Ruth Johnson Colvin

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Ruth Johnson Colvin
George W. Bush and Ruth Johnson Colvin.jpg
Colvin with George W. Bush
Ruth Johnson

(1916-12-16) December 16, 1916 (age 106)
Alma materSyracuse University
Known forFounding of Literacy Volunteers of America
Robert Colvin
(m. 1940)

Ruth Johnson Colvin (born December 16, 1916) is the founder of the non-profit organization Literacy Volunteers of America, now called ProLiteracy Worldwide in Syracuse, New York, in 1962.[1] She was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President George W. Bush in December 2006.[1] She turned 100 in December 2016.[2]


Colvin was born Ruth Johnson in Chicago, Illinois, on December 16, 1916. She was the daughter of Lillian Johnson and Harry Johnson (1891–1929), a Swedish-American, and owner of a construction conglomerate in Chicago. She was eldest of five children.[3]

Early years[edit]

She attended Thornton Junior College in Harvey, Illinois, where she received a two-year degree. She also attended Moser Business College in Chicago[4] and Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, where she met her future husband, Robert Colvin, who was majoring in business administration at Northwestern. She also became a member of the Kappa Delta chapter. They married in 1940, moved to Seattle, Washington, then Syracuse, New York, where he built a "lucrative sales and consulting career" around industrial chemicals. Together, the couple had two children.[3]

She earned a Bachelor of Science degree from Syracuse University in 1959.[5]

Early career[edit]

Colvin became aware of the problem of illiteracy in her hometown of Syracuse when the 1960 census reports were released and in 1962 she learned that the city had over 11,000 people functioning at the lowest level of literacy.[4] Always an avid reader herself, she worked with reading specialists at Syracuse University and developed materials to train volunteer tutors various motivation and instruction techniques. She developed two tutor training manuals; Tutor and I Speak English which are considered to be authoritative sources for training volunteer tutors to teach adults basic literacy or English as a second language.[6] The first tutors who completed the program were from Colvin's church women's group.[1]

Literacy volunteers[edit]

In 1962, Literacy Volunteers, Inc. was founded in Syracuse. The organization was chartered in New York State in 1967 as a tax-exempt, non-profit and the name was changed to Literacy Volunteers of America, Inc. (LVA).[4] It is a national, educational, non-profit organization with staff at the local, state and national levels and a volunteer board of directors. Colvin was the first president of the organization and a lifetime member of the board of directors.[1]

In 1974, she created the English as a Second Language training program as well as a new reading series for learners. During the next few years she helped found The National Coalition for Literacy to increase public awareness of illiteracy. Colvin also published Student Involvement Guidelines to encourage student involvement in all aspects of literacy programs.[4]

The organization currently has 330 programs in 42 states with over 100,000 volunteers and students. The non-profit works in conjunction with correctional facilities, adult educational programs, libraries, universities, community service programs and industry.[1]

The non-profit looks for effective ways to teach basic literacy and English as a second language which stresses the importance of educationally sound "learner-centered" training of tutors and "ongoing support system."[4]

From 1991 to 2001, Colvin helped with administration, training and fund development in Swaziland, in the development of the country's only literacy program. She also assessed the needs and gave initial training for the Rotary Clubs of Zambia, to set up Readers are Leaders in Zambia fund.[4]

ProLiteracy worldwide[edit]

ProLiteracy Worldwide was formed when Laubach Literacy International and Literacy Volunteers of America, Inc. merged in 2002.

Laubach Literacy International's history begins in 1930, when Dr. Frank C. Laubach was a missionary among the Maranao people of the Philippines. His concern about their poor living conditions led him to conclude that the ability to read and write was essential for them to begin to solve their problems. As the Maranaos learned to read, they would, in turn, teach other adults on a one-to-one basis that became known as "Each One Teach One." From 1935 to 1967, Dr. Laubach visited 105 countries answering calls for literacy help and created reading lessons in 315 languages. He founded Laubach Literacy International in Syracuse in 1955.

Civic contributions[edit]

By 1977, Colvin was on the board of directors of the Syracuse Boy's Club and Consolidated Industries. She was also active in Volunteers of Greater Syracuse.[7]

Presidential medal of freedom[edit]

Colvin with Norman C. Francis (center) and Paul Johnson (right) at the White House in December 2006.

