Guiding Hand, Giving Heart: The Legacy of Ruth Collins Sharp Altshuler

Renowned civic and philanthropic leader Ruth Collins Sharp Altshuler died Dec. 8, 2017, leaving a legacy of leadership, friendship and generosity focused on institutions dedicated to improving lives.

DALLAS (SMU) - Renowned civic and philanthropic leader Ruth Collins Sharp Altshuler died Dec. 8, 2017, leaving a legacy of leadership, friendship and generosity focused on institutions dedicated to improving lives. A memorial service was held Dec. 14 at Highland Park United Methodist Church. The family asks that instead of flowers, donations be made in her honor to the Salvation Army.

As a leader she was known for her intelligence, decisiveness, legendary fundraising skills and sense of humor. As a result, Altshuler became the first woman to lead numerous Dallas boards and organizations, including the Board of Trustees of her alma mater, SMU. Education, health and services for some of the most downtrodden members of society were areas that attracted her support, but her generosity touched nearly every Dallas civic organization. Her influence, however, went far beyond Dallas. Altshuler was recognized nationally and internationally as a dedicated civic leader and philanthropist.

"The loss of Ruth leaves a major hole in the hearts of us all," said SMU President R. Gerald Turner. "Ruth was my dear friend as well as a tireless fighter for SMU and all causes she believed in. She didn't do anything halfway. Her work on behalf of Dallas and SMU was legendary years ago, and yet she continued to lead and inspire us year after year. Her impact on her city and her University will live on forever."

"Ruth was a wonderful member of the SMU Board of Trustees. She was high energy and full of enthusiasm in everything she did to help make SMU a leading global university," said Michael M. Boone ’63, ’67, SMU Board of Trustees chair. "As a civic leader, Ruth fell into that special category known as the best of the best. The SMU community will miss her dearly."

A Dallas native and 1948 SMU graduate, Altshuler served on the SMU Board of Trustees for almost 50 years. She brought knowledge and understanding of every aspect of University life to her position, along with a great love of SMU.

Altshuler has served on nearly every board or council at SMU, including individual schools, libraries, lecture series and search committees. She served on the executive boards of six out of SMU’s seven schools, as well as the executive boards of SMU’s libraries, Willis M. Tate Distinguished Lecture Series and the Maguire Ethics Center. In Altshuler's 50 years of leadership, she worked with six SMU presidents, and helped select two of them as a member of the presidential search committees which appointed Dr. R. Gerald Turner and Dr. James H. Zumberge.

"I talked to Ruth almost every day," said Brad Cheves, vice president for development and external affairs at SMU. "She was fully committed to this University -- offering advice and counsel on all manner of topics. But ultimately what she was most committed to was helping get things done. It was never about Ruth; it was always about others and how she could help them accomplish more than they may have thought they could."

Left to Right: Brad E. Cheves, Ruth Altshuler, R. Gerald Turner
Ruth Altshuler (center) with SMU Vice President Brad E. Cheves (left) and SMU President R. Gerald Turner

Her understanding of SMU's strengths and challenges led to intentional and thoughtful leadership and giving, benefitting student achievement and faculty teaching and research. The projects she supported were varied, but all struck a personal chord. They ranged from endowing business professorships in honor of brothers James M. Collins and Carr P. Collins, to providing research funds for history professors in honor of her son, history buff Charles Stanton Sharp, Jr. She and her husband, Dr. Kenneth Z. Altshuler, endowed the Altshuler Learning Enhancement Center because of their interest in supporting the achievements of young people. In addition, she supported the Altshuler Distinguished Teaching Professors Award, which annually honors four professors for their notable commitment to fostering student learning, as well as endowing lecture series, scholarships and facilities for areas ranging from athletics to arts to academics.

Altshuler received nearly every award SMU offers, including the 2011 J. Erik Jonsson Ethics award, presented by SMU’s Cary Maguire Center for Ethics and Public Responsibility to individuals who exemplify the spirit of moral leadership and public virtue, and the 1966 Distinguished Alumni Award. With her husband, Kenneth, the Altshulers were presented the 1998 Mustang Award for extraordinary philanthropy to the University.

Altshuler's influence extended well beyond SMU, D Magazine once credited her as the woman "who helped make Dallas." Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings called on her in 2013 to plan the ceremony marking the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy's assassination in Dallas, perhaps her most important public service project, which she handled with grace and compassion. Altshuler’s other Dallas leadership positions included serving as vice chair of the Southwestern Medical Foundation, life trustee of the Hockaday School and honorary chair of the Dallas Children’s Advocacy Center and the Dallas Summer Musicals. She served as chair of the Communities Foundation of Texas, and also served on the boards of the Laura Bush Foundation for America’s Libraries, KERA and the Salvation Army of Dallas. She also served on the Board of Visitors of the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center and was the first woman to serve on the board of First Republic Bank of Dallas.

In September 2017, Altshuler's friends honored her by raising $7 million for the United Way of Metropolitan Dallas Ruth Sharp Altshuler Basic Needs Fund. Additional local honors include the 2016 Lifetime Achievement award from Dallas-based VolunteerNow, the YWCA of Metropolitan Dallas’ Centennial Award, the Texas Women’s Hall of Fame, the Linz Award and the Annette Strauss Humanitarian Award. In 2015 Altshuler received the Member of Distinction Award from the Pi Beta Phi Fraternity for Women.

At the national level, Altshuler was appointed by President George W. Bush to the Library of Congress Trust. In 2004 Secretary of State Colin Powell named her to the United States Commission to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). In 2011, Altshuler became the first person in the U.S. to receive all three national service honors – the Outstanding Philanthropist of the Year Award from the National Society of Fundraising Executives; the national Alexis de Tocqueville Award of the United Way of America; and the Distinguished Service Award given by the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges. She was one of three life members of the Salvation Army’s National Advisory Board and was honored on a global level with the rarely given Order of Distinguished Auxiliary Service from the Salvation Army- International in London.

Ruth Altshuler gave the same devotion and leadership to the yearly fall food drive for area shelters she conducted from her own driveway, to serving international organizations like the Salvation Army on the highest level. She was a driving force behind SMU's momentum for more than 50 years and enriched the lives of countless Dallas individuals and organizations. Her legacy will continue through the lives changed by her leadership, kindness and generosity.