Aging and Equity: An Interview with Dorothy Rupert

Back to Winter 2023: Volume 111, Number 4

By Benita Duran

“A word is dead when it is said, some say.  I say it just begins to live that day.”
-Emily Dickenson

For the past three years, the National Civic League has had a focus on how communities are engaging with their older and aging populations. The League is interested in supporting and grounding efforts that engage the diversity of the populations in communities, particularly in rural areas outside of the metropolitan communities. We’ve learned much in piloting an effort within the state of Colorado to broaden outreach to Hispanics and Latinos in four geographically distinct areas of the state. This article is focused on historical barriers that impact engagement, coupled with what we’ve experienced through these past two years of COVID-19 and the pandemic, through the eyes of a lifelong civic activist.

Bringing the perspective of her lived experience is a 96 year-old woman who had a career as a city councilwoman of a city that was incorporated under her watch,  a state representative and state senator and who took on this role in her mid-60s, an educator in public schools and  a university, a counselor, an advisor, a mentor, and a friend to this author and to many adults, young and old, throughout the world. She brings knowledge and engagement experiences of a career in public service of over 70 years.

It is important to share a part of Dorothy Rupert’s story, her perspective, and insights as we evolve in how we see and find better ways to connect and celebrate diversity in communities. While my work in this arena of aging services is relatively new, my appreciation for those who have been pioneers extends over decades. It is most appropriate that I probe the issues of aging and equity with one whom I consider my oldest living friend and colleague in the practice of community engagement.

BD: Dorothy, give me a recap of when and how your career in local government began.

DR: My husband, Dick Rupert, and I moved to Colorado in 1950. I was born in Meadow Grove, Nebraska in 1926. He had served in the Navy all during WWII. We moved from Lincoln, Nebraska where I grew up in a home for children run by the Masonic Eastern Star People of Nebraska. I met Dick on a college campus after he returned from service in WWII.

The home I lived in with my siblings was a common place during the 1930s in the western part of the country. I was raised by a single parent, my father abandoned our family of five and my mother had to place us in this home as we were very poor, no way that she could support us, nor did we have a place to live. It was a safety net that didn’t have public housing options, as was an option for many families in the Denver area, for example. Dick and I moved to Denver in 1950 and in a few years, we wanted to buy a house and there was a new development of a community that we learned about in an unincorporated area that was north of Denver and became the city of Thornton in 1952. An all-brick home was advertised at $9,800, and we had to put $99 down. I served on the Thornton City Council for 2 terms. I didn’t run again because we moved. We had two children and they grew up in Boulder, Colorado. I was elected to the Colorado Legislature from Boulder serving from 1985-2001 in both the House and the Senate.

BD: Dorothy, what are your observations of agism and equity after a career of working in systems of government, policy level and administrative positions, related to what others may not see?

DR: Women didn’t have many choices in the Midwest after WWII. Our only track was to get married and have babies. If I could have done it differently, I would have delayed marriage and child rearing and instead traveled with my mother, to take her places she would not have had the opportunity to visit and explore. Even in my youth, I experienced the gender roles of the home I lived in. The boys were able to work on the farm and it’s something I wanted to do, but I had to work in the kitchen and flower beds around the house. I wanted to work with the cattle. I danced and played in the fields with the cows, but that was about all that that I could get away with. For women of my career era, we had only certain types of jobs to pursue. I wanted to teach and serve as a high school counselor, which I did for 40 years. I liked being with young people, and I needed to work – for income, yes, but also because I felt like I had something to offer

BD: My observations of you: you are a Caucasian woman, with she/her pronouns, active in the Methodist Congregational and progressive causes. You identify as a feminist and as a result, point to times when you were the only woman at the table or in a particular role. Is this an accurate depiction and what were your challenges?

DR: I think that we are really in a very difficult place in our country when it comes to engaging and strengthening communities. I never thought the wealth gap would be so significant. In the city where I’ve lived now for over 60 years, inherited and multigenerational wealth and mobility of those with wealth from both the west and east coasts seems to have changed this town and changed the dynamics of community engagement. I was a school counselor, a local elected official, but from a very poor and middle-class background. I did not identify with wealth and/or privilege. I did not ever feel like they identified me or my place at the table. I was an official delegate to the UN Women’s Conference in Beijing, China, nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize in the mid-1990s as part of the 1,000 women activists from around the world. I was involved in passing one of the early bills in the U.S. to stop female genital mutilation in Colorado.

BD: How did things change, particularly for people of color, in communities you worked in?

DR: I think a lot about grief and grieving. I’m 96 years old, I’ve seen a lot and I’ve grieved so many losses, so many changes in my life. Our country, the United States of America, seems to be challenged by understanding and supporting our need as human beings to grieve in healthy ways.  We don’t have to get over it. We need to take the time to get through it. We need to take more time as individuals and communities to grieve in healthy ways but to grieve as we move through.

In my years as a student counselor at a local high school, I was in a school that had the highest teen suicide rate in the state. An unusual and frightening number of teens in the 1960s-1970s taking their own lives. As a counselor I knew too well the resources needed by our community to begin addressing this immense need. With help and leadership from a local district judge and the Methodist adult school class, we started an organization called Attention Homes in 1966, which helped to address the needs of youth and teen mental health programs. This organization continues to address the needs of youth, knowing there’s always more to do! Its one of the reasons why I ran for a state office.

BD: In closing, would you share your second favorite quote?

DR: “The end is nothing, the journey is all.” Willa Cather

Benita Duran is Director, Equity and Engagement for the National Civic League.

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