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Ruth Shack was born in 1931, and grew up on Long Island, New York. In 1953, after dropping out of college – she told her father it wasn’t a good investment – she met and married her husband, Richard. On their honeymoon in Miami, the couple fell in love with the city’s breezy, beachy vibe, and never left.

Richard got work as a convention show producer and booking agent. Ruth worked for an advertising agency, and later managed three nightclubs. But soon, even while raising the couple’s three daughters, Ruth found a way to scratch a longtime itch: politics.

In 1976, there was an open seat on the Dade County (now Miami-Dade County) Commission. She ran, won, and quickly made a name for herself when she sponsored a county ordinance prohibiting discrimination on the basis of “sexual preference”. The ordinance passed – but the following year, the singer and former Miss America Anita Bryant orchestrated a successful campaign to repeal it, then took her notorious ‘Save Our Children’ campaign nationwide. The campaign triggered and galvanized gay rights movements all over America. In the end, Anita Bryant’s victory was pyhrric, and Ruth Shack emerged as one of LGBTQ America’s most cherished allies.

As a politician and person, the only issue Ruth cared about as much as civil rights was art and architecture. She sponsored Dade County’s first historic preservation ordinance, and got the county to devote 20% of a new tourist tax to the arts. In 1983, she convinced the Commission to approve Christo’s ‘Surrounded Islands’ project to wrap 11 islands in Biscayne Bay with hot pink fabric. The installation put Miami on the map for good as an international art destination.

In 2009, the Miami-Dade Chamber of Commerce named Ruth its Citizen of the Year, and in 2016, she received the Culture Champion award from the Miami-Dade Cultural Affairs Council. In 2012, Richard passed away.

For her OUTWORDS interview, Ruth received us into her gleaming white condo high above Biscayne Bay. The walls are adorned with Ruth and Richard’s favorite art. Ruth peppers her interview with a little heat, a couple of chuckles, and a few well-placed expletives. Looking back on her life, she fought for what she believed in. That’s enough for Ruth.
Kate Kunath: [00:00:00] First let's start with your name, and if you would tell us your name and how it's spelled.
Ruth Shack: And my what?
Kate Kunath: How to spell it.
Ruth Shack: Oh, Ruth Shack; R-U-T-H S-H-A-C-K. Straightforward.
Kate Kunath: I want to start with your early memories, your childhood and your family, where you grew up. Maybe you can tell me where you were born and what year, and a little bit about your family.
Ruth Shack: [00:00:30] I was born in the Ice Age, 1931, in New York. All good Jewish children were born at Brooklyn Jewish Hospital, but we didn't live in Brooklyn we lived out on Long Island. So I spent two weeks in the hospital and then went to Bay Shore, which is on the South Shore of Long Island.
Ruth Shack: [00:01:00] Most people my age, or just a little younger, remember Bay Shore as the place to get off the railroad, to take a taxi past my house to get on the ferry to Fire Island. I saw some of the most glamorous people going past my house when I grew up. It was really quite exciting.
Kate Kunath: Did you wonder where they were going? Did you think, "[crosstalk]]."
Ruth Shack: No, I knew where they were going. I knew exactly, I learned how to sail on the Great South Bay which was between where I lived and Fire Island, so I was over there often on my little boat.
Kate Kunath: [00:01:30] Who are your parents, what did they do?
Ruth Shack: My father was the last of 14, the only one of the family born in the US. My mother was the last of seven, the only one born in the US. So the two of them were the great hope, they were the Americans. The others came from the old world and my parents were true flappers.
Ruth Shack: [00:02:00] They were just extraordinary people who loved to dance, loved to be out and doing things, and were a part of the Fitzgerald era. My father owned a paint and wallpaper store, my mother came in and helped people who were decorating their homes. So she became a designer, a decorator.
Ruth Shack: [00:02:30] In the corner of the store was art supplies and people like Pollock, well, those artists who lived on the island, would stop off, buy their art supplies, and promise my father that as soon as they sold something, he'd get paid. So we didn't get rich.
Kate Kunath: Did they make good on their promises?
Ruth Shack: Lots of promises very few deliveries.
Kate Kunath: [00:03:00] Well, it seems like he managed to get an art collection anyway, despite that.
Ruth Shack: Well, that came much later, but I think I had no idea who these people were. I don't think my mother or father had an idea either. They were just impressed that they were professional artists, they were actually performing and producing. We're thrilled to know them and as I said, very supportive of what they were doing.
Ruth Shack: [00:03:30] Then later, when I married Richard and we came to Miami on a honeymoon, we got two weeks as a wedding present at one of the hotels on Miami Beach. So we used that as a honeymoon and we drove down, spent the first week honeymooning and the second week getting jobs.
Ruth Shack: [00:04:00] Then living here for a while we realized that this was really not Manhattan. It did not have the art galleries, the museums, the concerts. If you wanted any of that you went out to the University of Miami. So he and I became the beginnings of the cultural community in Miami.
Kate Kunath: [00:04:30] Great. I'm going to come back to that. Before we get there though, I want to go back to Long Island and talk about where your parents, your families, where were they from? Because I heard, we read somewhere that your grandparents were Bolsheviks?
Ruth Shack: Yes. Well, not my parents. They were the Americans, but the sisters and brothers, and in those days it was imperative that family stay together.
Ruth Shack: [00:05:00] After all they had left where they were under great pain and fear, came to the new world, and so the family gathering was a very important part of civic life. So once a month we would get in the car and travel from the island into New York, and one week out of the month we were with my father's family, and one week out of the month we were with my mother's family.
Ruth Shack: [00:05:30] Those were the Bolsheviks. These were really ferocious. They were Bolsheviks, they were communists, they were anti-fascists, they had a list of causes, and some of my cousins went to the Spanish War, the Civil War, came back badly maimed. One uncle had a silver side to his head that he got in the First World War.
Ruth Shack: [00:06:00] These were people who were really intimate with change.
Kate Kunath: Wow. So your mom's side of the family was Russian?
Ruth Shack: Well, I'm not sure about that. These are the times where the Cossacks came through and every week it was a different country, the places where their family lived. My mother I think made it up, but she told us that they came from Brest-Litovsk.
Ruth Shack: [00:06:30] I thought that was a name she made up until I ended up reading a novel and there's Brest-Litovsk. I said, "That's where our mothers family is from." I think my fathers family came from some Polish country, which ... in those days, every week, the town belonged to another country.
