OBITUARY

Ruth Ann Hensley Neff

Passed away on March 5, 2019
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Ruth Ann Hensley was born and grew up in Fulton, Missouri. She was born on New Year’s Day, January 1, 1925. Her father John Frank Hensley worked as a dispatcher for the Harbison Walker Refractory Brick Company in Fulton and also served as Fulton’s mayor. Her mother Charlene Woods Hensley was a great community organizer and church volunteer. Ruth got around town on her rollerskates and bicycle and spent lots of time in her grandfather’s hardware store, her grandmother’s kitchen, and with many local cousins. She was an avid Saint Louis Cardinals fan and attended games with her father whenever she could.

Ruth attended William Woods College in Fulton for two years, and then completed her undergraduate degree in chemistry at the University of Missouri in 1947. She was present in the audience at Westminster College in Fulton on March 5, 1946 when Winston Churchill delivered his “Iron Curtain” speech. She continued studies at The University of Missouri, Columbia as a zoology graduate student in the biology department where she met Jack Neff – a fellow graduate student. They were married on December 26, 1948, in Fulton, and shortly thereafter moved to Berkeley, California for a short time when Jack was invited to work with a collaborator at The University of California, Berkeley. Ruth continued work on her theses, spending time at University of California, Berkeley, University of Missouri, Columbia, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, Johns Hopkins University, and Vanderbilt University. When Jack was offered a faculty position at Vanderbilt, they moved to Nashville, to an apartment in the historic Glen Oak house (1854) near the university. Ruth received her PhD in zoology in 1954, shortly after daughter Susan was born.

From 1954 to 1969 Ruth continued working part-time in the laboratory with Jack on joint research into cell differentiation, while also raising children. Ruth and Jack spent a year on sabbatical in Berkeley (1957-58), where son John was born. They returned to Nashville in 1958, settling in a Vanderbilt-owned house across a parking lot from what is now Medical Center North at the Vanderbilt University Medical Center. In early 1960, son Dan was born during a snowstorm; Ruth walked across the snowy parking lot to the delivery room. In November 1960, the family bought their first (and only) house – complete with battlement and with lots of fixer-upper tasks. Ruth settled into teaching at the Vanderbilt Cooperative nursery school, Girl Scouts, Cub Scouts, room mothering and fossil expeditions, all the while continuing to assist Jack with their research work in the laboratory.

The family spent the academic year 1965-66 in Copenhagen Denmark (another sabbatical), where Ruth juggled mornings in the lab with kids in daycare, school, and Danish Scouts. She organized frequent weekend expeditions to museums, parks, castles, and beaches, and she found an adult evening class in spoken Danish. During the summer break, she organized home-schooling for Susan and John so that they would be up-to-speed in school when they returned to the US. It was a wonderful and enriching year for all, largely due to Ruth’s energetic embrace of Danish culture.

1967-1969 brought many changes: All three children were in school. Jack’s parents moved from Missouri to an apartment across the street for medical reasons, and they required significant caregiving attention. Research grant funding for the laboratory became scarce as a result of the Viet Nam War, and adjunct positions became less well supported by the University. However, the environmental movement was picking up steam in the country, in response to the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act. Ruth became an energetic volunteer for the League of Women Voters, conducting water sampling on weekends and helping several environmental groups write grants and develop plans. In 1970 she was instrumental in founding the Tennessee Environmental Council (TEC), which started as an umbrella group for dozens of environmental groups.

As the first executive director of the TEC, Ruth made good use of her grant-writing skills and her disciplined research background. She worked with groups interested in cleaning up waterways, reducing air pollution, starting recycling programs, growing organic food, reducing toxic materials in landfills, as well as hunters, fishermen, birders . . . representatives of the full spectrum of environmental concerns. Ruth used her background to develop objective scientific analyses of environmental issues and used her juggling and cat-herding skills to build alliances and start cooperative ventures, all aimed at improving different aspects of our natural environment. The TEC was able to win grants from the EPA and DOE, and focused much of its early effort on air quality, water quality, reduction of hazardous waste, reduction of toxic waste pollution, and issues related to strip mining. Ruth played a major role in building the Tennessee Environmental Council into a strong and successful advocacy group, which provided reliable information to regulators and legislators. Under her directorship, the TEC led (and won) a lawsuit against TVA for air pollution from coal-burning power plants, and against other companies that refused to follow pollution and toxic waste disposal regulations.

