She is stooped and has a downward gaze. But not everything about Ruth Geede gives any clue about her advanced age. The journalist and author, who was born in Königsberg in 1916, still has jet-black hair and her mind is very much alert. Only osteoporosis has put its mark on her diminutive form. But this constraint on her health does not stop the 99-year old journalist leaving her guest alone after a brief but hearty welcome to hurry with surprising speed into the kitchen to make the tea.
Time to let the visit cast a gaze around the study. A certificate signed by former German President Richard von Weizsäcker for the German Cross of Merit with Ribbon awarded in 1985, pictures of the East Prussian graphic artist Lieselotte Plangger-Popp and a streamer for a wooden flat-bottomed boat typical of former East Prussia. The bookshelves contain her own books and numerous books on East Prussian cultural history and the house boasts a cosy East Prussian homeliness that complements the hostess’s hospitality.
The Walking Lexicon at the Ostpreussenblatt
As frail as Geede appears, her mind displays a clarity which seems to compete only with her own formidable memory. Even at her advanced age, Ruth Geede still writes her weekly column “The East Prussian Family” in the Preussische Allgemeine Zeitung, a supra-regional weekly newspaper. What once used to be a column for reuniting families and a noticeboard for this and that is today the central organ for family genealogists with East and West Prussian roots. Following more than 65 years after flight and expulsion, the need is not just great, it is even increasing.
Geede has been more of a researcher and then an author for her column for a long time, which she traditionally starts with the dialect greeting “Lewe Landslied!” (“Dear countrymen!”). At the same time, the authors of the letters to the editor have for a long time been grandchildren of the German-speaking refugees who did not want to or who could not ask their grandparents about the past but who now want to trace their roots. The fact that Geede has the reputation of being a walking lexicon is, as she puts it, due to her photographic memory. But more than that, she embodies one thing for East Prussia and her readers: today she is the soul and the good spirit of the East Prussians. The sentence by Walter Schefflers “I wear the face of my homeland!” fits her to a T.
A Paid Publicist and Journalist since 1934
Born prematurely in the winter of 1916, Geede is one of the great publicists of the Low German tongue. She has published more than 50 books since her first – “De Lävenstruuß” (The bouquet of life) – appeared in 1935. Her first paid story for the Königsberger Allgemeine Zeitung marked the beginning of an extraordinary literary career that began in 1934.
Just one year later, she published her first 350-page novel “Kathrine the Maid” and had a permanent contract with the Königsberg Imperial Broadcasting Company. She was just 19 years old. When she joined the writers’ association, she was the youngest member it had ever had. From her pen flowed tales, radio plays, comedies and dialect poems and she also worked as a radio announcer. She did not complete a traineeship – normal practice today – until after the First World War at the Lüneburger Landeszeitung, whose Hamburg office she subsequently founded and managed.
81 Years as a Journalist and Writer
Ruth Geede has now been publishing her work on a freelance basis for more than 80 years, making her – and there is no doubt about this – the longest-serving and probably the oldest active journalist in Germany, on the European continent and probably around the world as well.
There are many very elderly journalists who published well beyond the official retirement age or who are still doing so. The controversial US journalist Helen Thomas, for example, who was once the president of the White House Press Corps, had a 72-year career in journalism. Mildred Heath had a career lasting over 85 years, 72 of which were as a journalist. And in the Philippines, Cecile Afable, the regionally influential chief editor of the Baguio Midland Courier, which she helped to found in 1947, impressed with a 65-year career, as well as the former well-known Near East expert Peter Scholl-Latour. But they all now sadley deceased.
And the career of the New York photo journalist Ruth Gruber, who in 1931 at the age of 20 years wrote a doctoral thesis on the works of Virginia Woolf as the youngest student at the university of Cologne, who with her camera later immortalised the odyssey of the exodus of Jewish emigrants to Palestine and who wrote a book about it in 2002, also impresses. From Hamburg photo journalist Erika Krauss (1917-2013), Fernando Pessa (1903-2010) from Lisbon, who worked at the Portuguese state broadcasting company, the “black” veteran journalist Thomas Fleming (1907-2006), who reported on the general strike in San Francisco back in 1934, and Sy Yinchow (born 1919), who primarily translated Chinese poetry into English, there are countless journalists who have recorded the enigmas of world history for humanity in written or in image form in careers lasting over 65 years.
A Journalistic Marathon between Ruth Geede and “Persh” C. Rohrer
So in such ongoing researches, telephone calls and correspondence lasting several weeks and months, you never know whether you’ve missed a colleague on a small island in Japan or at a small local newspaper office in the Australian outback – or indeed anyone breaking through the “sound barrier” of a 81-year career once again. According to all the research done in Europe, Asia, Africa and on the American continent, only the sports journalist Pershing C. Rohrer at the Record Courier in Ohio (USA) is neck-and-neck with Hamburg-based Ruth Geede. His journalist career also started in 1934 at a high school newspaper, says Tom Nader, a colleague of “Persh”, who was born in 1918. But, back in those days, he probably wasn’t paid for his work. And like Ruth Geede, he still wrestles with the weekly deadline today.
In the light of such careers and her own record, Geede herself comes across more irritated than pleased. Does she look back on her life’s work with pride? Is she tired of the job? Can she cope with all the technology? Far from it. Geede has mastered the means of modern communication and has always found them to be an enrichment. It’s just that she finds networks like Facebook and Twitter a distraction from her work, so she has disconnected her computer from the internet. She still has many plans – like publishing her childhood memories. She already has the draft in her head, it’s just that she can’t get the first sentences out. Maybe it’s her way of dismissing such trivialities such as her records, age and life’s work. Then a mischievous smile flits over her face. “Well, I’d still like to make it to 100!”
The author was born in 1967. He studied law, sport and history in Cologne and did a traineeship at the Hamburg weekly Preussische Allgemeine Zeitung. He worked as an association spokesman in Hamburg from 2000 and 2007. Bernhard Knapstein has been editor-in-chief at the Europäischer Wirtschafts Verlag in Darmstadt since 2007.