CRAZY HORSE MEMORIAL | Five years ago in the shadow of one of the largest works of art on Earth, the diminutive Ruth Ziolkowski was addressing a group of professional travel writers and photographers.
She told them of her arrival at Crazy Horse Memorial as a teenager, her life with her husband, the irascible sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski, and the grand vision she shared for a mountain memorial that paid tribute to all Native Americans.
Dressed in her signature housecoat and moccasins, Ruth finished her short talk and opened the luncheon to questions. The first query, one she had undoubtedly heard countless times, was “When will Crazy Horse be finished?”
Ruth looked heavenward and pondered the question for a full half-minute before saying, “I think on a Tuesday.” Her clever answer earned her a roomful of smiles.
Today, there are no smiles but plenty of fond memories. At 10:25 p.m. Wednesday, the 87-year-old matriarch of the Crazy Horse monument died at Regional Health Hospice House in Rapid City following a battle with cancer.
"Like many, I was deeply saddened to hear about Ruth’s passing," family friend and Olympic gold medal winner Billy Mills said. "It was very clear to me that Ruth is a part of our sacred circle.
"Once in a great while an individual's achievements based upon the virtues and values by which they live their lives shines through," the Pine Ridge Reservation native said. "This allows us to be inspired by their strength, learn from their wisdom, be touched by their humility, and to be blessed by their sacredness. It has been said, `These rare individuals become our true elders, a status they achieve based upon how they live their lives.' Ruth was among those few."
An early start
Ruth Ross was born on June 26, 1926, in West Hartford, Conn. When she was 13, she and a girlfriend summoned the courage to visit Korczak Ziolkowski’s home; they sought an autograph from a movie star who was visiting the sculptor.
Two years later, she and her schoolmates volunteered to raise funds for Ziolkowski’s rendition of Noah Webster and soon were playing in a fife and drum corps established by the self-taught sculptor.
When Lakota Chief Henry Standing Bear asked Ziolkowski to carve a mountain memorial in the Black Hills because “my fellow chiefs and I would like the white man to know the red man has great heroes, also,” Ziolkowski arrived on May 3, 1947, to accept the invitation to create a work that would consume the rest of his life.
Shortly after the memorial was dedicated and the first dynamite blast echoed off Thunderhead Mountain on June 3, 1948, Ruth arrived and adopted Ziolkowski’s dream. She suffered through bitter winter weather in a tent; helped the sculptor cut, skid and hand peel logs for a studio cabin; and built a 741-step staircase to the top of the mountain.
She would never look back.
The couple was married at Crazy Horse on Thanksgiving Day 1950, and had 10 children, all of whom were all born at home. While her husband was manhandling a mountain with dynamite, drills and heavy equipment, Ruth raised the children, managed their lumber mill and dairy and maintained a smile for the growing number of visitors who stopped by to see what the drilling and blasting were all about.
A new beginning
When Korczak died in 1982 at age 74, Ruth stepped in to fill the void. Relying on three books her husband left behind with detailed instructions, as well as his scale models, Ruth took command of the project and directed a staff that included seven of their 10 children.
Unlike her husband, she was more inclined to motivate others with a whisper rather than a roar.
“Ruth had this grandmotherly way of fostering and moving things along,” says Rollie Noem, a retired South Dakota Game, Fish & Parks director who has spent the past decade as a senior adviser at Crazy Horse. “In the course of those years since Korczak passed, she has exhibited such inner strength and a leadership quality that makes Crazy Horse what it is today.”
Noem said that when he joined the Crazy Horse team, he did so out of respect, admiration and friendship for Ruth more so than his desire to see the mountain carving progress.
“What happened for me first was the friendship with Ruth and having that grow and develop and evolve,” Noem said. “That’s what happened to me, perhaps even before being captured by the dream of Crazy Horse. For me it’s all been about service to Ruth. That’s what’s driven me more than anything."
Noem credits Ruth with carrying the project forward following Korczak’s death, directing unprecedented progress on the carving, greatly expanding the Indian Museum of North America and establishing the Indian University of North America, now entering its fifth year.
With Ruth’s passing, Crazy Horse Foundation Board Chairman John Rozell says the state lost an extraordinary individual capable of commanding the huge sculptural undertaking while maintaining a tender touch with visitors, supporters, staff and potential donors.
“Ruth was probably one of the most influential and important female figures in our time,” Rozell said. “She was a wonderful friend and a wonderful inspiration.”
Veteran Black Hills businessman and former Custer State Park concessionaire Phil Lampert said he first met Ruth decades ago when he was a Rapid City police officer. He and his partner were called to a disturbance at a tavern where they found Korczak in fine form, so they called his wife at the mountain to retrieve him.
“Korczak kept me and my partner entertained for the better part of an hour,” Lampert reminisced. “He was a bigger-than-life character with a booming voice, and he kept saying `Well boys.’ We called and Ruth and this little lady came and picked him up.”
Lampert said he became life-long friends with Ruth and her family, attending Christmas galas at the memorial and stopping to visit whenever he could. But until he became concessionaire at Custer State Park, Lampert says he did not know how well-connected Ruth truly was.
“Some of things I got accomplished at the park were due to Ruth,” he says. “She was connected to so many politicians and had some influence with the powers that be. Sometimes when I ran into difficulties getting things done at Custer State Park, Ruth would call and ask if she could be of assistance. I’d let her know what my problems were and she would make a few phone calls and things would get straightened out. She was very influential.”
Beyond his own entrepreneurial endeavors, Lampert contends Ruth made a difference in the lives of every resident of western South Dakota, whether they know it or not.
“We have lost one of South Dakota’s greatest assets,” he says. “She’s done more to promote tourism in the Black Hills of South Dakota than all the rest of us combined. It’s unbelievable the amount of publicity she has generated from Crazy Horse — international press that tells the story of Crazy Horse and the Black Hills — publicity you can’t buy.”
Ruth’s friends say they will never drive up the Avenue of Chiefs and gaze at the granite likeness of the legendary Lakota leader without thinking of the humble woman in a housecoat and moccasins who carried the project forward.
“Everyone knew this time would come, but nobody was ready for it,” Lampert said.