Words: Grace Kenyon ’22
Photos: Courtesy of Tower Yearbooks, Wheaton College Archives & Special Collections
Ruth Bamford in 1978
Memories of Ruth Bamford ’50 take the form of quick laughter, no-nonsense mentorship, and rook games on the bus to HoneyRock, Wheaton’s Center for Leadership Development in the Northwoods of Wisconsin. She was not a flatterer, but an encourager. All kinds of people were beautiful to her.
Bamford was born in 1928 in Detroit, Michigan. She graduated from Wheaton in the “nifty class of ’50” and went on to work in education and earn a master’s degree in guidance and counseling from Michigan State University. She returned to Wheaton in 1970 at the invitation of Dr. Henry Nelson, then the vice president of Student Development, to serve as an associate dean of students. Together, Bamford and Nelson worked to transform the way the school approached mentoring and teaching students.
Student development—the idea of developing students holistically outside the classroom—was an emerging emphasis in higher education. Bamford was a pioneer at Wheaton, bringing an emphasis on relationships and mentorship.
“Ruth was on the front edge of helping the College think more relationally about students and creating a relational culture where students could grow and thrive outside the classroom,” said Vice President for Student Development Dr. Paul Chelsen ’91.
Chelsen sees himself as a beneficiary of Bamford’s work at Wheaton. He arrived on campus in 1987, and Bamford was one of his teachers and mentors when he began working in residence life as an RA and as an assistant residence director in the following years. Bamford’s leadership created an environment that impacted Chelsen in profound ways. He remembers formative relationships with RAs and other staff.
“People were investing in me as a student with the training and encouragement that Ruth was giving them. I literally feel like I became a person,” Chelsen said. “I really thrived here in a relationally oriented environment.” He went on to work in student development because he wanted to help sustain that type of environment for future generations of students.
Dr. Sam Shellhamer came to Wheaton as dean of students in 1978. Bamford had been in her position for more than a decade, and Shellhamer witnessed her gifts of leadership and creativity.
“Ruth was a very faithful and enthusiastic employee at Wheaton, and she was a person who embodied Wheaton’s mission,” Shellhamer said. “She was very passionate about Wheaton, about the academic mission of the institution, and about being a part of a process to see students grow and develop their faith.”
Ruth Bamford’s senior yearbook photo.
Although Bamford was enthusiastic about her work, the people who watched her knew it wasn’t always easy. She was one of few women to serve in senior administrative roles prior to the 1980s, and she worked with a male-majority administration. Cindra Stackhouse Taetzsch ’82, current chief alumni officer and executive director of the Wheaton College Alumni Association, remembers being encouraged and inspired by Bamford’s leadership as a strong, opinionated female leader.
“The word that comes to mind is formidable,” Taetzsch said. “I was really drawn to the strength of that. I knew even as a 19-year-old that was probably not an easy thing.”
Taetzsch first met Bamford while serving as the “transfer aunt” on the orientation committee and had the opportunity to get to know her well. She remembers Bamford always pushed the students to do their best.
Chelsen remembers a leader who was simultaneously thick-skinned and vulnerable—who didn’t take herself too seriously.
“She always had a little twinkle in her eye that seemed to communicate a message that she was for you and she was with you, even in a challenging conversation,” Chelsen said.
Bamford’s enthusiasm for life was evident in everything from her friendships to her continual and generous involvement with Wheaton even beyond retirement. She was close friends with the head of the sociology department, Dr. Zondra Gale Lindblade Swanson ’55, who died in 2022. The two were longtime housemates before Swanson’s marriage to Jack Swanson ’49 in 2007 at the age of 75.
Bamford gravitated toward leadership at every stage of life and was involved in Wheaton alumni activities throughout her life. She frequently volunteered to organize and host reunions for the class of 1950 and led Northwoods Adventure, a reunion at HoneyRock for alumni over the age of 55.
A lover of hymns, she helped lead worship with her violin in the Northwoods and in church services. When her fingers could no longer play, she donated her 1770 Sebastian Kloz violin (crafted in Austria only 20 years after the death of Johann Sebastian Bach) to the Wheaton College Conservatory of Music.
Ruth Bamford’s friends and coworkers remember her sense of humor and her quiet sense of justice. She would enforce the rules when necessary and wasn’t afraid to push the envelope when needed. From the first time she welcomed people to Wheaton’s campus through to her final days, she exuded genuine care and “loyal friendship flowing from her love for the Lord Jesus,” Marilee Melvin ’72, former vice president for alumni relations and special assistant to the president, wrote in an email.
Ruth Bamford (right) and Marilee Melvin at the ruins of Acre on the Mediterranean Sea.
In 1999, the Wheaton College Alumni Association organized an alumni group trip to the Holy Lands.
Melvin met Bamford the year after Bamford arrived at Wheaton as dean of students. Bamford mentored Melvin as an RA in Evans and Williston halls during her undergraduate years. These years were the beginning of what would become 50 years of rich friendship. Melvin and Bamford later worked together on various administrative goals shared by Student Development and Alumni Relations from 1988 (when Melvin began working at Wheaton) until Bamford’s retirement in 1996.
This past October, Melvin visited Bamford in her room at Windsor Park, a retirement community near the College. Although Bamford was clearly in physical discomfort, she offered Melvin her final words of encouragement, saying, “You are beautiful.”
“I will cherish those words as I continue my life’s pilgrimage without her companionship,” Melvin said.
For Taetzsch, one of the memories of Bamford that springs to mind occurred during a well-publicized moment in Wheaton’s history. On November 14, 2003, Wheaton hosted its first dance in 143 years. Bamford had always been diligent in enforcing the rules, including those around dancing. But that night, Taetzsch spotted Bamford out on the dance floor with Nelson, surrounded by over 1,200 students.
“Oh my goodness—it was like being in heaven,” Taetzsch said, recalling that night with a laugh. “Their smiles were ear to ear. Neither had a clue how to dance, but they were having so much fun on that dance floor.”