A Legacy of Change

Ruth Lister Scholarship

By Susan McInnis

Photo by Susan McInnis
Photo by Susan McInnis

Ruth Lister arrived in Fairbanks with her 15-month-old daughter, Cady Sky, on her hip. She was a tallish, willowy Canadian, a hippie girl with long blond hair.

In time, Lister would transform the university’s Tanana Valley Campus, and make a broad range of positive changes for Alaska women, children and families. But in 1976, she really had just two concerns: a job and child care.

Enep’ut Children’s Center, at the foot of College Hill then and now, answered both. Lister worked at her daughter’s daycare until friends who ran a garage in Fox got a contract to rebuild engines and build and refurbish trucks. The owner wanted to hire women, which suited Lister fine. She pulled on overalls and began fabricating dashboards and fenders, and doing the electrical and plumbing work on big rigs.

“Are you going to stand outside and bash at problems, or are you going to get into the system and
start making change?”

Lister stayed with Truck Services about four years, dropping Cady off at Enep’ut during the day. She also volunteered at Crisis Line twice a week, and at a fledgling women’s crisis center. She lobbied the hospital administration for a good birthing room.

When Enep’ut’s founder decided to move on, Lister took over, managing a free-spirited, whole-wheat-and-fruit-for-snacks business where she learned budgeting and staff management on the wing.

A mechanic with a Ph.D.

Probably no one at Enep’ut knew she had done her graduate work at Cornell, or that her Ph.D. was in micrometeorology and mathematics. She had grown up in an intellectual and creative, if rigorous, Toronto household. Her mother studied economics at Cambridge and Radcliffe before shifting gears to become an accomplished landscape architect. Her father studied at Oxford, and was a professor of chemistry at the University of Toronto for more than 30 years. By the time she earned her Ph.D., Lister was headed for research or a professorship.

But she had worked on women’s health and poverty issues in New York while in grad school. They were the issues that galvanized her passion and intellect. In a 1995 interview with Pete Pinney, now associate dean for UAF’s College of Rural and Community Development, she said, “Coming from the ’60s, the question was, ‘Are you going to stand outside and bash at problems, or are you going to get into the system and start making change?’ And I think what happened to me was that I tried to get into the system and tried to make some change.”

She worked on women’s issues in Fairbanks when she took over as executive director at the women’s crisis center, now known as the Interior Alaska Center for Non-Violent Living, about the time Cady started school. In six years there, she steered the domestic-violence shelter and rape crisis center into maturity. She built lasting coalitions among agencies — law enforcement, the courts, the military, Native organizations, social and children’s services — forging new protocols and relationships, and helping responders find and work towards common goals, all of which meant they could better serve the people who needed them.

Ruth, seen here with her granddaughter Iva Karoly-Lister, worked hard to create opportunities for future generations. Photo courtesy of Louise Barnes.
Ruth, seen here with her granddaughter Iva Karoly-Lister, worked hard to create opportunities for future generations. Photo courtesy of Louise Barnes.

She helped establish the Alaska Network on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault, which at its height represented 21 programs, in Emmonak, Barrow and Homer, as well as in Fairbanks and Anchorage.

In the mid-1980s, Alaska Gov. Steve Cowper hired Lister to chair the Alaska Women’s Commission, where, according to Sherrie Goll, then lobbyist for the Alaska Women’s Lobby, Lister was instrumental in many legislative changes, including protecting women’s rights to pensions, inheritance, child support and child custody, and equal pay. Said Goll, “That so many of the bills on her list passed is a legacy left Alaska by the Women’s Commission and by Ruth herself.”