In 1946, Ruth Burleigh was working at Good Samaritan hospital in Portland when she heard about a job opening at St. Charles in Bend.
Her supervisor asked if anyone was interested and her hand shot up. She came to Bend and never looked back.
Over the next several decades, Burleigh would get married, raise three boys, serve on a number of committees for groups from Deschutes Public Library system to Boys & Girls Club of Bend, and notably, become the first female mayor of Bend.
Burleigh celebrated her 90th birthday last month at a house in northwest Bend she’s lived in for 50 years. Friday, Burleigh said if she were to do it all over, she’d choose Bend again.
Burleigh was born March 25, 1926 at her grandparents’ home in Coos Bay, then known as Marshfield.
For the first couple years of her life, she lived in Reedsport, but not long after that, her dad, a logger, began working at a mill near Bandon.
Although it was during the Great Depression, Burleigh described her childhood as “idyllic.”
“We always had a garden, we always had some chickens, and we always had food, a warm house, lots of wood to burn, ” she said.
It was there that her lifelong passion for gardening took root.
At age 11, Burleigh moved with her parents and older brother to Eugene, where she would attend the one high school in town and the University of Oregon.
After graduating college in 1945, Burleigh began work at Good Samaritan for about a year until she caught word of the job opportunity in Bend at the hospital lab.
“I didn’t know anyone here,” Burleigh said of Bend. But she felt a pull toward Central Oregon.
The war had just ended, and medical technology was improving at a rapid pace.
“When I came there, I just thought I knew everything there was to know about lab work,” Burleigh said. “About a week later, I was already behind.”
Burleigh was the only one working in the lab for about the first year, until Bend’s growth necessitated more staff.
“We expanded really quickly,” she said.
At that time, St. Charles was still located on “Hospital Hill” downtown, where the DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel is today. A young redhead new to town, she quickly caught the attention of a firefighter she would later marry. Her late husband, Van Burleigh, worked at the fire station near the hospital on NW Minnesota Avenue.
She didn’t notice him until he came to donate blood at the hospital.
“We didn’t have things like blood banks if you needed a blood transfusion,” Burleigh said.
The nuns working at the hospital used to have a list of people to call who were willing to donate if a person got into an accident, Burleigh said.
Burleigh had “stumbled on the idea” of working in a hospital lab as a teenager. Before that she had considered being a doctor, but her family didn’t have the money for the schooling. One thing she hadn’t considered? Going into local politics.
In the 1970s, though, Bend formed its chapter of the League of Women Voters. With experience in bookkeeping for her late husband’s small business by that point, she became the chapter’s treasurer.
When a position opened up on the all-male city commission (or, council, as it’s called today) her fellow members encouraged her to take it.
One woman, Florence Marshall, had sat on the city commission before. Burleigh asked her whether she could manage a full-time job and the political position. Burleigh’s sons, Bill, Glenn and Tim, were mostly grown by that time; Tim was in high school. Marshall assured her she’d succeed.
Burleigh started on July 17, 1974.
Although she never felt unwelcome, Burleigh was somewhat intimidated at first by the men on the commission; many of them worked for the mills and had grown up in Bend.
“It was very different for them to have a woman there,” she said.
But after settling into place, she found the men serving alongside her were “outstanding.” Burleigh would make history, being chosen by her fellow commissioners as the first female mayor of Bend in 1978. She would serve the one-year term again in 1981.
It was an important time for Bend’s infrastructure; the city was building its first sewage system.
In the late 1960s, a federal study showed the way in which Bend was disposing of its wastewater, by sending it to a lava sinkhole, could contaminate groundwater, according to the city of Bend’s website.
“The federal government mandated that we had to put a sewer in Bend,” Burleigh said.
Burleigh had an understanding with the city manager at that time, Art Johnson, that she wanted to be updated regularly. Her supervisors at work OK’d calls from Johnson during her shifts. The sewage system was successfully put in place.
Burleigh’s last day on the city commission was Dec. 31, 1986. But her service to the city wasn’t her only influence in town: Burleigh served on a commission to help start hospice care in Bend and on a Deschutes Public Library system foundation board that helped establish the library’s taxing district.
That’s where she met Chantal Strobel, the library system’s community relations and development manager, 22 years ago. Strobel calls Burleigh her “mentor.”
“She’s my example of how to live a gracious and purposeful and meaningful life,” Strobel said, describing Burleigh as living very consciously.
For the past 13 years, Burleigh has been on the committee that helps choose the Deschutes Public Library system’s Novel Idea books.
“Even at her tender age now, she’s still just full of curiosity, wanting to learn about the world and people and puts everyone else first,” Strobel said, calling Burleigh a “quiet leader for our community.”
“I feel so honored and blessed to have worked with her, served with her and to be around her to get her wisdom,” Strobel said. “If everyone lived their life the way she’s lived her life, we’d have a beautiful world.”
Also in the 90s, Burleigh served on the first board for the Boys & Girls Club of Bend.
“Ruth has been a huge part of Bend’s history,” said Becky Breeze, a local real estate agency owner. Breeze and a few others founded Boys & Girls Club of Bend.
“What a once-in-a-lifetime person she is to know,” Breeze said of Burleigh, calling her “wonderful Ruth.”
Although their work together through Boys & Girls Club was in the ’90s, the two have since kept in touch. Breeze said the two recently had dinner together.
“She has the biggest heart in the world and she’s smart as a whip,” Breeze said. “She’s always giving of her time and always extremely constructive in her advice. … She’s just the most well-rounded person.”
These days, Burleigh said she still likes going on trips to enjoy the outdoors, from Summer Lake to Malheur, with her partner, Dave Brown, 86. They take friends to breakfast at their favorite cafe in Brothers and Burleigh keeps up with Novel Idea reads. She and Brown also continue to work their own plot at Hollinshead Community Garden. She has four grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.
“There’s something really wonderful, for me, about living all these years in Bend,” she said. “There are so many layers of people and so many, not just acquaintances, but really friends.”
March 26, a Saturday, about 100 people filtered through Burleigh’s small home to celebrate her 90th birthday. It was too cloudy to enjoy the sweeping views of the city on her back deck, but her son’s friend brought fresh oysters from Reedsport he steamed in the front yard. The whole affair was casual, Burleigh said, and fun to see faces she’s known for so long.
“I can’t imagine changing my life in any way,” Burleigh said. “I think it’s been a wonderful, wonderful place to live, and it was really a great place to raise three sons. … This is really my town.”
— Reporter: 541-383-0325, firstname.lastname@example.org