Her children described her as demure, but it turned out Ruth Johnson had an instinct for firearms.
Before all those decades of faithful attendance at PTA meetings and hours volunteering at church, the petite, 5-foot-4 former captain in the U.S. Marine Corps accepted a lighthearted challenge at a base in California during World War II and earned the title of “expert” with a rifle and pistol.
After the war, Ruth Telander Johnson Ryder went on to raise four children and outlive two husbands. She died in late February in Eagan. She was 98.
Born in 1917, Johnson spent her earliest days on St. Paul’s East Side. Her father died when she was in grade school and her mother moved the family to Lake City, where she raised her three children and worked as a housekeeper for a rich family. Eventually they settled back in St. Paul, where Ruth was valedictorian of Johnson High School’s class of 1934.
She was the last living member of the class.
“It made her sad,” said her daughter, Kris Palfe. “It was tough being 98, with all your close friends gone.”
Johnson graduated from the University of Minnesota and taught high school for three years in Preston, Minn. It was a safe, comfortable job. But when the war broke out, she joined the military.
“I felt it was my patriotic duty to enlist,” she later told her children.
In 1943, she was accepted into the Marine Officer Candidates School. Commissioned as a lieutenant in the Marine Corps Women’s Reserve, she was stationed first at Camp Lejeune, N.C., then Camp Matthews in La Jolla, Calif., where she was executive officer of the Women’s Marine Battalion.
Excellent at remembering names, hardworking and full of kindness, she was good at a job she described as “like being the assistant principal at a high school,” said her son, Rolf Johnson, of Centerville. She handled discipline, promotions, discharges and a host of other issues for 165 enlisted women, he said.
Once, a handful of insolent gunnery sergeants asked her if she wanted to try to qualify as an expert with the M1 Garand rifle, her son said. She had never been required to use a gun through Officer Candidates School and thought they were playing a joke on her, he said. The sergeants showed her how to shoot and sent her out on the range.
She hit the target several times. Then they handed her a .45 automatic pistol. According to a Minneapolis Star article from 1944, she scored just over 90 percent with the rifle and 96 percent with the pistol. She became the first woman in the history of the Marines to qualify as an expert with the two weapons.
“She was very athletic, and she had very good eyesight,” he said. “She won the respect of those nasty old gunnery sergeants.”
Also in La Jolla, she married Curtiss Johnson, a St. Paul man she dated at the University of Minnesota who was then was an Army lieutenant. The ceremony was the same day as President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s death, April 12, 1945.
After the war, the couple settled back in St. Paul and raised four children. She poured herself into school and church and left marksmanship behind.
When her husband retired, the couple lived for a while at their cottage in Hovland, Minn., on the North Shore. After he died, she remarried and lived in Arizona for eight years.
She returned to Minnesota after her second husband died. She was known for her warmth and kindness, from Holy Apostles Episcopal Church to the Commons on Marice in Eagan, where she spent her last years.
A memorial service was held April 16, and she will be privately interred at Fort Snelling in June.