In 1984 Ruth moved to Tennessee State Government where she worked on environmental planning and policy for the State of Tennessee as a member of Governor Lamar Alexander’s (R) “Safe Growth Team”. During this tenure she specialized in environmental and conservation programs and organized the first statewide Pollution Prevention Conference. Ruth later became part of the Environmental Policy Group in the State Planning Office of Governor Ned McWhirter (D), where she coordinated the State’s hazardous waste planning. She developed a state-wide solid waste management plan, supporting and overseeing regional implementation in coordination with each county in Tennessee. This work included public education and outreach, an awards program, and creation of a statewide data base. This earned her the informal title “Czarina of Trash”. She helped evaluate a federal proposal to build a way station for nuclear waste in the state, finding multiple economic flaws in the proposal. She was cited for her ability to bring together people on opposite sides of charged environmental issues, and guiding them to mutually acceptable solutions. Ruth retired from state government in 1993, and was honored on this occasion by having a State conference room in Nashville’s L&C Tower named in her honor.

Ruth continued to participate in, support, and follow environmental issues in her retirement, as well as helping create an organic garden and composting site in her backyard. She did extensive writing about family history, and participated in continuing informal education programs, both as student and teacher. She devoted herself to taking care of Jack Neff for the last eight years of his life when he developed dementia and lost his short term memory. When Jack died in 2006, Ruth supervised numerous home improvement projects which had been postponed during Jack’s illness. She remained independent, living in her own house and managing her own affairs. She also stayed strongly involved with her family, and enjoyed exercise classes at the Dayani Center at Vanderbilt University Medical Center.

Ruth died on March 5, 2019. Survivors include three children: Susan Neff of Glenn Dale , MD; John Neff (Patricia Lawrence) of Nashville TN; Dan Neff (Jan Barrington Neff) of St. Augustine FL; and granddaughter Emma Neff Hanisch of Mountain View, CA. Ruth’s husband Jack Neff preceded her in death in 2006.

The family is planning a memorial gathering on Friday, March 15, from 4-7pm at Marshall Donnelly Combs, 201 25th Ave North, Nashville, TN. Please join us to remember Ruth and to celebrate her many contributions.

In lieu of flowers, the family suggests donations in Ruth’s name to the Sierra Club, the Nature Conservancy, or the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Services

  • Memorial Service Friday, March 15, 2019
REMEMBERING

Ruth Ann Hensley Neff

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Paul Somers

March 16, 2019

I knew Ruth and Jack Neff during my time as a botanist with the TN Natural Heritage Program (1976-1992) and respected them both deeply. I attended many TEC meetings led by Ruth. They were action focused and often resulted in resolutions drafted and endorsed by all of the TEC member organizations, then sent to prominent legislators and government leaders. It was an effective way to show our combined strength on issues of the day. I represented TCWP at some of these meetings. Merri Rudd's words below describe Ruth to a "T". I'm pleased to know that she lived a long life and enjoyed the joys of retirement with family, gardening and other activities and still maintained her environmental activism. I send my love and condolences to all who loved her.

Sandy Kurtz

March 14, 2019

Ruth was a wonderful mentor for me. I met her when I first joined the Tennessee Environmental Council Board. She was no longer director at that time, but she was still active environmentally. My favorite memory of Ruth was the time a small group of us met outdoors on a farm sitting in a circle above a river. There she led us in her measured, deliberate way to figure out what our next environmental education actions should be across the state. You always had the sense with Ruth that you could depend on her knowing about which she spoke and that her conclusions were solid and wise. Good memories.

Merri Rudd

March 14, 2019

Ruth was my boss at the Tennessee Environmental Council in the late 1970s and early 1980s. She taught me so much about advocacy, perseverance, writing clearly, organization and more. She was delightful, committed, ethical, brilliant and kind-hearted. While she had a heart of gold, she also had a will of steel. To this day I support environmental causes due to her influence. I'm glad she had a long and productive life. She will be missed and remembered.

Diane D'Arrigo

March 12, 2019

I had the pleasure of working with Ruth and Jeff Neff in the 1980s and 90s in successful battles to keep the high level radioactive waste from all the nuclear power reactors across the US out of Tennessee. It is a battle that keeps coming back and the Neffs were always part of the force to keep that from happening. It is in their honor that I will continue to join with other Tennesseans, who know and care, to keep more high level, "low-level," every level nuclear waste from coming in--now from other countries in addition to the US nuclear power and weapons factories. Thank you Ruth for your decades of hard work making the world safer and happier.
Diane D'Arrigo
Nuclear Information and Resource Service

Brent Weedman

March 11, 2019

John, I was truly saddened to hear the news of Ruth’s passing! I know she will certainly be missed, by you and your family! Please accept our deepest sympathy and sincere condolences for your loss.

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