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Published: Friday, 8/17/2012

Ruth Michaelis, 1919-2012: Teacher led Ohio's ladybug effort

BY MARK ZABORNEY
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Ruth Michaelis, a Washington Local schoolteacher whose elementary students successfully lobbied legislators to make Ohio's official insect the ladybug, died Tuesday in Kingston Residence of Sylvania. She was 92.

She had congestive heart failure, said her daughter, Cheri Briggs.

She and her late husband, Clifford "Tip" Michaelis, lived for many years on Orchard Trail Drive in West Toledo -- just blocks from Lincolnshire Elementary School, where she taught second grade from its opening in the 1950s until she retired in 1979. Her husband was a longtime principal in the Washington Local Schools.

"She was very dedicated and innovative in her teaching," said Arthur Michaelis, her brother-in-law who was Lincolnshire principal from 1963 until 1970. "She had a very good relationship with parents and the students."

Mrs. Michaelis could be demanding and strict, said her daughter, who also taught in the district. She expected her students to hold their pencils correctly and form their letters properly.

"She didn't let them slack off," her daughter said. She also worked to hold their interest with what she called "five-minute lessons," which might involve a pine cone or shark's tooth saved from vacation or a walk outside to demonstrate that light travels faster than sound.

"She didn't stick to just the curriculum they had written for her. She liked to enhance it with her own ideas," her daughter said.

And so, one day in 1973, she and her class discussed a My Weekly Reader article about the Baltimore butterfly becoming Maryland's state insect. What would be a good choice for Ohio?

The class, made up of second and third graders that year, chose the ladybug: It feeds on other insects that harm plants, and it is red, matching the cardinal and carnation, the state's official bird and flower.

A period of intense study followed, both from books and from life, as students eagerly brought in ladybugs they found. They wrote letters to leading area legislators of both parties and forwarded petition signatures gathered at Franklin Park Mall. Students, dressed in homemade ladybug attire, including red capes with black dots -- and carefully coached to speak up and speak clearly -- testified before a legislative committee.

Students from other districts, including Waterville, joined the campaign and the ladybug became Ohio's official insect in 1975.

She knew at the start that this would be a lesson in perseverance.

"The children are learning how, in a democracy, people work through their elected representatives to get bills passed in our legislature," she told The Blade in 1973. "And that's good."

From then on, Mrs. Michaelis was the "Ladybug Lady," and she received a variety of ladybug-themed gifts through the years, often wrapped in ladybug-decorated paper.

She was born in 1919, in Earlsboro, Okla., to Myrtle and James Harrison, both educators. Her parents lost their jobs during the Great Depression, but she went to college nonetheless, working at Oklahoma City University to pay her tuition there. She also played on the tennis team, was president of the Ladybug Pep Club -- strictly a coincidence, her daughter said -- and was a member of several honorary societies.

Teaching jobs were hard to find, so she became a typist in Oklahoma's state capitol. She was recruited to a job at the Veterans' Administration in Washington, but grew homesick after a year and returned to her previous job.

Back in Oklahoma City, she met her husband, a Wood County native in Oklahoma for flight training in the Army Air Corps during World War II. They married on Sept. 11, 1943.

After the war, the family lived for a time on a rented farm in Wood County. She taught at Dowling and Tontogany schools while her husband went to Bowling Green State University to become a teacher.

Teaching runs in the family. The Michaelises' daughter and son-in-law, Don Briggs, were educators, four of their six grandchildren are teachers, and three of those teacher grandchildren's spouses are teachers.

Mrs. Michaelis and her husband paid for their children's college educations and the educations of their grandchildren, their daughter said.

"Their priorities were family and education. That's where their money went," she said. Her husband died July 25, 2010.

Surviving are her son Tom; daughter Cheri Briggs; sister Ruby Brewer; six grandchildren, and 16 great-grandchildren. Services are at 11 a.m. Saturday in the Peinert Funeral Home, Tontogany, where visitation will be from 3 to 8 p.m. today.

The family suggests tributes to Sylvania United Methodist Church, where she was a member.

Contact Mark Zaborney at: mzaborney@theblade.com or 419-724-6182.



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