Ruth Shack: [00:07:00] The family was anxious not to talk about where they came from. Those were the days where we got out, it's past, next. It was fascinating.
Kate Kunath: So you had artists that you were interacting with on Long Island-
Ruth Shack: Yes.
Kate Kunath: ... and you had the [crosstalk].
Ruth Shack: Well I wasn't, my mother and father were.
Kate Kunath: But you were present?
Ruth Shack: Yes, of course.
Kate Kunath: So these are early impressions I guess?
Ruth Shack: Yes.
Kate Kunath: What are your early political impressions?
Ruth Shack: [00:07:30] Well, as far as politics are concerned, the only thing we ever considered was, "Are they Democrats?" The Democratic Party and its policies were absolutely in line with our beliefs, our imperatives. I will never forget when my father who was a not spiritual but powerful Jewish man.
Ruth Shack: [00:08:00] Started for Jewish reform temples on Long Island, because that's when Long Island was turning from potato farms to suburbs. So people needed a place to get together and he started those, and I'll never forget when he came home absolutely livid because he had met a Jew who was a Republican. He could not, could not, understand what in the Republican Party resonated with the Jewish man.
Ruth Shack: [00:08:30] I come fully indoctrinated I think it's the word.
Kate Kunath: Did your dad ever find out what the ...
Ruth Shack: No, and I don't think the man was able to explain it, and my husband used to say something that I think was about the same thing.
Ruth Shack: [00:09:00] He would say that as soon as an entertainer got the wrinkles out of his belly, he became a conservative. I translated that to a Jew who became a part of something that I don't understand, got the wrinkles out of his belly and became a Republican.
Kate Kunath: When did you get interested? When did politics seem like something that you wanted to be involved in?
Ruth Shack: [00:09:30] When I was four years old. Other four-year-old little girls wanted to be Shirley Temple, I wanted to be Huey Long. Huey Long was a populist politician. When he spoke on the radio my father would yell back at him, and all I knew is that I wanted to be the person who got that kind of passion from my father.
Ruth Shack: [00:10:00] I wanted to engender that kind of interest and dialogue, and of course I grew up to discover that girls were not politicians, could not be politicians. So that was put on the side. I formed a women's revolution-
Kate Kunath: Tell me about that.
Ruth Shack: ... and we discovered we could do it, and some were very good at it.
Kate Kunath: [00:10:30] Before we go there, because I can't wait to get there, when ... did you ever voice that to your parents and all that you wanted to be in politics or did you sort of internalized that desire [crosstalk]?
Ruth Shack: No, I knew better. My father I think would have been very proud, unfortunately he died young, and before I was able to act out some of my interest.
Ruth Shack: [00:11:00] But no, that's the wrong word. I was always interested and always had an opinion, but it was within the nuclear family. My mother wasn't interested at all if I went someplace. I was a debate champion in the state of New York when I was in high school, and when I would go to a competition, she didn't know what the topic was, she didn't know what I was going to say.
Ruth Shack: [00:11:30] What she cared about is, "What are you going to wear?" So at least I knew I looked good when I showed up, and sometimes my arguments won
Kate Kunath: Did your politics start before or after marriage? Because I want to talk about that but if it happened after, then I want to talk about your marriage first.
Ruth Shack: [00:12:00] It was a happy marriage.
Kate Kunath: Tell me how you and Richard met.
Ruth Shack: No, no, no. Politics was a part of my life as I said from the time I was four years old. No question. At one point I hoped that if I was lucky, I would marry a politician. It was the day of Eleanor Roosevelt and why couldn't I be, someone like that. So the imperative was to live that through my mate.
Ruth Shack: [00:12:30] I married a perfectly wonderful man who had absolutely no interest in politics. That was wonderful because every one vote of mine turned into two, and for a long time I was educating him and dragging him along kicking and screaming. But he became one of the most powerful feminists you've ever met.
Ruth Shack: [00:13:00] We have three wonderful girls, daughters, he wanted for them what they wanted, and recognized that this movement was going to help that happen. So he was one of the prime movers in the women's movement.
Kate Kunath: That's great. Who were the women that inspired you or influenced you early? Who were the ones that made you think that you can do it too?
Ruth Shack: [00:13:30] Eleanor Roosevelt. I had none closer than that, unfortunately. People ask me all the time who was your mentor, I didn't know about those things. I didn't expect to have one, so I didn't miss it. But Eleanor was that, "Wow, look what a woman can do." Then I began to discover, there were women who invented things, who wrote things, who were actresses without being bimbos.
Ruth Shack: [00:14:00] It was really quite extraordinary when the world opened to me as far as what women could be and do.
Kate Kunath: What time period was that?
Ruth Shack: I'm talking about late 60s early 70s, here in Miami anyway, and I used to go to Washington and was a part of the beginnings of NOW.
Ruth Shack: [00:14:30] Because there was much conflict at the beginning of NOW about whether women of color, whether lesbians, should be a part of the movement, I absented myself. There was also an imperative at that time to shed ourselves of our men and show what independent women could do.
Ruth Shack: [00:15:00] I was hamstrung by loving my husband, it made it tough for me to think about just walking away. So I said, "No, I'm going to stay and drag him kicking and screaming with me," although he was in a leadership position in the movement. I moved away from that and a few of us started the Women's Political Caucus, and Gwen Cherry who was a legislator here in Tallahassee, represented Miami, became the first chair.
Ruth Shack: [00:15:30] We wanted to show that a woman of color could be a motif for the women's movement, and she was a powerful leader. The group still exists and is powerful in Washington.
Kate Kunath: Great. What year was it started?
Ruth Shack: Early 70s.
Kate Kunath: [00:16:00] If I ask you a question, could you restate a little bit of what I have asked in your answer? So you could say, "We started the Women's Caucus in 1970."
Ruth Shack: Well, I'm not sure about those dates, that's why I want to be fuzzy.
Kate Kunath: Okay.
Ruth Shack: If you don't mind.
Kate Kunath: I don't mind.
Ruth Shack: You could find that out someplace else. I can't help.
Kate Kunath: [00:16:30] Okay. Let's back up a little bit to when you ... you were in college, you quit college because you felt like you were wasting your parents' money, or that's what you told them.
Ruth Shack: Exactly. I convinced my father it was a poor investment of his hard-earned money. That was an argument he understood.
