Visual Arts

Why Ruth Shack, a force behind Miami’s march to greatness, loves the Magic City

Ruth Shack reflects on life in magical Miami

Ruth Shack has been a leading voice in Miami for art, historic preservation and anti-discrimination. Shack speaks of her love of the ever-changing Magic City and her hopes and dreams of its future.
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Ruth Shack has been a leading voice in Miami for art, historic preservation and anti-discrimination. Shack speaks of her love of the ever-changing Magic City and her hopes and dreams of its future.

One by one, admirers from most every corner of her life came to the podium with well wishes — from the new museum director who was introduced to and wowed by Ruth Shack just four months ago to the art librarian who interviewed Shack two decades ago for her enduring support of the arts, now captured at the archives of the Smithsonian.

They had gathered on the rooftop of a Coral Gables bank on a chilly Thursday night to honor Shack for the wide, wide world of arts, historic preservation, leadership and civil and human rights she has embraced, for the warm hug Shack has given the city since arriving as a newlywed in the 1950s.

By the time Shack accepted the award — “If I were anyone else, I would be humbled,” she joked to a roar of laughter — the crowd had heard about a civic career that stretches back more than a half-century, from her early days as a PTA activist to her role as president of a philanthropic foundation.

“The joy of living in Miami is that you are living in a new, different community every 10 years and watching the changes, watching the growth, watching the expansion of our ideas,” Shack, now in her mid-80s, says from her Brickell condo. “I have been here for six different Miamis . . . and the excitement is waiting to see what is going to be tomorrow. I think we will take our place as one of the truly world-class cities.”

As a Metro-Dade (now Miami-Dade) commissioner in the late 1970s, Shack championed an early ordinance banning discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. She was also an early fighter for saving local roots by sponsoring the county’s first historic preservation ordinance. And she famously persuaded her fellow commissioners to approve artist Christo’s Surrounded Islands, the stunning project that skirted 11 Biscayne Islands in ribbons of pink fabric, one of the city’s big artistic moments, in 1983.

For Shack, art has been both professional and personal. With her late husband Richard, she amassed one of Miami’s earliest contemporary art collections, launched with a $100 budget. They viewed art as a shared experience, often opening their home to visitors and eventually donating much of it to museums.

Shack grew up in a white clapboard farmhouse with a circular staircase in Bay Shore, a tiny hamlet on Long Island. Her father owned a wallpaper store and had a fondness for politics. Her mother was an interior designer. They sent their only daughter to the University of Virginia Women’s Division “to be a lady.” Shack, who has a younger brother, had other designs. Two years in, she left school after finally convincing her father that it was a “poor investment” of his money. She went back to New York, where she worked for an advertising firm creating window and pop-up displays of clothing and perfumes.

If you had asked her back then what she wanted to do, she would have said she didn’t want to be an actress. And she didn’t want to be overlooked.

“I wanted to be a politician, but of course in those days, girls could not be politicians . . ,” she says. “I could be Eleanor Roosevelt but never FDR. She was an inspiration because she was tremendously influential, but from a side seat.”

Shack’s first brush with politics came while listening to Louisiana politician Huey Long talking on the radio. She was impressed not by his message but by his delivery.

“That was my introduction to the concept of politics and how democracy works,” she says. “While my father disagreed hotly — and once I realized what Huey Long was saying, I disagreed as well — the sheer force of his voice and getting people to listen and act was pretty remarkable.”

She was introduced to Richard on a blind date. They met at the bar of the storied Allerton Hotel for Women in New York.

“After a half-hour, Richard told me he was going to marry me,” she says in a way that seems to transport her back through the decades. “I thought that was the most extraordinary line I had ever heard, and I thought I had heard them all.”

The line stuck: Ruth and Richard married in 1953, just after he finished a Korean War tour of duty (the Navy veteran had also served in World War II). The very next day, the couple jumped in a red Hudson convertible and headed to Miami Beach for a two-week honeymoon at the Helen Mar hotel. Love was in the air — for each other and for the Magic City, a young, quiet Miami just nearing its 60th birthday.

“We honeymooned the first week and found jobs the second. Once we got here, we just knew this is where we wanted to start our lives together,” Shack said. “A friend from New York who had relocated here came to pick us up to show us the town. He had on white patent leather shoes and no socks. I thought this was the most glamorous place in the world.”

The couple settled into Miami. Richard was an entertainment agent and Ruth managed a few small nightclubs on 79th Street in Miami Beach.

Gradually, the profession that had not been an option for her as a young woman became her calling. But what may be her most recognizable moment was when, as a brand-new commissioner in December 1976, she introduced an amendment to the county’s existing anti-discrimination ordinance adding another class protection: “affectional or sexual preference.”

