A Woman Ahead of Her Time

   “We have formed a habit, and rightly so, of boasting of the finer points in our city’s life. We are proud of the many civic improvements which we have brought about in the last few years. Can we in the face of these boasts and in view of this pride, neg­lect to support what is unquestionably one of our greatest assets?”

Ruth W. Atkinson


Ruth W. Atkinson, the first executive director of the organization we now know as United Way Suncoast, issued that clarion call to the community nearly 100 years ago. It’s a rhetorical question that resonates as much today as it did during an era of speakeasies and new-fangled automobiles.

The caring members of our community heeded Atkinson’s words and met the moment, turning a fledgling idea, the Tampa Welfare League and Community Chest, into a social force for transformational change.

She not only advocated for supporting nonprofits, but she spoke often about race relations and the mutual need to solve the problems in the South with “eyes that see, ears that hear and hearts that beat warm with the love of humanity.”

As we enter our second century of service, the legacy initiated by Atkinson and those who followed in her footsteps continues to bring about lasting community impact in our five-county region.

If Ruth was still with us, she would see how United Way Suncoast remains one of the community’s greatest assets. She would marvel at the ongoing success, and challenge us to do more. And she likely would reflect on the doubts that once swirled around the Tampa Welfare League.

After helping The League and Community Chest get off to a positive start, the collective effort that initially supported 16 different nonprofits ran into complications in 1929, according to newspaper accounts from those days. Headlines questioned if the League would continue to exist because people were not delivering on their pledges.

In the middle of that turmoil, Ruth got an offer to start a new Community Chest in Salt Lake City. The job would annually pay $5,000, which would be the equivalent of nearly $100,000 based in today’s economy.

Ruth turned down the offer.

“This is my city, and I feel a certain responsibility to carry on with the situation here, particularly since the community chest program is in a difficult position at this time,” Ruth said in the Tampa Times.

She teamed with civic leaders to steer through the issues – and the 1929 Stock Market Crash – and by Dec. 1930, the headlines told a different story: Chest Affairs In Good Shape For New Body.

That same story announced that Ruth was resigning her post to take a position with the state’s newly-formed public welfare department. She started as the director of community organizations and child welfare for that department.

Nearly four years later, she became Florida’s first commissioner of Public Welfare, extending a proud legacy that’ll always include our illustrious origins at United Way Suncoast.

   “Towns are made by the determined effort of all their citizens. The difference between a live town and a dead one is the difference between civic pride and indifference.”

Ruth W. Atkinson

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