"We were just so proud of her'

Ruby Dee's local connections reflect on actress's life, legacy
Jun. 18, 2014 @ 04:59 AM

To the millions of fans she acquired over decades on the silver screen and through her manifold talents, the late Ruby Dee was a larger-than-life icon.

But to Donald Patterson of Sanford, Dee was an aunt who was more well known than most — who had starred in celebrated films and pushed for racial equality alongside Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, among other accomplishments.

“We were distant, but we were blood kin; as a kid, I'd see her once or twice a year,” said Patterson, who works as a motivational speaker and sales trainer. Dee's high profile aside, he added, the Oscar nominee was “normal, down-to-earth, and very, very smart.”

An obvious attribute was her appearance, he said, adding, "She was the Beyonce of her time. She was absolutely gorgeous."

Patterson said his relation to Dee, who died June 11, was through his mother's side. He and his sister, Andrea Martin, were originally from New York, like their Harlem-raised aunt, but moved to the local area at ages 17 and 8, where their stepfather had family connections.

In the wake of Dee's death at her home in New Rochelle, N.Y., at the age of 91, Patterson said he's been fielding calls and questions about his aunt — and growing ever more impressed the more he learns about her life.

“[She was] just always active, active in everything,” he said. “We were just so proud of her.”

Born Ruby Ann Wallace in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1922, Dee went on to be a trailblazer as both an actress and a crusader for civil rights. She first appeared on screen in the 1946 film “That Man of Mine,” and her part in 1950's "The Jackie Robinson Story" is regarded as her breakthrough role. She also performed in lead roles in the American Shakespeare Festival — becoming the first black actress to do so.

Her appearance in 1961's “A Raisin in the Sun” — in which she also appeared on Broadway — was among her most acclaimed performances, and her portrayal of Denzel Washington's mother in 2007's “American Gangster” garnered her an Academy Award nomination.

Her art and activism went hand in hand, and she tackled projects with racial overtones at a time when blacks were not typically cast in serious roles. Working alongside her husband, Ossie Davis, himself a notable director and actor, as well as other groundbreaking artists like Sidney Poitier and Spike Lee, her performances often doubled as social commentary.

“They were just pioneers,” Patterson said. “She was a person who wasn't going to take no for an answer. She set the bar real high.”

The extensive list of accolades Dee earned in her lifetime include an Emmy, a Grammy, two Screen Actors Guild awards, the NAACP Image Award, Kennedy Center Honors, the National Medal of Art and the National Civil Rights Museum's Lifetime Achievement Award. Her career extended into television, radio, Broadway and even writing.

Her small-screen credits include soap operas "Guiding Light" and "Peyton Place,” as well as the miniseries “Roots: The Next Generation.” She co-authored the joint autobiography “With Ossie and Ruby: In This Life Together,” shared credit for the screenplay for “Up Tight!” and penned the book and lyrics for the musical “Take It from the Top!”

News of Dee's death merited words of praise from such luminaries as President Barack Obama, who said, "Through her remarkable performances, Ruby paved the way for generations of black actors and actresses, and inspired African-American women across our country.”

“She's going to surpass most people with her legacy,” Patterson said, adding, “It's unbelievable the accomplishments.”

Another Sanford man, Alexander Brower III, said his family connection to Dee and Davis was through marriage, as his uncle was married to Dee's sister. He had never met Dee, but admired her tenacity and said she and her husband “were the kind of people who were determined to succeed.”

“They were not afraid to speak out,” he said. “That was the main thing, because they knew they were right.”