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Ruby Fandrich celebrates 100 years in style at Milwaukie Center

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Some people live life to the fullest, and some go beyond that and really, really live life to the fullest. Ruby Fandrich is one of those people. But what sets her apart is that on Feb. 4 she celebrated her 100th birthday, and she did it in style, with two birthday parties — one at the Milwaukie Center and one at the Springs at Clackamas Woods, where she lives.

PHOTO BY ELLEN SPITALERI - Demonstrating her skills on the piano on a regular basis, Ruby Fandrich delights her daughter Claudia Berg and others at the Milwaukie Center.Describing Fandrich as a creative woman is a bit of an understatement, as she is a musician and artist who has dabbled in acting and costuming. She also was a business owner and apartment manager. But what ties all these things together is her enthusiasm for doing things, organizing activities, and bringing people together to have fun.

Playing piano

Fandrich is a familiar figure at the Milwaukie Center, as she has played the piano there for 15 years; she currently plays from 11 to 11:45 a.m. every Tuesday.

“I like the enthusiasm they show when they like a good song,” she said. Audience favorite tunes include “Let Me Call You Sweetheart,” “Ain’t She Sweet” and “Has Anybody Seen My Gal?” among others.

But Fandrich takes great delight when she gets to “rip into ‘Alexander’s Rag Time Band,’ with its boogie-woogie bass,” she said.

When Fandrich moved into the Springs two years ago, a professional mover came to move her piano, and it turned out that the young man also could play.

“He rips off a couple of nice tunes, and then she played “Alexander’s Rag Time Band,’ and he started dancing,” and danced all the way out to the moving van, said Claudia Berg, Fandrich’s daughter.

Fandrich began volunteering at the Milwaukie Senior Center after her husband died for “something to do.” She worked at the Travel Desk and eventually became the accompanist for the Milwaukie Singers, a chorus that once numbered in the 30s.

Early days

Fandrich was born on Feb. 4, 1916, in Glasgow, Mont., and moved to Oregon when she was 8.

She took a few piano lessons when she was 9, playing by ear, since she was unable to afford sheet music.

Once she was in grammar school at the Failing School in Portland, she played jazzy music to “march the kids out of the building.”

Then, when she went to Milwaukie High School, the students wanted to dance at noon, so she played popular music, again by ear, in the high school auditorium.

After she married, Fandrich took some classical music lessons from a concert pianist and learned to play the organ from Keith Fortune, the Oaks Park Skating Rink’s longtime organist and unofficial curator.

In the early 1950s Fandrich received a call from a dancing school based at the YMCA that opened a door that led to many years of personal fulfillment, as well as making wonderful memories for the people involved with her. The caller asked her to accompany their tap dancers.

Then she went to work at another dancing school, the House of Leon, accompanying tap and ballroom-dance classes.

Eventually Leon sold his classes to Fandrich and dance teacher Lenore Nelson, and they ended up with studios in three locations. When that deal ended after about eight years, Fandrich continued the dancing school in her own basement

It was a lot of work for a one-woman operation, choreographing, costuming and arranging recitals.

When construction of the Interstate 5 freeway forced the family house to be moved, Fandrich went back to work downtown in the insurance business, while maintaining and managing two apartment complexes she and her husband owned.

Swimming, theater

Playing piano was not Fandrich’s only activity in school, she also was an accomplished swimmer.

“I had a coach who had been in the Olympics, and he taught me to do the crawl, and I won some awards. I tried out for the 1928 Olympics and finished second, but didn’t go on, because I didn’t have enough money,” Fandrich said.

In high school she won every race she entered, and the Multnomah Club gave her a free membership so she could swim for its team. Fandrich then won the city championship in long-distance swimming.

After high school she supported herself by earning money as a lifeguard at High Rocks on the Clackamas River and attended Oregon State University for several years. Fandrich took art in college, and this enabled her to draw all the program covers for her dance studio recitals. Fandrich also acted in plays and designed and sewed all the costumes, even making her own patterns.

She married in 1938 and has two children, daughter, Claudia, who lives in Milwaukie, and son, Frank, who lives near Carver.

Inspiration

Fandrich’s energy and talents have not gone unnoticed, her daughter said.

“She is so active and has a great sense of humor. She is an entertainer and can get a crowd excited,” Berg said.

Her mother’s longevity is due to her “staying active. There wasn’t a day when she didn’t have plans, like gardening or painting the house or getting somebody involved. And her health is really good,” Berg said.

She added, “She always wanted to have fun. She came from a family without much ambition, and she wanted to be the opposite.”

Berg planned the birthday celebration for her mother on Feb. 6 at the Springs at Clackamas Woods, wanting it to be something special.

With that in mind, she tracked down several people who grew up in the same neighborhood many years ago, and invited them to attend her mother’s party.

“They were so excited to see her again. She touched all these kids’ lives in the neighborhood and at school. They came to her party and had a good time,” Berg said.

“We had a cabaret night with champagne and petit fours; we made a show out of it. I belong to the Portland Tap Connection, and we put on an hour performance. The birthday girl requested a show that featured holiday favorites, so we designed a storyline about 100 years of holidays,” Berg said.

“We also had audience participation,” Fandrich added.

Calling her mother a special lady who just keeps going, Berg said, “She still is active in the Oak Grove Garden Club, as her body allows; she entertains with her piano playing; she plays pinochle weekly, Bunco monthly, and even has a few of her neighbors over to her apartment to watch old movies on Sunday nights. She’s still an organizer and entertainer.”