Ruth Pease, who founded the Hollywood Little Red School House in 1945 as a private nursery school that welcomed ethnic diversity when many other private schools did not, has died. She was 96.
Pease died Jan. 19 of congestive heart failure at her home on the campus of the school on Highland Avenue in Hollywood, said her daughter, Debbie Wehbe.
She made her first move toward opening a school when she took care of toddlers at home in the early 1940s. Her concern about diversity was expressed early on and would continue throughout her tenure with the school.
The U.S. was at war with Germany and Japan when Pease took in a boy whose father was Chinese and whose mother was white. His parents had difficulty finding day care for him.
"People probably thought he was Japanese," said Wehbe, who has owned and operated the school since 1970. "My mother wanted no part of that attitude. To her, children need someone to take care of them. Period."
Before long, Pease was caring for six toddlers. She and her husband, Robert, turned the front of their house into the Small Fry Nursery School.
When the Peases' landlord objected to their home nursery school, the couple moved to the house on Highland Avenue -- then a quiet street lined by small homes. Robert Pease painted the building red. "People started referring to it as, 'the little red schoolhouse,' " Wehbe said. At that point, the Peases added the school's storybook bell tower and changed the name.
The only child of deaf parents, Ruth Stover was born in Ashland, Neb., and raised in Atlantic, Iowa. From the age of 4 she communicated on behalf of her parents with the hearing world. She was teased about them by other children.
"My mother was taunted as a girl," Wehbe said. "She became determined not to pass on that kind of treatment."
Pease graduated from a high school program for teachers in training but did not attend college. She married, and she and her husband moved to Los Angeles in 1941. Eventually, they had two children, born 17 years apart.
After the school set down roots on Highland Avenue, it grew to include about 20 children. Over the years, parents included 1950s sex symbol actress Jayne Mansfield and a Mexican consular official at one end of the spectrum and people who cleaned houses for a living at the other, Wehbe said.
To distinguish her school from a baby-sitting service, Pease helped form the Pre-School Assn. of California in 1951. The group lobbies for higher standards and closer monitoring of preschools and nursery schools.
For years, she and her family lived off campus, but in 1968, a change in building codes required that the schoolhouse be torn down to be upgraded.
To cover expenses, the Peases sold their house. From then on, they lived on the school grounds.
Pease retired in the early 1980s. Her husband died in 1983. Wehbe and her husband, Ferris, expanded the school, beginning in 1984. Now there are five buildings and about 250 students in classes ranging from preschool to eighth grade. They changed the name to its current The Hollywood Schoolhouse.
Most recently, Pease shared a house on campus with her daughter, son-in-law and their four children.
Mornings, she stood on her balcony and greeted students, who called her "Grandma" or "Miss Ruth." She attended the school shows, often wearing her familiar gold sneakers. She dressed in costume for the Halloween parties and until recently went out dancing every week.
"Mrs. Pease's gold sneakers and her dancing say so much about her personality," said Barbara Taupier, who has been on the school faculty for 15 years. "She was an inspiration."
In addition to her daughter, Pease is survived by her son, Robert; seven grandchildren; seven great-grandchildren; and five great-great-grandchildren.
A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. Sunday on the school campus.
Contributions in her name can be made to the Ruth Pease Scholarship Fund, The Hollywood Schoolhouse, 1248 N. Highland Ave., Los Angeles, CA 90038.