Ruth Shack: [00:17:00] Dropped out after two years, went to work in Manhattan, met my husband, he was completing his second tour of duty, he had served through the Second World War, honorably discharged. He enlisted when he was 17. He then produced a show for the beginnings of television. DuMont Television was selling people the television set, and when they got home and turned it on, there was nothing, there was no product.
Ruth Shack: [00:17:30] He was at the beginnings of producing shows, and produced some wonderful programs. One of the shows he produced was The Armed Forces Hour, where he invited military, I guess the generals and the admirals and the rest, to discuss what it was they did.
Ruth Shack: [00:18:00] The people who supported that, the producers said, "It would look better if you had a military designation after your name as the producer," and he said, "I have already served my time, I got a honorable discharge, no," he refused to do it. So he didn't produce the show and they reenlisted him, so he spent two years in the Korean Conflict, it was never a war, and spent two years sitting on the sideline.
Kate Kunath: [00:18:30] Wow.
Ruth Shack: So he had two honorable discharges, but he produced some really wonderful programs.
Kate Kunath: Did you meet him before or after?
Ruth Shack: [00:19:00] During, while he was in his second tour. It was a blind date. Allerton House for Women, 30, let me see, Lexington Avenue and 57th street in Manhattan , the Allerton House for Women, which was a hotel for women. Had a bar downstairs, we met in the bar as I say on a blind date. After the first half hour he told me we were going to be married and I thought that was the best line I had heard yet.
Ruth Shack: [00:19:30] Two years later we were indeed married, so we went through the two year courting. That would show you how old I am.
Kate Kunath: That's great. Who was it that set you guys up?
Ruth Shack: His brother-in-law and my father, were at temple together talking about this guy who had just gotten out of the service.
Ruth Shack: [00:20:00] No, had been brought back into the service, and the daughter who had just left college, so we were put together and history was made.
Kate Kunath: You got married and then what?
Ruth Shack: Well, as I say we were given two weeks at a hotel on Miami Beach. Between us I think we have $37.50, and enough gas to drive from Long Island, where the wedding was, to Miami Beach.
Ruth Shack: [00:20:30] Richard had a red Hudson convertible with red leather interior, it was a gorgeous car, and all you had to do was take one look at that car and you knew this was going to be a good life. Anyone who'd buy a car like that was going to live good. We always lived well beyond our means, but lived with fun.
Kate Kunath: [00:21:00] Sounds so good. Tell me about your feelings around Miami when you got here, what kind of impression did it have?
Ruth Shack: Well, my first impression was when a friend from New York came to pick us up at the hotel in his convertible with the top down and the air conditioner going.
Ruth Shack: [00:21:30] In those days to have an air conditioner was pretty extraordinary, and when he got out of the car he was wearing white patent leather shoes and no socks. I said, "This is where I want to live. This is the kind of life I want to have," and so we stayed and it wasn't as glamorous as the first impression, but it was so wide open and welcoming and still is.
Ruth Shack: [00:22:00] If you have a dream, come to Miami, you can make it happen. It's one of the few towns that embraces new people as we come in.
Kate Kunath: What was your dream when you got there?
Ruth Shack: Actually, to make enough money, to have a cabana at the Roney Plaza Hotel, never happened, and when we did have enough money, they tore the hotel down.
Ruth Shack: [00:22:30] So it hasn't been dreadful but it never happened. Life here was soand is so remarkably exciting and wonderful, and it changes every hour on the hour and I tell people, "If you don't like change get out. You're going to hate it here, because it won't be the same next week."
Kate Kunath: [00:23:00] Can you tell me what year you arrived in Miami?
Ruth Shack: Yeah, '53, and it was right after Senator Kefauver had come to Miami. This was his bid for being president. He was exposing himself to the world. He came to Miami to rid Miami Beach of gambling. What he did was successfully drive gambling underground.
Ruth Shack: [00:23:30] That's when the tie to Cuba got very strong, because the gangsters who were doing the gambling here had a home in Havana, and the Batista tie to Miami got very strong, and that was the first wave of Cubans, was late in the 50s.
Kate Kunath: [00:24:00] Let's see. Okay. You said when you moved in Miami that it wanted change as badly as you did, what did that mean?
Ruth Shack: Where do you find these stuff?
Kate Kunath: [Crosstalk].
Ruth Shack: I said this?
Kate Kunath: You said this.
Ruth Shack: Yes. Yeah, it was ... well, Miami Beach as I pointed out was going through the, " We don't have gambling anymore, now what are we?" and it still hasn't figured out.
Ruth Shack: [00:24:30] Half of the town is tourism, the other half is a residence, and the conflict is constant, and they haven't made that decision. Miami, the mainland where we are, was a small sleepy town, very southern, very conservative, and trying to figure out what it was going to be.
Ruth Shack: [00:25:00] The first wave of Cubans came, these people knew Miami, they had business here, they had done business here. They sent their kids to Tulane University. They came to have their babies so they would have a dual citizenship, so they knew South Florida, they knew Miami and fit in very comfortably. That was the first real change for this community; from a small sleepy town to a bilingual city.
Ruth Shack: [00:25:30] Very shortly after that, there wasn't an institution in town that didn't have a Cuban as the head. They moved along very, very quickly. Not Hispanic, Cuban, and I think the residence of Cubans and the two languages helped us become closer to South America.
Ruth Shack: [00:26:00] People felt comfort in coming to a community where their language was spoken, where they would be understood culturally. So we became the capital of South America, and it helped our economy, it helped our self-esteem.
Kate Kunath: [00:26:30] Interesting. Was it during this time ... well, that was more of the 60s, but did you see the potential at that time for you to engage politically, or was that not [crosstalk]?
Ruth Shack: I was engaged politically throughout, stuffing envelopes, supporting candidates, walking the early 60s if I remember correctly, it may be late 50s. The county changed its charter under which it governs.
Ruth Shack: [00:27:00] I was out there with the League of Women Voters knocking on doors and helped change the charter to home rule, helping candidates get elected, very, very involved and active with the League of Women Voters and other opportunities for women to come forward. But always as the help.
Kate Kunath: [00:27:30] What about the ERA? How were you involved in that movement?
Ruth Shack: There is a picture in the Smithsonian in Washington of the ERA march, I am right there holding a banner when we marched in Tallahassee. Marjory Stoneman Douglas, the school is named after her, was one of the prime movers in trying to get the ERA passed.
