Ruth Hawkins graduated from Anderson University. For her to don cap and gown and reach out for that degree is a source of celebration because it almost didn't happen. Most people's college years end much as they begin, from one graduation to the next. The years in between are filled with homework, tests and friends. Ruth's four years were filled with grief. She lost both of her parents. Each died of dreaded diseases that allowed Ruth to watch them slowly slip away, and she began asking questions about the nature of God and, indeed, if God exists at all. These are not questions usually associated with students from a school like AU. But with her two losses, the questions planted themselves in her mind, and she had to find answers.
On April 25, Ruth, 23, told her story to the Senior Chapel, a special chapel for seniors to reflect on their college years at AU. To become a speaker, Ruth had to submit a one-page abstract and she wrestled over what to talk about. Then her sister said, "You have a unique story. Talk about yourself." She did, and the crowd was awed, some offering a standing ovation.
For Ruth told not only her story but her belief that what the world needed, and what she spent her college years developing, was passion. "There's too little passion in the world," she said. "Most people have no idea how to be passionate toward jobs, God and family. You have to ask hard questions."
At an age when most people look at the hard questions in an abstract way, Ruth was forced to define her life by them.
She was born a preacher's daughter and grew up in Alva, Okla. Her father, Carl, was a minister in the Anderson-based Church of God. "I lived in a bubble," she said. "I was expected to behave and act in a certain way. People were watching."
She didn't disappoint anyone. She was valedictorian in high school, along with president of her senior class.
When she graduated in 1997, her mother, Lou, was very sick with pancreatic cancer. Surgery showed that the disease had spread. All that summer, Ruth slept on a pullout couch outside her mother's bedroom. When it was time to leave for Anderson, Ruth wasn't sure.
"Look mom," she had said, "Just say the word and I'll stay. I don't want to leave if I'm not going to see you." To which her mom replied, "You can't stay here and die with me."
Three days into Ruth's freshman orientation at AU, her mother died. Ruth only missed a week of school and laments that she had no recovery time. People at the school suggested she seek counseling. "But I was afraid if I talked about it or thought about it, I wouldn't be able to handle it. I didn't want to feel anything." Eventually, she did seek help.
She made it to her sophomore year, and that's when she fell apart. Her counselor, Lisa Pay, began to ask her the hard questions, but "I did horrible that year, flunked a couple of classes, lost my scholarship and lost direction."
She left AU and went back to Oklahoma where she lived with her sister. Besides working at McDonald's, she did little else. That fall, her father, a diabetic, developed a pressure sore and contracted blood poisoning. He died in November 1999.
"I was really angry at God," said Ruth. "My picture of God [growing up] was as a Santa Claus. Why were these bad things happening to me?" Unlike when her mother died, she found out that not asking such questions only made them grow in her mind. "Human beings aren't built like that. We're curious. We need to know answers."
She fell in with a group of friends who, she feels now, were "poor influences. I'd go out and get drunk every night." That didn't help. The pain and the questions remained after the booze wore off. Finally, she decided she'd had enough. With no one home, she dumped out a handful of pills and said, "God, if you want to save me you've got one more chance." Her sister came home early that day and Ruth quickly put the pills back in the bottle.
Two weeks into 2000, at the request of some of her friends at AU, she was back in Anderson. "I didn't really know what I was going to do. But there are some awesome people at this university. There's a good support system."
She found her calling as a theater major. But she also went looking for God again. "I didn't know what to think about God, whether he's good or not. I was desperate to know the truth."
She decided to begin with the belief that there is a God. Then she began talking to people and things became clearer.
"I heard incredible stories from people about how God intervened in their lives," she said. "I learned about God from observing people at their best. I'd come full circle."
When she told her story on April 25, Kim Wolfe, manager in the alumni office, was in the audience.
"Ruth wanted to convey that if we shelter ourselves to live without pain, we also deny ourselves the opportunity to experience real joy," said Wolfe.
George Nalywaiko, gift planning officer at AU, called Ruth's talk an "awesome story of an individual overcoming tremendous obstacles in life in order to find their passion."
There's that word again, passion. And she's turned those strong feelings toward the theater. "I consider myself first and foremost an artist," she said. "The theater is an incredible way to produce truth."
Though she'll miss her parents not being here, her brother, Phil Hawkins, and sister, Jean Coll, will be present for her graduation. After that, she wants to get a job on campus and continue doing theater. "This place has become my home," she said, "and I want other students to find out what I found."
Most people seek peace with God on their journeys through life, to make things easier, more bearable. Because of what she's been through, however, Ruth looks at things differently.
"I fight with God. We get down and dirty. We're called to struggle."
---STEPHEN DICK is a Staff Reporter for the Anderson Herald-Bulletin.