A legend in Phoenix’s civil rights movement and one of the last from the 1950s era, Ruth Finn died on Jan. 19 surrounded by her family.
Throughout her life, Ruth was an advocate of social justice who fought for those who couldn’t. She worked in tandem with her husband, Herb, in crusades to desegregate schools, businesses and public accommodations — not just for Jews but for people of color as well.
Fighting for her rights was something Ruth was used to doing. Born in New York City, she worked three jobs to get through school and college. In 1942, she married lawyer Herb Finn and the couple moved to Phoenix in 1948.
Once settled in the Valley, the two became leaders in the fight for civil rights, and were among the founding members of the Greater Phoenix Council for Civic Unity. During those early decades of their marriage, Herb was in the spotlight while Ruth worked behind the scenes, but her contributions were no less important. She helped in strategizing and took part in civil rights marches.
Her daughter, Elizabeth R. Finn, presiding judge for the Glendale City Court, remembers her mother frequently cooking up a storm to let off steam and channel her energy. She once made food for 300 people for an event that took place in the family’s backyard.
Elizabeth said that people mistakenly thought the Finn family was wealthy because her father was a lawyer and her mother wore striking jewelry. In truth, there was little money to be made in helping the poor fight for their rights, and more often than not, Ruth’s jewelry came in lieu of payment for legal fees.
“I had the unique opportunity to work in my dad’s law office starting at age 13 and Mom worked there also,” Elizabeth said in eulogizing her mother. “She tried to be the runner of paperwork to the courthouse, but she couldn’t parallel park. She then tried to do secretarial work, but was a lousy typist. She somehow discovered she was a great researcher. This was in the days before LexisNexis, when you had to dig through the law books … At times I got to go to court to hear my dad argue a motion. Many times a judge would lean over the bench and say, ‘Nice job, Ruth.’”
One of Herb’s greatest accomplishments was working with Hayzel B. Daniels to successfully litigate desegregating high schools and grade schools in Phoenix — prior to Brown v. Board of Education.
Once again, Ruth had a hand in Herb’s work.
“In reviewing pleadings with Mom in later years, she would say, ‘I think I wrote that part and, oh, that part over here,’” Elizabeth said. “She couldn’t sign her name to the pleadings, but she was very much involved.”
At 47, Ruth became a member of the first class at ASU College of Law, graduating in 1970 at the very top of her class. Elizabeth entered her first year at ASU Law during her mother’s third year.
“Everyone kept expecting me to be like Mom,” Elizabeth said. “But I would say, ‘She’s grades, I’m organizations.’ But it was very humbling to have my mom be No. 1 in her class. There was one time when over the loudspeaker an announcement was made: ‘Ms. Finn to the Dean’s Office.’ I went and a few minutes later, here came Dean Pedrick’s voice, ‘I want Mama Finn!’”
Ruth’s partnership and marriage to Herb came to a tragic end in 1979, when he was shot to death in New York City during a hold-up while they were on vacation.
But Ruth never dropped the fight for social justice. She was a member of the American Association of University Women, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Florence Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project, the Anti-Defamation League and the NAACP.
“Mom had great passions about so many things: culture, reading, traveling, changing the world, representing people who desperately needed help when no one else would help,” Elizabeth remembered. “She couldn’t stand what was happening in our country today; the divisiveness we thought was over … She was very driven. We were all told it was our responsibility, our duty, to make the world a better place. She motivated me to find my passions and drive to change domestic violence laws and practices, help the mentally ill and homeless. I’m am blessed to have inherited some of her passion and drive.”
Even as Elizabeth paid tribute to her mother, she said the most fitting final words on Ruth come from former state Sen. Alfredo Gutierrez.
“Ruth Finn raised hell and the world is better for it,” he said.
Ruth Finn is survived by her sister, Roslyn Cohen; her children, Elizabeth Finn, Alice Finn Gartell and William Finn; her grandchildren, Jennifer Gartell Liebhaber, Kira Gartell, Jesse Turner and Sarah Turner; and her great-granddaughter, Claire Liebhaber. JN