Ruth Shack: [00:28:00] I was with her with a group of women who went to Tallahassee, and we met with one of the good old southern boys who was a senator, a state senator. Marjory is sitting here, Marjory is in her 80s, almost blind.
Ruth Shack: [00:28:30] I'm over here watching, the senator is sitting here, Marjory is here and there's a spittoon on the floor over there. The senator is telling Marjory Stoneman Douglas that he does not want to have anything to do with the Equal Rights Amendment because women are on a pedestal. Women are special, women can't be equal because they have so much more and deserve so much more respect, at which point he spits across Marjorys lap into the spittoon.
Ruth Shack: [00:29:00] So much for respect and affection. We never did pass the ERA.
Kate Kunath: Why do you think?
Ruth Shack: Well, because of people like the senator and ... Phyllis Schlafly, came to town, I think she's still alive, and she promised that all sorts of problems would happen.
Ruth Shack: [00:29:30] The biggest one and ironically the same argument has come back, we would have to share bathrooms. Lo these many years later that argument comes up yet again, but I debated her once.
Ruth Shack: [00:30:00] She is talking about how women should be home providing for their husbands, taking care of their children, and I said, "And why aren't you home?" and the audience booed. That gives you an indication of what was going on in those days. It was ugly and awful.
Kate Kunath: [00:30:30] Is it safe to say that the argument or the campaign against women and the Equals Right Amendment was mounted mostly by women? Was it women not voting for women?
Ruth Shack: Well there was some of that, but I think men were the strength of he opposition, and there are some women who will go along with their men, certainly in those days. They followed the men who were leaders.
Ruth Shack: [00:31:00] And that's why I have such incredible respect and affection for my husband, I'm flying off to Washington to foment a revolution, and he's home taking care of the daughters. There wasn't a whole lot of that, and I think men were really threatened.
Kate Kunath: Do you think we're ready now for an Equal Rights Amendment finally, since we'd actually done that one?
Ruth Shack: [00:31:30] Well, it would be wonderful to have equality in the Constitution, no question about it, and maybe after the Me Too revolution and after these kids coming forth and showing us what adults they are at 16 and 17, maybe we could do it. No, maybe they can do it.
Kate Kunath: [00:32:00] Did you experience antisemitism when you were getting rooted in Miami?
Ruth Shack: Absolutely. That's one thing that most people don't realize, is how really antisemitic people in Miami Beach and Miami were, where we were told face to face when looking for someplace to live, "You would not be comfortable here." There was signs, "No Jews," at the hotels.
Ruth Shack: [00:32:30] My husband actually helped to open some of the lounges and hotels in Fort Lauderdale by having access to entertainers that they wanted, and he would barter, "You can have the entertainer. Take that sign off." He introduced blacks as entertainers when the blacks had to leave Miami Beach.
Ruth Shack: [00:33:00] They had to leave Miami Beach before dark. When the Eden Roc Hotel was opening and they wanted Harry Belafonte as the opening act. He was veryand still is very hot.
Ruth Shack: [00:33:30] Richard represented Harry Belafonte, he said, "Only if I sleep in the hotel." So Richard went back to the hotel and negotiated with them to have a suite for Harry Belafonte, his wife, and child, daughter. First day they move in, the daughter got in the elevator, goes to the pool, jumps in the pool, and the people jump out of the pool.
Ruth Shack: [00:34:00] So Harry Belafonte said, "If they don't want us in the pool, I don't want them in my elevator, and he commandeered an elevator in the hotel where only he and his family could travel. None of the white patrons. These were extraordinary times and extraordinary things happening.
Kate Kunath: Wow.
Ruth Shack: Yeah.
Kate Kunath: [00:34:30] Wow. Okay. What led up to your decision to run for the Dade County commissioner?
Ruth Shack: As I say, I had been around politics for years since I was here, worked for a whole lot of politicians, worked in campaigns: ERA, women's movements, civil rights movement, right up front.
Ruth Shack: [00:35:00] Several of the commissioners were removed from the Commission on a bogus, ugly, accusation of a re-zoning infraction, and the governor had the right to appoint people to take the place.
Ruth Shack: [00:35:30] It was in my area, my district, and some of my friends nominated me to the governor, the governor Reubin Askew, asked if I wanted to run for election after his appointment and I said, "Absolutely and I'm beginning to mount a campaign to get reelected," which was the wrong answer. He wanted a caretaker. So he appointed someone else as a caretaker who mounted a campaign for re-election.
Ruth Shack: [00:36:00] She had misled the governor. So I ran against an incumbent and eight others, got into a runoff, and then won the election.
Kate Kunath: Amazing.
Ruth Shack: It was fun, and beastly. There is nothing more barbaric than running a campaign or running in a campaign, it is an evil punishment for the candidate.
Ruth Shack: [00:36:30] But more for the family of the candidate. "Did you hear what they said about Mom?" It's not good.
Kate Kunath: What was the public reaction? You were getting threats, what was happening?
Ruth Shack: In the race?
ManSee Kong: [inaudible].
Kate Kunath: Yeah.
ManSee Kong: [00:37:00] [inaudible]. Okay.
Kate Kunath: You good?
ManSee Kong: Yeah.
Kate Kunath: [00:37:30] Actually, it's ... I think that the hate mail came during the Human Rights Ordinance. How did that come up? Or how did the women rights-
Ruth Shack: Well, in the race for election to the County Commission, three or four men put themselves together as a group and screened candidates.
Ruth Shack: [00:38:00] When we got to the screening we discovered there was an ordinance that they wanted to see amended to include sexual preference at the time, I think that was the language, I'm not sure. I don't remember anymore. I said, "Absolutely. That's not an issue for me, I'd be glad to do it," and every one of the candidates and everyone ... No. Everyone of the commissioners running for reelection signed on to amending the ordinance.
Ruth Shack: [00:38:30] I got myself elected, those men , they asked, "Would you introduce?" I said, "Certainly." I had the commissioners with me, this was no big deal, there was nothing courageous about it, it was the next step.
Ruth Shack: [00:39:00] I mean, civil rights, women's rights, gay rights made sense to me, I introduced it and as I said the Commission went along with me at first hearing. It then comes back for the second hearing in the interim Anita Bryant who had been a client of my husband's and her ministry, her minister and churches, let's say, opposed the concept and really came out of the woodwork.
Ruth Shack: [00:39:30] To their great credit I held five out of nine commision votes for the amendments to the ordinance to happen.