It didn’t take long before singer and Florida citrus spokeswoman Anita Bryant took on Shack and the controversial amendment — even though Shack’s husband was the popular entertainer’s booking agent at the time and she had donated to Ruth’s election campaign. Richard supported his wife, and he and Bryant parted ways.

Despite Bryant’s objections, the law passed in January 1977. Weeks later, Bryant and other gay-rights opponents successfully petitioned to put the ordinance to a public vote.

The gay-rights fight that followed was public and messy and Shack did not escape unscathed. In June 1977, the ordinance was repealed by 70 percent of voters. A new anti-discrimination law would not be put into place until 1998.

A few projected this would be the end of Shack’s promising career. Instead, she enjoyed two re-elections. Her only regret: that she didn’t jump into politics sooner. Shack was a 46-year-old mother of three when she first was elected, becoming a recognizable figure as the woman in the yellow dress waving to voters from U.S. 1 during subsequent campaigns.

“Do I have detractors? Of course. Having introduced the amendment to the ordinance which said gays should be accepted as human beings, the hate in the town was so ferocious. The hate mail, the death threats, the promise that I would never be able to walk the streets.”

She sighs. “So having survived that . . . I emerged a different person, far more courageous.”

The controversy made her a marquee name in Miami’s gay rights movement.

“As a 13-year-old boy, Ruth was a hero to me,’’ said Damian Pardo, a Miami investment adviser and LBGT activist. “She was the only person in the world at that time saying I was normal when everybody else was saying I was an abomination.”

Pardo would meet Shack in the early 1990s when he was running a community organization that made grants for AIDS care and case management and education. The group had raised $45,000 but needed more. Shack found the matching funds.

“She was always doing those kinds of things to help the community,” Pardo said. “She truly cherishes the diversity and complexity of the city in a way you can do when you have been here a very long time.”

In 1984, during her third term as county commissioner, she ran for mayor against popular incumbent Steve Clark, who won easily. The next year, she began leading the Dade Community Foundation (now The Miami Foundation), one of Florida’s largest philanthropic organizations. Beginning in 1985, she helped steer more than $100 million for causes including social justice, healthcare, the arts and fighting poverty. The foundation also focused on developing civic leaders in Miami. Its mission was to “create community,” she told the Miami Herald in 2009. “Bring people together. You can do that in the arts. You can do that in the environment, in education and the rest.”

“Ruth has a strong sense of human rights and justice,” said former Miami-Dade commissioner Katy Sorenson. “She has been a revered community figure over the long haul.”

In 2012, after nearly 60 years of marriage, Shack’s husband died. Shack turned to her family — three daughters, seven grandchildren — to help her begin the next phase without him.

“I think it is best summed up by what I said a while back when someone asked me, how long has Richard been gone. I said he died three years ago and I haven’t forgiven him yet,’’ she says softly. “My daughters, my grandkids have been incredibly supportive. My friends are legion. This town is supportive. It never occurred to me that I would go anywhere else. When I downsized, I moved across the street, so I am in the same neighborhood.”

Shack’s two-bedroom condominium sits so high, it seems perched in the sky. It is a modern, airy space made warm by art that the couple chose together, and the books, and the orchids and hydrangeas and carnations, and the memories of Richard.

In 2013, Shack donated eight boxes of archival material and art books to the University of Miami’s Otto G. Richter Library. The Ruth and Richard Shack Papers, in Special Collections and open to the public, are used for classes including Civic and Community Engagement, Gender Studies and Florida History.

“The Ruth and Richard Shack collection is a wonderful resource for students and researchers trying to understand the mechanisms of civic life in Miami and the burgeoning articulation of concepts of human rights in South Florida in the last quarter of the 20th century,” says Béatrice Colastin Skokan, Manuscripts, Archives & Outreach Librarian at UM’s Otto G. Richter Library.

Her life story, her steadfast community work, made Shack an easy choice for the Gibraltar Private Bank & Trust’s 2016 Cultural Champion Award, the reason so many had gathered that weekday evening in Coral Gables last month.

“Ruth is a visionary, ” says Adolfo Henriques, Gibraltar’s chairman and CEO. “She has made significant contributions to art and culture, and she had the strength to make decisions even when they weren’t popular.”

This latest award is the kind of recognition that makes you look back, makes you survey the sum of your life — in Shack’s case, six months before her 85th birthday.

“I have lived a charmed life,” she says, facing a sparkling view that stretches to Turkey Point. “Married the right man, moved to an extraordinary community that wanted change as much as I did. And I was in the position where I could make [some of] the changes.”