As a young woman growing up in Cambridge in the 1940s, Ruth Marshall rode her blue bicycle from her family’s home in Central Square toward a life few African-American women could imagine back then. Her outstanding academic performance at what was then Cambridge High and Latin secured a place in Radcliffe College’s class of 1949.
“She was brilliant. Unfortunately, I had to follow in her footsteps, and I was not,” quipped her sister Lillian Reichenbach, who lives outside Chicago.
Each morning, Ms. Marshall pedaled to college, from which she graduated with a bachelor’s degree in English. Many historians view Radcliffe as having been well ahead of other elite northeastern women’s colleges in admitting small numbers of African-American women, with the first graduating in the 1890s.
But Radcliffe’s dorms remained segregated in practice and far too expensive for Ms. Marshall’s widowed mother of five to afford her oldest daughter’s room and board.
Ms. Marshall, who became a librarian at the Boston Public Library in Copley Square in the summer of 1950, died May 7 of complications from a fall. She was 85 and had lived all her life in Central Square.
“She always had a ready smile and good advice,” said reference librarian Joseph Maciora, who worked with Ms. Marshall in the 1980s. “She had a classy manner to her, always positive and encouraging both to the public and to her co-workers.”
Ms. Marshall, who worked at the Boston Public Library for 39 years, “was a soft-spoken woman, but what she said was meaningful and strong,” Maciora said.
During her career at the library, Ms. Marshall helped generations of students with their research for term papers and she quickly found answers to questions posed by callers to the reference desk.
Among the more frequent questions Ms. Marshall faced in the pre-Internet era, according to library colleagues, was the definition of the abbreviations a.m. and p.m. (ante meridiem and post meridiem).
Ms. Marshall, who also graduated with a master’s degree in library science from Simmons College in 1953, spent most of her career in the library’s social sciences department.
“She was a lovely person,” said Mary Frances O’Brien, the library’s chief of public services, who received training from Ms. Marshall in 1987 when O’Brien’s library career began.
“She was dignified but very gentle and patient with both new librarians and the public,” O’Brien said. “She was very thorough and just knew a lot of information and how to find it.”
When Ms. Marshall retired from the Boston Public Library in 1989, co-workers bought her a corsage of pink carnations and threw a tea party in the library’s ornate trustees room.
An avid photographer, Ms. Marshall enjoyed chronicling her life and the lives of others.
She photographed family events at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Cambridge, where she was a lifelong member. Her interest in photography dated to college, when she was photography editor of the Radcliffe class of 1949 yearbook.
“She always had a camera,” Maciora said. “She took wonderful natural photos.”
Ms. Marshall’s photos fill the archives of St. Peter’s, where she served as church historian and had been an alto in the choir since she was a teenager. She rarely ever missed a Thursday night rehearsal even when rain or snowstorms kept others away, friends said.
Until the end she used a film camera, never switching to digital, and she had extra copies of photographs made so she could give prints to those she photographed.
“I don’t think I ever saw her without a smile,” said Susan Grundy, St. Peter’s parish administrator.
“Even when things were rough, if somebody had passed away, she always had something good to say,” Grundy said. “She had a real positive outlook on everything and was very generous as a person.”
Ms. Marshall grew up on the top floor of a two-family home on Franklin Street in Cambridge, which remained her residence until a few years ago when she moved into senior housing across the street.
A daughter of the former Ruth Etta Woods and John Beresford Marshall, Ruth Virginia Marshall was one of five children. Her father emigrated from Barbados after the death of his first wife to work in Cambridge as a house painter. He died when his children were young, according to Ms. Marshall’s family.
“He died young and left grandma with all these kids. They were poor and they really struggled,” said Ms. Marshall’s niece Michelle Holmes of Cambridge, who said she had heard stories about Ms. Marshall and her siblings following coal trucks to pluck nuggets of falling coal to help their mother heat their home.
Holmes inherited Ms. Marshall’s heavy bicycle and said she rode it proudly.
She recalled that Ms. Marshall had an extensive knowledge of history and told her nieces, nephews, and cousins about the tragic details of the Boston Molasses Flood of 1919.
Ms. Marshall never married and “on more than one occasion she gave up a promotion to let some of her older co-workers, who were married with families, take the promotion because they needed the money,” her sister said.
In addition to her sister Lillian and niece Michelle, Ms. Marshall leaves another sister, Mary Holmes of Cambridge; a brother, Andrew of Los Angeles; and many other nieces and nephews.
More than 150 people attended her memorial service in St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Cambridge on Tuesday. Burial was in Cambridge Cemetery.
Ms. Marshall enjoyed traveling, visiting many state parks and taking several international trips during her life. She went to Barbados to meet extended family and visited China on a cultural tour in the 1970s.
She also went in the ’70s on a tour of Africa, where she rode in a hot-air balloon, an adventure that shocked her sisters, leading Lillian to ask: “Why did you do that?”
“Because I’ll never be back to have the chance to do it again,” Ms. Marshall replied.