Kate Kunath: Tell me what this ordinance is just so we have it clearly.
Ruth Shack: It's an ordinance that says you're not to discriminate against someone because they're tall, short, speak a strange language, have a different color of skin, have a different income.
Ruth Shack: [00:40:00] It was the standard anti-discrimination ordinance and we tacked on ... I'm trying to remember the actual language. I think it was sexual preference. At that time I was not happy about the language because what it said to me is that, "You chose to be gay," and I never believed that to be true. Why would someone choose to be discriminated against, to be punished, to be degraded?
Ruth Shack: [00:40:30] I always thought that that was something that came with birth, but they told me this was the language at the time, I went along with it. As I say, on first reading it passed ... and then at the public hearing as virulent and disgusting as the opposition was, five of the nine commissioners held. Then Anita and her ministry and a bunch of crazies went ahead and forced a referendum and defeated it, huge, huge loss.
Ruth Shack: [00:41:00] I had to run for reelection the year after that loss and it was fascinating because my only opponent was one of the men who headed up the anti-ordinance campaign.
Ruth Shack: [00:41:30] And that was his issue, that's what he was campaigning on. In essence the electorate said to him, "She's a nice lady, we know where she stands. Go home." I had spoken my piece, I had held tight to my belief, "I don't agree with her, but we know what she stands for. Leave her alone," and I won fairly well.
Ruth Shack: [00:42:00] Then won two more elections after that, where gay rights was not an issue.
Kate Kunath: Do you think it was your own experience being discriminated against that led you to be sympathetic to the gay movement, or what was it that brought you onboard?
Ruth Shack: [00:42:30] Well, being born a Democrat, being raised a Liberal being exposed to all of the revolution in my family, coming to Miami desperate to change the antisemitic, anti-black, attitudesmy being a part of changing those two antis, as I say, being a part of the civil rights movement and then being one of the founding mothers in town of the women's revolution, this was the next natural step for me.
Ruth Shack: [00:43:00] It was not a big deal. It was correct. I thought it was timely, and the interesting thing is that out of it came these four men who had held the screening, allowed the other gay and lesbian people in Miami-Dade County to become a community.
Ruth Shack: [00:43:30] Up to that point they could not come out. They could not establish themselves as who they were because they would be sent to jail or they were fired or thrown out of their homes. It's what the ordinance was about. So now we had what nobody thought existed, a gay community.
Ruth Shack: [00:44:00] Over here you have Anita Bryant and her ministry giving voice to the moral majority. So out of this imperative came two movements that didn't exist before, that have gone on to accomplish really horrible and extraordinary things.
Kate Kunath: [00:44:30] Were you aware of how that struggle within Dade County was situated and what was happening nationally, the context for that? Were you aware of similar ordinances in other cities and how-
Ruth Shack: It had passed in other cities before Miami. Ithaca, New York. I think Washington DC, but at the time that wasn't significant for me.
Ruth Shack: [00:45:00] It was something we were going to do here and we've always felt unique in Miami. We're not like Ithaca, we're certainly not like Washington. We are Miami, and so we had to do our own thing here. But the intervention of Anita Bryant who had certainly a national name.
Ruth Shack: [00:45:30] And the bogus awful Save Our Children slogan, got international coverage. For the first time people knew where Dade County was, and they had alternate points of view about our community.
Kate Kunath: [00:46:00] You were saying that it established these two entities: the gay community and the moral right. So the gay community, do you feel like even though that referendum had been ... Anita Bryant had like introduced in one that referendum that reversed it, the gay community at that point was ... are you saying that was galvanized at that point and then-
Ruth Shack: There is nothing better in organizing than to have opposition.
Ruth Shack: [00:46:30] The NRA is a classic example of fomenting bogus arguments against guns so they can raise support faster, and it happened with the gay community. First of all there was a sense of pride that A, we had the words. B, we had support. C, we had passed it, and then they took it away from us.
Ruth Shack: [00:47:00] That's quite a set of activities, and these are people whom we all knew. They were teachers, they were gardeners, they were decorators, they were people we were with every single day, and all of a sudden they were a gay community. It was really quite extraordinary ... I just got goosebumps when I said that.
Ruth Shack: [00:47:30] It was an amazing time when you think that just before the passage they were still being herded out of bars and into jail in front of news cameras.
Kate Kunath: That's amazing.
Ruth Shack: It was ferocious.
Kate Kunath: How did the gay community make you feel? Did you feel like ...
Ruth Shack: [00:48:00] I could get teary if you want me to. It was really quite extraordinary. First of all, there was amazement and dismay that I was married with children. My line was I didn't have to be black to be a part of the civil rights movement.
Ruth Shack: [00:48:30] Certainly didn't have to be a woman to be a part of the women's movement, so why would I have to be gay to be part of the gay movement? That allowed us to become friends. There were those who knew me and just embraced the whole idea, but there was a whole lot of walking around me.
Ruth Shack: [00:49:00] Believe it or not there were people who thought that I would jeopardize my career by risking my family and my health. But they were pretty cynical.
Kate Kunath: Wow. So the tears are not necessarily tears of joy, it's that you were not felt ... you didn't feel appreciated.
Ruth Shack: [00:49:30] It was dismay, heartbreak. I mean, my daughter, the only one living home was 15. She'd get home and there were death threats on the phone machine. There were people marching out the front of our house, wherever we went we were threatened.
Ruth Shack: [00:50:00] It was our 25th wedding anniversary and we thought as this campaign is going on we'd put our three daughters behind the two of us and took full-page ads in The Herald thanking Miami-Dade County for 25 years of happiness. Which one of the girls is your lover?
Ruth Shack: They followed me into the dressing room in Saks Fifth Avenue to tell me how degrading I am, what I've done to their children. So, it really was ferocious and disgusting.
Kate Kunath: [00:50:30] That opposition though was the moral, right? That wasn't the gay community?
Ruth Shack: No. Of course not.
Kate Kunath: No.
Ruth Shack: No. Did I get carried away? Pull me back.
Kate Kunath: [00:51:00] Your emotion was because of that hatred. It wasn't because of ... because I was asking how the gay community made you feel.
Ruth Shack: Embraced, warm, fuzzy, happy, sad that it had been defeated in referendum, sad that they still had that ugly discrimination out there. It was focused on me but fortunately it was no longer played out in public against the gay community. I became the focal point.
