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Beautiful friendship creates meaningful moment for 100-year-old pilot

Ruth King waved down to her friends and family after taking off from the Huntingburg Airport Thursday morning.

Ruth King is a pretty private person. She admitted as much Thursday as she expressed her discomfort with being the center of attention in a media frenzy over a special birthday gift from her dear friend, Brenda Hartke.

But flying brought out the smile.

Ruth King celebrated her 100th birthday with a lap around Dubois County Thursday.

Ruth is turning 100 years old on May 12. Nearly everyone that knows her describes her as adventure-seeking and independent. Family members who were gathered at the Huntingburg Airport for the special flight reminisced about her tendency to seek out fun things to do at family gatherings. For example, on special family trips to Santa Claus Land, she could usually be found riding rollercoasters with the kids.

No one ever really shared stories about her flying days, though.

Brenda Hartke has been Ruth’s beautician for more than 20 years, and in those years, the two have become close friends, never mind the 32-year age difference. “She is just such a pleasure,” Brenda said about Ruth.

The relationship developed from the occasional hair appointment to Brenda traveling with Ruth to her doctor appointments. “I would take her, and we would stop and have lunch, and we would just enjoy the day,” Brenda said. “It just grew from there.”

“We’ve become best friends,” she added.

Brenda Hartke (holding the sash) and Angie Hachmeister met Ruth as she arrived at the Huntingburg Airport Thursday morning.

Ruth worked at the Co-op in Huntingburg for as long as they would let her — they had a mandatory retirement age of 65. But the independent and active retiree wasn’t ready to stop. A short time later, she began working at the Huntingburg Elementary School in the cafeteria and did so until she was 90.

But she realized her age was catching up with her. One day Ruth came into the salon and asked Brenda if anyone would be interrupting them. “I said ‘no,” and Ruth said, ‘I have a question to ask you,'” Brenda remembered.

“Would you mind being my power of attorney,” Ruth asked.

Brenda suggested a family member would be better, but Ruth, convinced by their many years of friendship, knew no one would take as good of care of her as her friend.

After some discussion with her husband, David, about the increasing responsibility that would likely come with agreeing to Ruth’s request, Brenda decided to continue this journey with Ruth. “I can’t let her do it alone,” she said.

She told Ruth that she would always let her make her own decisions unless she thought it was the wrong decision, one that wasn’t in Ruth’s best interest. “I just want you to know that,” Brenda told her friend.

“That’s fine with me,” Ruth told her, “but we’ll have to talk about it.”

Ruth continued living in the home her father had built on First Avenue in Huntingburg. Harvey and Clara Wessel moved there from the farm they had northwest of town — near where OFS is now.

Ruth took a moment to hold one-month-old Fletcher Trusty, Ethan and Kenzie Trusty’s newest addition to their family. The young couple were Ruth’s neighbors for many years. Ruth remains busy at Brookside Village, playing cinch, euchre and bingo with her friends or completing puzzles. Brenda noted her friend is very sharp and is constantly reading books — several a week.

Her young neighbors, Ethan and Kenzie Trusty, noted that Ruth was never one to sit around the home; she was always taking off in her car on some errand or social event. She remained very active until age got the best of her a couple of years ago when she fell and was injured. She entered Brookside Village to recover and decided to move into assisted living.

“There are a lot of steps into and around her home, so we just decided that she couldn’t do it,” Brenda said.

While cleaning up the home to be sold, Brenda and Faith and Neil Piepenburg, Ruth’s niece and nephew-in-law from Wisconsin, happened upon the flight log books from the 40s. No one had ever known about her piloting history before then.

According to Ruth, she got her pilot’s license after a gentleman she was “going” with at the time taught her how to fly. She flew a Piper J-Cub out of the little grass strip that became the Huntingburg Airport.

She had her license for a few years, but as her gent continued to purchase larger planes, she decided keeping up with the certification wasn’t worth it and let her license lapse.

While volunteer pilot Tim Wehr was taxiing out to the 5,500-foot-long concrete runway in the Cessna 172 on Thursday, Ruth noted how much everything had changed out there.

Brenda and Neil joined Ruth and Tim on the quick trip around Dubois County. At one point, Tim handed over controls to Ruth. Holding his hands up, he let the passengers know she was in charge.

The few moments of flying brought back memories for Ruth though she said the Cessna was much louder than the plane she flew.

After the group landed, Tim — who quipped that Ruth would be his oldest passenger in the 29 years he had been flying as a professional — told Ruth he could sign off on her log book to record her flight time.

Ruth was joined at the airport by her friends from Brookside Village as well as friends and extended family members who waited on the ground to congratulate her and wish her well on her 100th birthday.

For Ruth’s 99th birthday, Brenda had organized a tea party with a four-course meal. About 20 of Ruth’s closest friends and family showed up for the elegant event. “The women wore hats and gloves. We had a different tea with each setting. She loved it,” Brenda said about the party.

But, when Ruth got off the plane on Thursday, she leaned over to her friend and told her, “You did better than last year.”

Ruth’s birthday celebration continued through Thursday. After enjoying a bit of fame and flying, they went out for Gaslight pizza, and instead of grabbing her favorite drink, Mountain Dew, Ruth had two glasses of wine. A bowl of chocolate — Ruth loves chocolate — was nearby also. Friday afternoon, the Huntingburg United Methodist Church is hosting an open house for Ruth from 3 to 5 p.m. Then, on Saturday, Ruth and company are heading to The Chicken Place for fried chicken and strawberry daiquiris.