Ruth Kassewitz, public relations professional in Miami, dies at 84

Ruth Kassewitz was a powerhouse Miami publicist and glass-ceiling breaker.

Her list of “firsts’’ includes first woman elected president of the South Florida chapter of the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) in 1969, later first Floridian elected to PRSA’s national board of directors; first woman to head the University of Miami/Jackson Memorial Medical Center communications department; and in 1993, the Rotary Club of Miami’s first female president.

That year, she also won The Public Relations Society of America’s Paul M. Lund Public Service Award, honoring a member’s public service activities. Among them: her longterm participation in the Downtown Leadership breakfast group.

The widow of Jack Kassewitz, Sr., longtime Miami News columnist, she died on April 18 from complications of Parkinson’s disease, which left her unable to speak two years ago.

Born Ruth Eileen Blower on May 15, 1928, in Columbus, Ohio, she was 84 and lived in Coral Gables.

Ruth came to Miami 1956 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism-Management from Ohio State University.

Nephew Walter Blower, son of Ruth’s brother and only sibling, said that her father owned coal mines and the factory that provided bricks for the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, aka The Brickyard.

After his parents moved to Ormond Beach, Blower said, Ruth decided to come to Florida, because Miami “was the only media market of any consequence.’’

At the time, unmarried working women were called “career girls,’’ and Ruth remained so until the widowed Jack Kassewitz, 15 years her senior, convinced her to marry him. They met when Ruth stopped at the Miami News to drop off ad copy, Blower said. They married in 1962 at Coconut Grove’s Plymouth Congregational Church, where she became president and was active in the Women’s Fellowship.

“She was very driven,’’ said Blower, and became a one-woman Chamber of Commerce for her adopted city.

“She wouldn’t entertain negative thoughts at all,’’ Blower said. “She was very disciplined, perky and alive. And she was very committed to public service in the community. She and Jack didn’t make a lot of money, but gave a lot away.’’

Ruth Kassewitz spent nearly two decades at Jackson. When she retired, she told The Miami Herald: “I’ve been a part of the ‘men’s world’ since 1951, when I graduated from college with my journalism degree and started working as an advertising copywriter and later as a public relations practitioner. It’s never really occurred to me that women should be treated differently in the business place.”

But they were — and not just in public relations. Kassewitz was part of an informal downtown professional women’s group that lunched on Friday’s at the old Columbus Hotel on Biscayne Boulevard across from Bayfront Park.

Nancy McLemore, who worked in PR for the now-defunct Trans World Airlines, was part of the group, which included a Burdine’s department store fashion director, a Delta Airlines publicist, WLRN radio host Audrey Finkelstein, and television host Molly Turner — all wearing nylons and white gloves.

They called themselves, “The Impoverished Jet Set,’’ McLemore said. “It seems that all of us ladies were flying off to different places but the air fares were paid by our companies or we were airline gals who had stand-by passes...We really still got the ‘IPJS’ gals together for lunch until the ‘90’s and we started the group about 1959!’’

At that point, their male colleagues lunched at Burdine’s Men’s Grill — which barred women until 1969.

“The talk was about ... what each one was doing,’’ recalled McLemore, a travel agent and widow of the late broadcaster and Miami News sportswriter Morris McLemore.

“There were definitely conversions about men and the way they handled things with women employees,’’ she said, and “what women could do better than men.’’

She called Kassewitz “Miss Positive,’’ the kind of person who lavishly praised waiters, waitresses and other service workers.

The group also had regular dinners and a Sunday ritual.

“After church [at Plymouth], we’d go to Riviera’’ Country Club, McLemore said.

In 1972, the county manager chose Kassewitz as the county’s first communications specialist. Her first task: figuring out how to get citizens involved in local government through Florida’s new Government-in-the-Sunshine Law.

“She also helped to execute a major public education campaign for voter approval, which at that time was the largest series of bond issues ever proposed at a local government level: $500 million,’’ Blower noted. “The bond issue won voter approval and the campaign was awarded the Silver Anvil from the Public Relations Society of America as the nation’s best in public service.’’

Christopher Dudley, CEO of the PR/marketing firm Advancement Associates, worked for Kassewitz at Jackson and called her “quite a lady, and a consummate professional who worked hard to promote Jackson and the [public relations] profession.’’

She always looked “crisp and fresh,’’ Dudley said. “Not a hair out of place. I’d see her 8 a.m. for a meeting or 6 p.m. and she’d be just as prepared for that meeting. She always sat up straight and spoke very clearly, and always prepared.’’

She taught him that community involvement was just as important as client promotion, “and she did in a big way. She said, ‘You’ve got to give back.’’’

Kassewitz did so by serving on a slew of civic boards and committees, including the YMCA of Greater Miami, the Miami-Dade Community College Foundation, Ronald McDonald House Charities of South Florida, United Protestant Appeal, Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce Board of Governors, Tropical Girl Scouts, the America Lung Association, and the City of Miami Beautification Committee.

She is cited Julia’s Daughters: Women in Dade’s History 1513-1975, and Beyond Julia’s Daughters: 1975-2000. In May 2007, the Association of Women in Communication gave her a Lifetime Achievement Award.

Kassewitz spent her final years living with a caregiver, Blondele Lake. Loved ones said she was estranged from Jack Kassewitz, Jr., adopted son of her late husband and his first wife.

A memorial service is planned for 10 a.m. on May 12 at Plymouth Congregational Church, 3400 Devon Rd., Coconut Grove.

In lieu of flowers, the family requests donations to the E.W. Blower Memorial Fund, c/o The Dade Community Foundation, 200 S. Biscayne Blvd., Suite 505, Miami, FL 33131, to honor Ruth’s beloved late father and to support pediatric research at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine — to which she donated her body.

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