was walking down the street and someone came up behind me and tapped me on the shoulder, asking if I was Myrtle Skop. 'How did you know?' I asked. He said because no one wears a coat and hat in Florida!"

After training in Jacksonville, she became the assistant manager and window decorator in The Lerner Shop in Daytona Beach, and soon transferred to a Lerner Shop in Orlando.

"Orlando was called the City Beautiful. And it really was the city beautiful. There were lakes all around, and wherever we went, I thought we were riding around in circles because I was forever seeing a lake!"

When her parents came to Orlando, they bought a house on Park Lake Avenue. "We used to catch the bus on Hyer Street to go downtown or we would walk. Orange Avenue was a beautiful avenue."

Her father moved a business that her twin brother owned on Park Avenue in Winter Park to the corner of East Church St. and Division St. It was called The Myrtle Shop ("after me," she interjected).

Myrtle remembered The Lerner Shop was next to Yowell Drew Ivey on the corner of Central and Orange. On the other side of Lerners was Butler Shoe Store. "Rutland's was on Jefferson and JC Penneys was across the street. What else do I have to remember?" she suddenly asked. "Oh, the stores were open 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. I asked, 'Don't they have labor laws in Florida?' We had labor laws in Ohio! We were not allowed to work more than 40 hours a week!"

Some of her happiest memories of Orlando include becoming part of the Jewish community.

"We had Jewish organizations like the B'nai B'rith, women and men, two different organizations. Hadassah, and what they refer to as the Ladies Auxiliary of the Synagogue. All three were important to any Jewish person who came to Orlando. And we would join all three. I've been active in the Jewish community all through the years."

In February 1941, Myrtle met her husband-to-be, Albert Rutberg.

"I was part of a young people group-eight girls and eight boys. We called ourselves the Stags and Does. We were planning a Valentine's Party and each committee had jobs. I was on the decorating committee, making Valentine hearts to string up."

Orlando was a popular place for Jewish kids. COS was downtown on Church Street and the party was open to all the Jewish young people from all over. Albert lived in Daytona and had just purchased a car. He and some friends drove to Orlando, knowing there was to be a party at the synagogue later that evening. However, they arrived early.

As Myrtle was still decorating, a girlfriend of hers introduced Albert to her as Myrtle Skop.

"Are you the rabbi's wife?" asked Albert.

"'No! I'm the rabbi's sister!' I said. He put two and two together and figured I must be single."

He asked if he could bring her to the dance. As it turned out, Myrtle already had a date with a lieutenant from the base and she was double dating with her girlfriend, but she told Albert they could 'mingle together.'

"My girlfriend and I, we walked into the synagogue looking like a million bucks. We were dressed to the hilt-and the rest is history!"

Albert wanted to take her home. "I said no. I came with this lieutenant. I better let him take me home. But we exchanged phone numbers."

Albert asked if she would go for coffee with him around 10:30. "Oh no, I can't do that. I have to stay until the end when the lieutenant will take me home."

As it turned out, the lieutenant had to be back at base by 11 p.m.

"Well," said Myrtle laughing, "I was sorry I didn't tell him to come to the house and pick me up afterwards!"

Albert was not dissuaded. The very next day Myrtle received a seven-page letter from him.

"What did it say?" Karnine and I pressed her.

"It was a real love letter, believe me. He had fallen for me hook, line and sinker," she said straightforwardly, then added,"I think that he was more interested in the fact that I was the rabbi's sister!" she said giggling. "That impressed him! But none-the-less ..."

It was a long-distance courtship. Albert came over twice a week from Daytona to see her. A short while later, he proposed.

"The way he proposed to me-we were at Lake Estelle by the Florida Hospital and Sanitarium, and we sat on the seats along the shore of Lake Estelle. He asked me, 'How would you like to be a June bride?'"

Myrtle didn't want to be a June bride. She really wanted to get married in September. "So, when he proposed the way he did, I didn't know whether to say yes or no!"

"You didn't want to be a June bride, but you wanted to get married?" I asked.

"That's exactly what happened!" Myrtle stated.

"So, when did you get married?" I asked.

"I got married in June," she said matter-of-fact. We all laughed like school girls.

On June 15, 1941-only four months after they met-Albert and Myrtle got married at her parents' home on Park Lake Avenue with her brother, Rabbi Skop, performing the ceremony and five other rabbis in attendance.

The couple moved to Daytona and Myrtle came back to Orlando to stay with her parents when Albert was drafted into the Army. After he returned from duty after only six months ("that's a story in itself"), the Rutbergs moved back to Daytona.

During the war, the Rutbergs experienced black outs in Daytona Beach. "We used a room that was blacked out. We feared the enemy could see the smallest twinkle of light."

Myrtle recalled standing on the beach and seeing oil on the sand. "It was a reminder that ships had been blown up close to shore. Such a rude awakening," she solemnly said.

One of her happiest memories was when her twin, Archie, returned from the war. He served under Gen. Mark Clark, who came to prominence with the planning and execution of the North African invasion of November 1942 and led the capture of Rome in 1944.

"We always got together for our birthdays or we called each other. My son was eight months old when my brother came home and saw him for the first time. I was so glad to have him home."

The son whom Archie saw was Gerald who was born at Orange Memorial, now Orlando Regional Medical Center.