Kate Kunath: [00:51:30] Were you having to speak and defend your position often or how was that? Like when those attacks and the hate mail that was coming, were you publicly defending your decisions or were you doing the politics of it without trying to engage all the crazy people in the public?
Ruth Shack: [00:52:00] Well, what you first described was indeed the politics of, "That's what I believe," and that's where I got reelected because of the way I never apologized, I never equivocated. I said, "You may disagree with me but that's what I believe, that's what I think would be best for this community. Look at all these people out here who need to be known that they can be participants and not pushed aside," and to get in an elevator with people who hate you is not wonderful.
Ruth Shack: [00:52:30] It's not fun. It just doesn't move fast enough, but I never equivocated. I never backed down, and that's what allowed me to go on a year later to get me elected, to get reelected, and then four years later to get reelected again.
Ruth Shack: [00:53:00] " Don't agree with her but I know where she stands. Never have to question her about where she's coming from, she'll tell you."
Kate Kunath: Anita Bryant, was she a former friend of yours?
Ruth Shack: Richard put together convention shows all over the country, all over the world. He invented the whole concept of having a show predominantly for that convention.
Ruth Shack: [00:53:30] Anita was signed by the New York office and she married Bob Green and came to Miami, so the New York office called Richard and said, "One of our clients is in Miami, use her." So he put her on his convention shows, and she would appear and sing Battle Hymn of the Republic.
Ruth Shack: [00:54:00] Everybody would stand up, salute, and she'd leave, and he never booked her on television, the only place anybody ever saw her was in the convention show. So that made her special, and she went out on Bob Hope tours, and was an ultra-patriotic Christian woman, and Richard was using her that way on the convention shows.
Ruth Shack: [00:54:30] She had asked when I was running why he never asked her to endorse me. So he says, "You want to endorse her? Endorse her." We never socialized, we weren't friends. She was a client, we had a singing commercial, first political singing commercials on radio, and it was the same jingle and then it was like a hole in the doughnut.
Ruth Shack: [00:55:00] You had this song and in the middle, "Vote for my mother," someone would come on who is a black leader and talk about how I was a friend of the black community. Someone else would speak in Spanish endorsing me. So it was the same commercial with different people doing it. It was wonderful.
Ruth Shack: [00:55:30] It was the quartet who did the Green Giant commercial did a special for me and Anita made one of the holes in the donut, and then when I introduced something that she didn't like I think the minion around her said, "Look at what she did," and she came at us ferociously. That's when Richard released her and said, "You're on your own. You are no longer my client."
Kate Kunath: [00:56:00] Just crazy. So you emerged from all of that more courageous than ever.
Ruth Shack: It freed me to do anything I wanted. That was baptism by fire. I had survived that. What could be worse? So I was now free to introduce and do anything I wanted and was wonderfully successful in the successive movement.
Ruth Shack: [00:56:30] I don't recommend it to others, but it worked for me. It was really quite wonderful. There was this backup for me, I was not your average politician, which is unfortunate because the average politician is an upstanding really good woman.
Kate Kunath: [00:57:00] What were your successive movements?
Ruth Shack: The C.. administration came up with the idea of the tourist tax, a tax would be levied on hotel rooms and restaurants, and that would go to advertise Miami and Miami Beach.
Ruth Shack: [00:57:30] It was happening across the country and we just adopted it, and when it was presented to the community, one of the presenters said, "And of course we'll carve out 20% for the sports," because sports would bring tourism.
Ruth Shack: [00:58:00] I said, "And of course we'll carve out 20% for the arts." So we have an ongoing source of revenue to support the arts in Miami, no negotiation over budget time, the money comes in, the money is spent. There's a whole lot in government of being in the right place at the right time and being provoked to say something, and that one caught me. I'm very proud of that.
Kate Kunath: [00:58:30] How do you think that has impacted the culture of Miami?
Ruth Shack: I think it's helped us do all sorts of things like build buildings, fill the buildings with all kinds of programs. We've become a cultural center of the time. No one thought of Miami for its culture.
Kate Kunath: [00:59:00] What are some of the biggest arts programs that happen here, or events?
Ruth Shack: Well, I think we were first recognized as an arts community when Christo wrapped the islands in Biscayne Bay. That was back in '86, and some of the more intelligent commissioners argued against it.
Ruth Shack: [00:59:30] They'd lived to be embarrassed because people came from all over the world to hang off bridges and make traffic problems because they wanted to see the islands wrapped in pink boosting tourism. You'd go into an international museum and there's a Christo drawing of the wrapped islands.
Ruth Shack: [01:00:00] So while we're very proud of and very appreciative of Art Basel coming to Miami, the first time we were recognized was Christo. Basel has been wonderful for us. Again, bringing international money to Miami.
Kate Kunath: [01:00:30] Is there a direct correlation between the support for the arts and Art Basel?
Ruth Shack: No. Art Basel ... Well, yes but no. The no part is that Basel comes into town, pays for its space, pays its taxes, pays for every service that they use, and leaves town. It costs Miami not a penny to have them here.
Ruth Shack: [01:01:00] As a matter of fact, the people who come stay in hotels, eat in restaurants, use cabs, buy condos, and love Miami Beach. That's the incredible asset of having it here. Then of course all of the ancillary, there are 24 shows that situate themselves around Basel at the same time and in proximity.
Ruth Shack: [01:01:30] So there's a whole lot of commerce going on, and taxpayers pay nothing, and we enjoy the taxes that they generated.
Kate Kunath: How did you and Richard start collecting art?
Ruth Shack: [01:02:00] When we were back in New York and dating, we would go to museums, to galleries, and all we could afford at the time was to look at art. We came to Miami and started looking, and as I say, if you wanted any of this it was the scarcity, there was very little art being shown in Miami. So we did what we felt empowered to do.
Ruth Shack: [01:02:30] We started museums, we started collecting locally produced art, and got more courageous and our budget grew. But we decided back at the beginning, when we realized that we were doing this, there'd be no jewelry, there'd be no cruises. We were putting our money in art, and put together, if nothing else, a very idiosyncratic collection.
Kate Kunath: [01:03:00] Where is that collection now?
Ruth Shack: Museums, our children, three, seven Millennial grandkids, and the art is there. The museums got the museum quality work.
