By Peggy Carroll
There still are a few former neighbors who remember that day in the 1960s when a real estate agent showed up at the Vogler home in Convent Station.
The agent was showing a nearby house to an Asian family. But he apparently wanted to make sure that no one in the neighborhood would object. So he was doing a survey.
No one knows what Ruth Vogler told him. But no one recalls him venturing to another house.
He had picked the wrong place – and the wrong person – to ask.
Ruth Kroemer Vogler was a founder and president of the Morris County Fair Housing Council. And she was passionate – and even fierce – about the cause.
When she died last week (Dec. 26, 2016), at the age of 91, her family noted that she “loved her family, travel, flowers, a good laugh, intelligent conversation, progressive politics – and the New York Mets.”
Her life story also shows she was also a born advocate and a superb organizer. She worked for equality in housing, for school integration, to help people drowning in debt — causes that are now part of American law or culture.
Yet Ruth was an immigrant. She grew up in Dresden, Germany, during the Hitler years, a time and place not known for its regard for civil– or even human– rights.
She had seen her own city turned into a cauldron, the horrors of war.
In February 1945, when she was 20 years old and working as a bookkeeper, Dresden was firebombed by British and American forces. The attack destroyed 1,600 acres of the city center and killed at least 25,000. American writer Kurt Vonnegut, who was then a prisoner of war in Dresden, described the devastation he witnessed in his novel, tellingly titled Slaughterhouse Five.
Vogler told her children that her family home in the semi-suburban part of Dresden was not in the fire zone. But her father was in the city center on the day of the bombing, returning between the waves of attack, causing great anxiety. She had an uncle, a fireman, who went in to fight the blaze and never came out.
Dresden’s citizens also faced another major threat. They were in the path of the advancing Russian army.
People were leaving the city in a hurry.
Ruth was sent to the countryside by her employer, and she remained in Bavaria after the war ended.
It was here that she connected with John Vogler, also from Dresden. He had been injured in the Battle of the Bulge and was in a hospital at war’s end. He was then taken by the French as a prisoner of war.
Ruth was asked by his family to deliver to him a little suitcase with his belongings. One meeting led to another. In 1948 they married, a marriage that would endure for more than six decades.
In 1950, they booked passage on the SS Volendam to Hoboken — ready to seek a new life in America.
Like many immigrants to these shores, the young couple had very little — except the willingness to work hard, according to their daughter, Patricia Vogler. They settled in New Jersey and John got a day job with an engineering company. Both also worked for a local family; John butlered at night, Ruth cooked and cleaned. In return, they got a free apartment.
They saved their money and within two years were able to buy a small house in West Long Branch. In 1956, they became citizens.
In 1962, they moved to Morris Township. By this time, John had obtained his engineering degree from Monmouth College and they had three young children.
In their new community, they became active members of the Morristown Unitarian Fellowship. And a year later, in 1963, Ruth, joined a group of like-minded civil rights advocates concerned about racial injustice to form the Morris County Fair Housing Council. She was president from 1965-67.
Fueled by her determination and creativity, Patricia Vogler says, the group moved to the forefront of the stateside e efforts to enforce laws against housing discrimination. (The federal Fair Housing law was passed in 1968.)
The Council also had a less serious side. Ruth and her colleagues sponsored an annual fund-raising dance that attracted jazz fans throughout the region. The stars: Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Lionel Hampton.
In 1970, the Voglers took their civil rights efforts to a new arena: Education. They joined with residents of the town and the township in pursuing legal action to promote school integration. That law suit led to the merger of the town and township schools and the formation of the Morris School District.
It has become a model of effective and peaceful integration for the state, an even, some legal experts believe, the nation. The success of the district — and the lessons it teaches — was recently explored in a study by the Century Foundation.
Ruth took up another challenge in 1978. Inspired by a radio program on the problems caused by excessive personal debt and financial illiteracy, she advocated for legislative change that allowed her to found the New Jersey Consumer Credit Counseling Service. She was its executive director for 10 years, helping hapless consumers negotiate with creditors, pay off their debts and reach solvency.
She also continued to work with John in Vectronics Microwave Corp., the company they had formed together. As a businesswoman, she maintained an active membership on the Morris County Business and Professional Women’s Association.
She also was a member of the International Association for Religious Freedom and traveled to Japan for its World Congress in 1984.
Moved by this experience, she encouraged the congregation of the Summit Unitarian Church to partner with a congregation in Barot, Transylvania – a partnership that continues. In recognition of her leadership role, she was named recipient in 2010 of the Steward of Partnership Award from the Unitarian Universalist Partner Church Council.
In 2003, the Voglers moved to The Oaks in Denville, a continuing care life-care community. John died in 2011.
In her later years, Ruth remained active in what she did so well: Working for a cause.
When The Oaks was up for sale, she joined with other residents to prevent its purchase by a for-profit company.
It was a last hurrah, of sorts. But a winning one.
The Oaks is now owned by a nonprofit.
In addition to Patricia, who lives in Cranford, she is survived by another daughter, Carol Vogler Nixon of Pittsfield, MA, and a son, Tom of North Plainfield, six grandsons and a great-grandson.
Donations may be made in her memory to the Morristown Unitarian Fellowship Endowment Fund, 21 Normandy Heights Road, Morristown. A memorial service will be held at a later date.