"We had a circumcision in a downstairs room," Myrtle recalled. "It was during Passover. They dressed up my baby on the eighth day of his life, which is when the circumcision takes place. And my mother had bought him a little bonnet for a boy. I still have that in my possession."

Archie died in 1995. "Uncle Archie was electric!" said Gerald. "During the last 20 to 25 years of his life he was a TV actor and in commercials. When I would drive to Tampa, I'd see billboards with my Uncle Archie's picture!"

Eventually the Rutbergs moved back to Orlando. They bought their first home on Yates Ave. Gerald was five years old. Reluctantly, Myrtle had to ride in a car or take a bus to COS, which was on the corner of Church Street and Eola Drive-too far from College Park. Her parents moved to Anderson St. "It was a lovely two-story house," she remembered. Later the house was moved because the east-west expressway came through.

Eventually the family moved to Kennison Drive in Orlando, and Myrtle was able to walk to shul again. COS was only about eight blocks away. "My husband drove, I walked!" she said with laughter.

"I would walk every Friday night and Saturday morning and on holidays. I did a lot of walking in my lifetime," she said, attributing all this walking to the possibility of her longevity.

"Mom enjoyed walking," said Gerald. "She would take in all the scenery and talk with people."

When Myrtle first met Albert, he was working in his brother Joe's deli in Daytona. "Everybody knew Joe and everyone thought he had an interest in the business-which he didn't. He was just a waiter."

What kind of work did Albert do? "That's a story in itself," Myrtle said. He bought a general merchandise store on Broadway Street in Oviedo. "There was a refrigerator for sale on the porch, and he bought the store!

"It was 16 miles away. Today it's simple [to get there]-from UCF it's a straight line, but at that time there was just a dirt road and my husband was up at 5:30 to get on the job by 6:30. Most customers were up early because they worked the fields."

That was also the first time Myrtle saw women wearing pants.

"I laughed," she said. "They were wearing pants under their dresses. I'd never seen anything like it! But it wasn't too long before I was doing the very same thing because you needed to cover up, especially early in the morning and you have to wear a dress to be presentable. That became the regular style at the time."

In 1972, COS broke ground to build a new synagogue, and in 1974, the new building on Goddard Street was dedicated.

"When the synagogue moved, my mother moved," said Gerald. It took a while, but she did move to Alfred Street in the late 70s, a few years after Albert died in March 1975.

"That was quite a walk from Alfred Street," Gerald stated, explaining that she had to cross Lee Road to get to the shul.

Rabbi Rudolph and Rose Adler, who lived close by, would walk with her to services.

The Adlers and Rutbergs were very close friends.

"That's a story in itself," Myrtle prefaced telling of first meeting Rabbi Adler.

"Al picked up Rabbi Adler at the airport when he first came to town. He stayed with us until the family moved here. We were close to the Adlers to the very end. My husband was his second hand and we got in on all the bar and bat mitzvahs because of the Adlers.

"Rabbi had three children -ages 9, 6 and 3. My husband picked them up on Saturday mornings and brought them to the house and we had lunch. Gerald was like a big brother to the Adler children."

What people remember most about Myrtle was learning their Torah portions for their bar or bat mitzahs from her.

There are people in the community who studied Hebrew with Myrtle whose parents and grandparents also studied Hebrew with her. She even had an adult class at Winter Park High School. When that class was terminated, she continued to teach adults in her home.

"She would have the lessons and afterward have coffee or cake and ice cream for everyone to enjoy," said Karnine, explaining that the custom was that when children used to finish learning a page in the Torah the rabbi would put a drop of honey at the bottom of a page to make learning sweet.

"That was before my time," quipped Myrtle.

"But she still made learning sweet," said Karnine.

Myrtle learned Hebrew when she lived in Cleveland. She was playing out in the yard with Archie when their mother came out and told Archie he was going to Hebrew School. They were 8 ½ years old. Myrtle's mother looked at her and asked, "Do you want to come along?"

"Yes!" Myrtle replied. When they got to the school, Myrtle noticed a classroom full of girls and told her mother she wanted to attend Hebrew school too.

"Mother had saved enough money to enroll my brother and told me to wait until she saved enough send me," she said.

"Mother sold real estate and she got $50 for selling a house, and the builder told her he would give her $50 for each house she sold."

That's how Myrtle got to go to Hebrew school.

Teaching was a joy for Myrtle and she learned quite a few important things: "Silence is gold. Sweets are gold and silence is silver or visa versa. And for every expression there is a counter expression and I've found that is very true."

Myrtle stopped talking and sat quietly.

"Would you like a sip of water?" Karnine asked.

Myrtle sipped the water and remained quiet.

"I'm gonna have to take a break," she said. "I can't talk anymore right now."

We'd been talking for over an hour. Karnine tried to encourage her to continue.

"Do you want me to give her the whole 105 years in five minutes?" responded Myrtle to Karnine.

It was an honor to sit and listen to Myrtle Skop Rutberg share much of her life with me that day. And no, there is no way a whole 105 years of life can be shared in five minutes!

Some of Myrtle's memories came from the Orange County Library System's oral history profiles. JTracy interviewed Myrtle on Jan. 8, 2012, when she was 100 years old. For more of Myrtle's memories, visit http://www.orlandomemory.info.

 

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