Ruth Shack: [01:03:30] A great story. When Richard was growing up in Brooklyn, he remembers his parents would drop him at the Brooklyn Museum on Saturday morning and pick him up Sunday night. This was his recollection. The poor child was abandoned in the museum forever, and he would tell this story and people would, "Poor child."
Kate Kunath: What?
Ruth Shack: [01:04:00] When the collection, when I was moving, we lived right next door here, when I realized I was in real estate, I didn't need and was downsizing. We had a gorgeous Rauschenberg lightbox, one of the early Slingshots, and so I called the director of the Brooklyn Museum and told him the story and asked if he wanted the Rauschenberg, and so he took the Rauschenberg and the story together.
Ruth Shack: [01:04:30] That's the way pieces went to museums all over. Wherever Richard had touched, the Fed Reserve, he served on a committee there, New York library, some of our work is there, and of course every Museum here in Miami got something. Our daughters and grandkids got some as well.
Kate Kunath: [01:05:00] Great.
Ruth Shack: A few pieces I kept.
Kate Kunath: That's a nice legacy. I wonder, just to back up a little bit, about ... I know we've been here for more than an hour. I am wondering two things, two questions.
Ruth Shack: One at a time, I have a short attention span.
Kate Kunath: [01:05:30] If you had a role in the HIV crisis here in-
Ruth Shack: After three terms on the County Commission I ran for mayor, unsuccessfully, and when I lost that, the chair of Knight Ridder, they published the Herald and 26 cities, called me and asked what I was going to do next.
Ruth Shack: [01:06:00] I said, "Make a suggestion," and he offered the Miami Foundation, which in fact was the Dade Community Foundation, a community foundation for Greater Miami. It was an absolutely superb fit. I had campaigned on every street corner in Dade County, I knew the needs of this community.
Ruth Shack: [01:06:30] I had raised money for my campaigns from every person with money in Miami-Dade County. He was smart enough to make the connection, and I became the president, CEO, hired hand, of the foundation, and built it. It satisfied all my needs.
Ruth Shack: [01:07:00] I had two overarching needs to serve the community and if I were born in any other time I would have been an entrepreneur, and this was an entrepreneurial activity to build the size and scope of the foundation. It was a great fit.
Kate Kunath: So you were grant making, supporting probably LGBTQ?
Ruth Shack: Back to AIDS, yes I ... I forgot the question. It's a good thing you didn't ask two.
Ruth Shack: [01:07:30] Because I was making grants in the private sector and had made grants in the public sector as a politician, as an elected official, the President of the Council on Foundations, which is the trade association for all foundations, asked me to serve on the board. Because at that time there werent many of my ilk, and it was a tremendous opportunity to sit with Ford Foundation on one side and the Kresge Foundation over here, I'm playing with the big boys.
Ruth Shack: [01:08:00] This is wonderful stuff. So some of us got together and put together a national initiative where corporations who wanted to work in the AIDS field but could not give money for AIDS gave money to community foundations which then used that money for AIDS.
Ruth Shack: [01:08:30] They did not want to alienate their stockholders or their customers, but they gave money to the Dade Community Foundation and we were then working in the field of AIDS. At that time it was all care and then it moved into how do you not get it? So the focus shifted.
Ruth Shack: [01:09:00] Everything from needle exchange that's what was the value of being on the national ... actually it's an international board.
Ruth Shack: [01:09:30] To be able to conjure up that kind of stuff to allow people who want to be in the field but don't want to be in the field, we gave them safe cover.
Kate Kunath: Interesting.
Ruth Shack: Yeah, and very interesting. I put together a local advisory committee when we first got the grant and on it was a good friend of mine who was high in the echelon of the Catholic Church of Miami-Dade County.
Ruth Shack: [01:10:00] He would participate in the meeting and when we discussed needle exchange, he would go to sleep. He would just absent himself from the discussion. He'd just ... and when we stopped discussing it, made a decision, he'd reenter the discussion. He was so thoughtful and generous without endangering his position and those who believed in it.
Ruth Shack: [01:10:30] It was so extraordinary, but he was willing to serve because he knew what was going on in the community and how we were losing people.
Kate Kunath: It was a time where you had to find a way to support it.
Ruth Shack: [01:11:00] Without hurting people.
Kate Kunath: Yeah.
Ruth Shack: Without endangering the corporations who were giving you the money and then help the people on the ground. It was ferocious, just horrible.
Kate Kunath: Wow. Did you have any affiliation with like Act Up or organizations that were on that frontline?
Ruth Shack: [01:11:30] Yeah. Well, actually they were doing their thing in New York and we were doing our thing here, almost sub rosa, but those affected knew what was going on and supported it. We set it up at the national level that if we got $2 we had to raise $2 to match it, so there was not only the money coming from national corporations and foundations, but also from the local community.
Kate Kunath: [01:12:00] Just out of curiosity, what were some of the most supportive corporations? You can't tell me?
Ruth Shack: I don't remember. Really, I wish I could.
Kate Kunath: Do you know Donald Trump?
Ruth Shack: No.
Kate Kunath: I ask because of Florida, but no. I was going to ask you what-
Ruth Shack: [01:12:30] He's not even Florida. He's in his own world. He's so wrong. It's so awful.
ManSee Kong: [inaudible].
Kate Kunath: Yeah.
ManSee Kong: [inaudible].
Kate Kunath: Okay. Good?
ManSee Kong: Yeah.
Kate Kunath: Okay.
Ruth Shack: [01:13:00] Two incidents, two recollections. I have a dear friend who I have known forever, and I was with him once and someone said to him, "But when did you come out?" He said, "When I was born." So here's a kid who knew he was gay from the moment he was born, his parents supported him, he is one of the financial pillars of the gay community locally, he speaks out whenever the opportunity and sometimes when the opportunity isn't there.
Ruth Shack: [01:13:30] He is powerful and just so effective, not only in the gay rights community but also in the arts community, and it's just a powerful human being who speaks out and has always known who he was.
Ruth Shack: [01:14:00] The other is reading The Times one day last week, Bill Cunningham, who is one of my heroes, a photographer who worked for The Times for years doing shots of women, and men I guess, well-dressed on the street. He would take photographs of them and The Times gave him a section. It was just a delicious wonderful happening.
Ruth Shack: [01:14:30] He died, and among his effects they discovered a bio that they didn't know existed. One of the incidents is at four years old, he came out of the bedroom feeling extraordinary. He knew something was special. He had his sister's pink tulle dress and he was dressed to the teeth, and he knew he was something special, and his mother beat the shit out of him.
