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Clyde Beal: 91-year-old made mark with years of service to Huntington

Aug. 17, 2014 @ 12:00 AM

All of us have met someone in our life that we instantly felt comfortable with. Many would say it's because they possess a special personality that brightens up a room, or they have a certain aura about them that makes your day a little better when you share their presence. This story is about that type of person -- a lady who added a "spoonful of sugar" to this interview that made it so easy to digest. It was a day when my pencil was worn to the nub asking her endless questions. It was a day well spent. Her name is Ruth Elizabeth Finley, and she celebrated her 91st birthday last June.

Finley says she was born at 1134 1/2 Rear 4th Avenue on a Sunday at 4 a.m. Her father was a bricklayer who passed away a few months before her birth with complications of pneumonia. Until her 12th birthday, Finley was raised by a staunch religious neighborhood lady that she called "Mother Golden."

"My mother was unable to take care of us because she was always working," Finley said. "I had little time for the normal childhood activities because I stayed busy. I attended Barnett Grade School that has long been demolished. I remember always being hungry when I attended school. I was small and often my lunch money would be taken by bullies. I remember a teacher I liked real well. Her name was Myra Fairfax. She taught English and a little bit of everything else."

By the age of 12, Finley returned to her mother at West 3rd Avenue which was a large apartment complex that was once a dance hall. They lived on the second floor which was a stroke of luck because in two years the 1937 flood would be splashing three steps below their apartment door.

"West 3rd Avenue was a mostly Italian neighborhood," Finley said. "I don't remember any school bus, but I do remember those long walks to Douglass High School. I went to work for a Mr. and Mrs. Raymond Brewster while in high school. He was editor of the Huntington newspaper. I was responsible for the care of their children. They paid me $3 a week, money that I used for clothes and shoes. I especially liked nice shoes; wearing new shoes always made me feel special."

Finley recalled several aspects of her high school career that stood out for the busy young woman.

"I attended a few basketball games with my friends, but that was about it. I still worked and stayed pretty busy. I did attend the senior prom with the best looking boy in school. His name was Harold Warren. I remember wearing a beautiful homemade dress that my mother had made."

After high school graduation, Finley found work with an area government agency that made military uniforms. Hours were irregular. Often the job required work on Saturdays and even half days on Sunday depending on the workload. She eventually became an inspector of military clothing. Her life had now settled into a working world that she would endure until a young man by the name of James Finley stepped into her life. From that day forward, Ruth's world began to open up in ways she never imagined.

"I never knew one person could treat another so special," Finley said. "Until the day James passed away, he treated me like royalty. We were married in a big church in Petoskey, Michigan. James had lured me into the trip under the guise of visiting with some of his friends. However, when we arrived, I became aware of plans already in motion for the big question. Of course I said yes -- I was in love. We were married in July of 1947."

The Finleys settled into their new home that James had built at 1802 9th Ave. James worked for the City of Huntington police department. But his aspirations soon carried him into areas of real estate, politics, business and finance. It was a world that encouraged his wife to pursue her dream of a college education.

"Seemed like I was the oldest student in all my classes at Marshall," Finley said. "It was difficult for me because I never learned to study, but one thing was a plus -- I never went to class hungry. I graduated in 1961 with an accounting degree and was immediately hired by the Cabell County Tax Department. I worked for Sherriff Hercil Gartin."

After a few years, Finley accepted a better position with C.I. Whitten Transfer Company on 19th Street. She worked for general manager Michael R. Prestera who later perished in the Marshall plane crash.

Finley was a longtime docent for the Huntington Museum of Art, a volunteer at the Ronald McDonald House and served on the board of directors for the YWCA. She also served on the Cabell Wayne Public Defender Board of Directors.

Finley is also extremely proud of her association with Links, a humanitarian organization founded in 1946. It is one of the oldest and largest volunteer organizations of women who are committed to enriching, sustaining and ensuring the culture and economic survival of African American ancestry. She is extremely proud of her platinum membership.

"James passed away in 1988," Finley said. "He would never get on a plane, which restricted our travels. About a year after his passing, I received a gold-embossed invitation from Marshall University asking me if I wanted to travel with them to Paris. I called my sister and asked her if she would like to go with me ... she thought I meant Paris, Kentucky. We laughed, but we both had a marvelous time flying to Europe."

Finley has still yet another claim to fame -- her flamboyant collection of hats. It's a collection culled from Huntington's old Paris Hat Shop, Bradshaw-Diehl's Department Store, New York City and Thalhimers Department Store in Richmond, Virginia.

"When I put on a hat, I'm 10 feet tall," Finley said. "I love the way they make me feel."

Clyde Beal seeks out interesting stories from folks around the Tri-State. Email archie350@frontier.com.



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