San Francisco businesswoman Ruth Garland-Dewson passed away on October 28 after a long illness. Ruth was a fixture on Fillmore Street, where she owned and operated Mrs. Dewson’s Hats since the 1970s.
While the hat business was good to her (and she to it – selling hats to Mayor Willie Brown and actors like Samuel L. Jackson and Sharon Stone), it was Ruth’s selfless acts and deeds, often generated from behind her desk at the back of the hat store that earned her the nickname “The Mayor of Fillmore Street.” Whether getting out in front of the 2008 Obama campaign or helping underprivileged girls and women, Ruth was a “force of nature” – a description of herself she absolutely loved.
Ruth was my neighbor here in the Western Addition of San Francisco, a neighborhood that is changing faster than Ruth could change hats. When I first moved here about 10 years ago, there was no Falletti’s, NOPA or $4 coffees and slices of toast. I found the Divisadero Corridor to be a strip of automotive repair shops and storefront churches and I wandered its wind-blown streets, usually in the late afternoon snapping photos.
It was on a morning in early February 2008, though, that I heard horns honking and a woman yelling down on Oak Street, and I grabbed my camera and ran outside. There was Ruth, waving an Obama sign and stopping only to say, “Who are you?” when I went to take her picture. She didn’t recognize me with my big camera in front of my face. But when I said, “Hey, Mrs. Dewson, it’s me – your neighbor,” she struck a variety of poses and I shot her in action. I ordered her some prints and dropped them through her door, and a few days later got a call. She was on her way to Beverly Hills to receive the Power of One award for her work in helping to free Flozelle Woodmore from an unjust prison sentence. Would I come along and photograph the event for her? We’d get to meet Academy Award-winner Halle Berry!
Over the course of the next year I’d work with Ruth as her publicist on a variety of different events, including the election of Barack Obama as our 44th President. “Go Obama, you’re black enough for me,” Ruth had said when the candidate was criticized by some in the African American community as not being true to his full heritage. We wrote a press release around that statement. And I loved hanging out with Ruth at the hat shop on election day, where she worked her old school push button phone, the Mayor of Fillmore Street in action.
Ruth became ill shortly after this and soon had to leave her home to move into an assisted care facility. She held onto the hat shop for awhile, making infrequent appearances behind her desk, but eventually had to sell the business and accept retirement.
In my own career, I have worked with a lot of interesting and talented people. But only one legend. R.I.P. Mrs. Dewson – you were indeed a force of nature.
Photo by KazzaDrask Media.