She was presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President George W. Bush on December 15, 2006, in the East Room of the White House. The President noted that "Ruth Colvin is a person of intelligence and vision and heart. And she has earned the gratitude of many, and the admiration of us all."[8]

Published works[edit]

  • Tutor (1962)
  • I Speak English (1962)
  • Student Involvement Guidelines[4]
  • Basic Reading Workshop (video)
  • Tutoring Small Groups Handbook
  • Reading to Children (video)
  • English as a Second Language Tutor Training Workshop
  • How to Add Family Literacy to Your Program
  • Maintaining the Balance: A Guide to 50/50 Management
  • LVA Works: A Guide to Workplace Education
  • Great Traveling After 55 (1989)[9]
  • Off the Beaten Path: Stories of People Around the World (2011)
  • My Travels Through Life, Love, and Literacy: A Memoir (2020)

Recent years[edit]

Colvin remains active in ProLiteracy Worldwide as a volunteer tutor in the United States and abroad. She started another literacy program in Madagascar and Papua, New Guinea and has initiated another in Tok Pisin. She also teaches in developing countries such as Madagascar, Papua, New Guinea, Zambia, Guatemala, Pakistan, Somalia and China.[1]

In China, Colvin trained teachers to incorporate conversational English in their classes. In Papua, New Guinea, she initiated a literacy program and trained teachers and wrote literacy training books in Tok Pisin. She taught ten Cambodian women to teach another 103 village women who had no formal schooling. She also trained teachers in Madagascar to teach locals English and was invited to return to the area to start a literacy program in Malagasy.[4]

She is currently a life member of ProLiteracy's Board of Directors.[6]

Recognition and awards[edit]

Ruth Johnson Colvin has over 40 years of literacy experience and has published nine books. She has received 29 awards and honors for her efforts as well as "hundreds of people stories" from the 60 countries she has either worked in or visited.[4] She is the recipient of nine honorary doctorates of humane letter degrees[6] including one in May 1983, from her alma mater, Syracuse University.[10]

In 1987, she received the President's Volunteer Action Award from President Ronald Reagan, the highest award given to a volunteer.[6]

She is the recipient of numerous awards in addition to the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2006 including the Women's Day National Award, the International Center Goodwill Ambassador Award, the Rotarian International Harris Fellow, the NE Synod Presbyterian Ecumenical Award, the President's Volunteers Action Award, and the LVA President's Special Service Award. In 1993, she was inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame.[1]

Colvin was inducted into sorority Kappa Delta's Hall of Honor, the highest honor the society bestows on its members.[1]

On May 20, 2018, Colvin gave the Commencement Address at Le Moyne College in Syracuse, NY and was awarded an honorary doctorate. She may be the oldest individual ever to have addressed a graduation ceremony in the United States.[11]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h "Ruth Johnson Colvin / Lambda-Northwestern". 2010. Archived from the original on March 26, 2012. Retrieved December 18, 2010.
  2. ^ Sonia Socha (2016-12-20). "Colvin's literacy movement". The Baltimore Sun. Archived from the original on 2017-01-07. Retrieved 2017-01-07.
  3. ^ a b "I Just Hope I Can Do Enough for Them". The Post-Standard. Syracuse, New York. August 13, 2007.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i "Ruth J. Colvin". 2010. Archived from the original on July 21, 2011. Retrieved December 18, 2010.
  5. ^ "Syracuse University Facts". Syracuse University. 2010. Archived from the original on November 29, 2010. Retrieved December 18, 2010.
  6. ^ a b c d "Ruth J. Colvin". 2010. Archived from the original on July 21, 2011. Retrieved December 18, 2010.
  7. ^ "Upcoming Events". Syracuse Herald Journal. Syracuse, New York. October 31, 1977.
  8. ^ "News & Policies". The White House. December 2006. Archived from the original on July 21, 2011. Retrieved December 18, 2010.
  9. ^ I Typeset This Book for Her - Daniel F. Palmieri (Palmieri Publishing Co. - Syracuse)
  10. ^ "SU to give Dan Rather honorary degree". Syracuse Herald Journal. Syracuse, New York. May 7, 1984.
  11. ^ Alanis, Kaitlyn (May 7, 2018). "At 101, she may be oldest graduation speaker in U.S. Age is 'just a number' to her". The Wichita Eagle. Archived from the original on July 6, 2018. Retrieved February 1, 2019.

External links[edit]