Ruth Shack: [01:15:00] I put those two people and those two stories next to each other, of allowing your kid to be who they are, and we are of an era now where it's possible, and I come from an era where it was absolutely not.
Ruth Shack: [01:15:30] It's so validating of humanity to see that change come about. I have a great grandson, two years old, was taken to Costco to choose his birthday cake. His mother shows him the balloons and shows him the Batman.
Ruth Shack: [01:16:00] And he's looking at the clowns, and he chooses a three tier wedding cake with flowers. Now, most people laugh and say, "Did she buy it for him?" The answer is yes, he chose it. The others say, "He may be gay."
Ruth Shack: [01:16:30] I mean, why would you choose a one tier if you can get a three tier of anything? But there is that judgement too, "There were flowers on it, maybe he's gay." So there was still that going on out there. If my great-grandson is gay, I wish him all the luck in the world. I hope he does it with style.
Kate Kunath: [01:17:00] That's great. Just a special grandma, oh Lord. Where do you think I'm interrupting, I have four of the last questions but I'm going to interrupt myself and ask you this; where do you think the women's movement is now?
Ruth Shack: Well, with Me Too, I think it's taken a leap forward. It has made men recognize what women are and what respect for women should look like. That enough?
Kate Kunath: [01:17:30] Sure. It is a can of worms. The next question [inaudible]. What's your hope for the future?
Ruth Shack: [01:18:00] That the kids who we watched in Washington, and in cities around the world prevail.
Kate Kunath: Tell me why we watched them in Washington.
Ruth Shack: Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School went through a particular horror. The kids were brilliant enough to come together and say, "Never again. Enough is enough."
Ruth Shack: [01:18:30] They organized marches in cities across the world, the biggest one was in Washington where they say that there were more participants than at Trump's inauguration, that'll make him very unhappy. My hope is that these kids, high school kids, grab hold of the future and make it work for them.
Ruth Shack: [01:19:00] However they want it to look, I want them to fashion it. I have such hope.
Kate Kunath: Do you have advice for the young activists?
Ruth Shack: I have no advice for anybody. I'm serious. If you are smart enough to figure it out for yourself, don't look for anybody else to give you that.
Kate Kunath: [01:19:30] Great. Why is it important for you to tell your story?
Ruth Shack: Because you asked. I'm serious. I went through this, there have been books written, there have been videos done. The high school papers, PhD theses, this story has been told over and over and over again.
Ruth Shack: [01:20:00] And I'm pleased about it because if people know what went on, maybe it will repel them or enhance them to do their own thing, whatever it may be. I hope it's beneficial.
Kate Kunath: I just remembered something. The four guys that were the-
Ruth Shack: [01:20:30] Who did the screening.
Kate Kunath: Yeah, were they gay?
Ruth Shack: Yeah. But nobody knew it.
Kate Kunath: Did you know it?
Ruth Shack: I don't know, I think so, but that wasn't a thing that ... it wasn't to be considered. These were activists who had this thing they wanted to do.
Ruth Shack: [01:21:00] Then of course they became movers and shakers in the campaign, and it became more and more apparent. So I probably did.
Kate Kunath: Okay. I just want to understand that process again, just to clarify. We have these four guys that were screeners because they had organized to run a campaign.
Ruth Shack: No.
Kate Kunath: No.
Ruth Shack: [01:21:30] They had this amendment to the ordinance that they want passed. They never anticipated a campaign. They thought we were going to introduce it, pass it, and life was going to go on, and these friends of theirs were going to be able to come out of the closet. There was no campaign. No campaign anticipated.
Kate Kunath: [01:22:00] Okay. So they were appealing to you because you were going to run?
Ruth Shack: I was trying to get elected, that's what the screening was about. People screen over transportation, education, whatever their interest is, you went and you said, "I would never support that," or, "You can count on me to vote for it." Based on that they would tell their friends to vote for or against someone, but that's what the screening was about.
Kate Kunath: [01:22:30] The last question is about the importance of OUTWORDS, which is this project that we're doing. I'm going to ask you what you think the importance of OUTWORDS is, and when you answer if you could mention the word OUTWORDS. It's a little promo.
Ruth Shack: [01:23:00] Okay. When I was first asked to participate in OUTWORDS, I was apprehensive. I wanted to be sure that I was giving time and my voice to something worthwhile. So I called those people whom I trust and each and every one of them said, "Do it. It's a great program." I then went online to look to validate what they said and I think OUTWORDS is a very valuable contributor to the movement which is still moving and has a very long way to go.
Kate Kunath: [01:23:30] It does have a long way to go, especially these days with our new administration and how everything is going to get held back and then I have to do it again.
Ruth Shack: Absolutely. Everything that we thought was hallowed is gone.
Ruth Shack: [01:24:00] Someone said this the other day, "Do you remember when Obama was president?" What a heartbreak. The reaction to his progressiveness and decency. We had an administration eight years' worth of not a single scandal.
Ruth Shack: [01:24:30] It's a pretty good record. It's amazing, just amazing.
Kate Kunath: Yeah. The only scandal that ever came, and he wasn't even involved with, was the breather thing which was not even-
Ruth Shack: But that was Trump.
Kate Kunath: It was crap and it was Trump. It's amazing.
Ruth Shack: [01:25:00] It was Trump who started. He made people believe it. Is that disgusting? He made it up at a whole cloth. There was nothing surprising about what Trump is doing now. If you know his background and you saw the way he conducted himself, you knew that he was the rich bully whose father gave him anything he needed, and has punished us because of it. It's disgusting.
Kate Kunath: [01:25:30] Yeah. Well, that's a bad note to end on.
Ruth Shack: Okay. Turn it off, we're finished.
Kate Kunath: Thank you so much.
Ruth Shack: I'm delighted to do this.
Kate Kunath: I know. I appreciate.
Ruth Shack: [01:26:00] It's good to be with you.
Kate Kunath: Yeah. It was great. I wish I could continue to glean more wisdom from your wisdom with the women's movement and everything. It's so amazing. I'm really trying to do my own.
Kate Kunath: [01:26:30] Trying to have my own projects that move the ball down the corridor, move the needle. I'm trying to start like a coworking as like this big ... We're off now, right?

Interviewed by: Kate Kunath
Camera: ManSee Kong
Date: March 25, 2018
Location: Home of Ruth Shack, Miami, FL