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Ruth Gorbet.

John Prettie/Courtesy of family

Ruth Gorbet: Mother. Actor. Protector. Balabusta. Born June 8, 1930, in Toronto; died Feb. 18, 2020, in Owen Sound, Ont., of heart failure; aged 89.

What 83-year-old would cheerfully discard her clothes to become Miss January on a charity calendar or stand nearly naked in the footlights of the community theatre she had helped build, with nothing but a potted plant separating her from nearly every person she knew? That bright light was Ruth Gorbet.

I first met Ruth in our adopted hometown of Owen Sound, Ont., at one of the last fully functional Canadian small-town synagogues.

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Ruth had arrived here as a young bride, her new start in rural Ontario marred by terrible loss. Mere days before her wedding to Norm (Nachum) Gorbet, Ruth’s beloved, 48-year-old mother died in Toronto from a stroke, likely caused from years living in abject poverty with her abusive husband. Before having been wooed to rural Ontario by Norm, Ruth had never experienced the simple pleasure of having her own bed.

We would swap ex-city girl stories, such as her request for sour cream at the local creamery shortly after her arrival in the early 1950s. “Madam,” said the disdainful shopkeeper, “we only sell FRESH cream here.”

She worked side by side with Nachum at their ladies' wear and fur business until its closing in 1995. Ruth was an irrepressible community force. In 1961 she was among the original founders of the Owen Sound Little Theatre. With her young kids, Marc, Kara and Ben, in tow, she rehearsed in living rooms, outdoors, in unheated halls without running water and in abandoned schools. Ruth tirelessly raised funds for the theatre group’s new home, the Roxy Theatre. For more than 55 years, Ruth volunteered in every possible role. Her direction of The Runner Stumbles in 1982 and Talley’s Folly in 1989 won multiple awards at theatre festivals.

Ruth’s talent was matched only by her determination. She was undeterred by the word “no.” When told she couldn’t have children, Ruth and Nachum adopted two children, then got pregnant with their third. Her spirit also challenged her family, especially as she aged and refused to leave her three-floor Victorian home despite numerous falls and broken bones. But her tenacity was a remarkable gift. When Marc was planning a trip to New York city, Ruth suggested that he attend a taping of Saturday Night Live, but the show was sold out. She immediately picked up the phone and called producer Lorne Michaels, an old roommate to Ruth’s cousin. To Marc’s amazement, Mr. Michaels took her call. “Lorne,” she said, “My son needs two tickets to your Christmas broadcast.” “Ruth, I’d love to help, but that is one of our most popular shows of the year.” “How wonderful,” she said. “Two tickets will be just fine.” And that’s just what she got.

Ruth Gorbet performs at the Roxy Theatre in 2006.

Courtesy of family

She was a tireless volunteer for the Kinettes, two ladies' auxiliaries, the hospice and a champion of the LGBTQ2S+ community. In 1967, Ruth was presented with a key to the city. In 2007, she was named an Owen Sound volunteer of the year and in 2014, she received the Owen Sound Cultural Award for lifetime achievement.

When her community calendar pin-up spawned an ardent suitor, Ruth turned him down, despite having been widowed and single for almost 15 years: “No one could ever beat my Nachum.”

She was everyone’s Bubbi – she kept Yiddish alive in her small town, instructing her mostly non-Jewish admirers and Facebook fans, sometimes in return for a little (okay, a lot) of help navigating her iPad.

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Ruth’s legacy lives on through the theatre she built, the children she raised, the people she loved – and in her inspiration to always seek the light, even in the darkest shadows on the stage of her life.

Aly Boltman is Ruth’s friend.

To submit a Lives Lived: lives@globeandmail.com.

Lives Lived celebrates the everyday, extraordinary, unheralded lives of Canadians who have recently passed. To learn how to share the story of a family member or friend, go to tgam.ca/livesguide.

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