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MADISON – Ruth Elaine Wagner was born on July 19, 1939 in Watterstown Township, Blue River, Wisconsin, to Harry and Bertha (nee Boughton) Wagner. She died on April 16, 2022 at Agrace Hospice in Fitchburg.
She brought a feisty to spirit to her life, a life marked with moments of deep pain but also full of rich experiences.
Ruth grew up on a farm in Marian Township, Boscobel – a place she loved and a place she cried over when her parents decided to sell it. She graduated from Boscobel High School in May, 1957, and married her high school sweetheart, Robert Linder, on June 19, 1957. They lived in several Illinois cities while he was in the Army and in the years afterward. They had two children – Debora and Bryon.
The family moved to Madison in May of 1967, as her marriage to Bob ended. She later married James Erickson in 1974 and after they were divorced, married Douglas Koppen in 1986. They also divorced. Ruth said “having decided she didn’t know how to pick the right partner, she remained very happily single for the rest of her life.”
In March 1987, her 28-year old daughter, now known as Derby Wagner-Richardson, was murdered in Racine. No one was ever charged with the murder. That extraordinarily painful event shaped the rest of Ruth’s life. She took in Derby’s daughters – ages 3 and 7 – to raise but a fierce custody battle ensued and after two years, custody was given to their father.
Ruth became an advocate for victim’s rights legislation in Wisconsin and was active in the Parents of Murdered Children of South Central Wisconsin.
Her work life spanned many types of jobs – accounting, real estate, prison guard, office manager, business tax collector for the state. She retired at age 69 and cherished time to read, attend plays, work on her house, do woodworking.
Ruth believed strongly “that all work that was legal was honorable work and that one could learn something from even the most menial job. She recognized and taught her children that sometimes all of the choices available are crappy, in which case you just have to pick the one that’s the least crappy and make the best of it.”
She collected Louisa May Alcott books, having been profoundly affected by Little Women. She admired the resourcefulness of the girls and their mother in the story. “Reach higher,” Ruth would say, “because even if you don’t reach your goal, you’ll get higher than you have otherwise.”
Ruth is survived by her son, Bryon, of Madison; sisters Alice Workinger, Loves Park, Ill. and Ellie Schmidt, Mt. Horeb; and brother, Harry (Judy) Wagner, South Beloit, Ill.; granddaughters Joy Wagner-Richardson and August Marie Bell; a great-grandson; and many nieces and nephews.
She was preceded in death by her parents, Harry and Bertha Wagner; step-father Dorland Updike; sister Bette Adams; brother Mike (Dee) Wagner; brothers-in-law Steve Schmidt and Ivan Adams; daughter Derby; niece Angela Wagner; step-niece Kerry Morse; and twin step-great-nieces Sydney and Samantha Whitmarsh; and by her three former husbands.
Services to remember Ruth’s life will be held on Tuesday, April 26, at 11 a.m. with Rev. Phil Haslanger officiating at Ryan Funeral Home, 5701 Odana Rd., Madison. There will be a visitation from 10 to 11 a.m. To access the Livestream Link of Ruth’s service or to view and sign this guestbook, please visit: www.ryanfuneralservice.
Ruth expressed the hope that those attending the service will wear bright and favorite colors – and only wear black if black happens to be their favorite color. Instead of flowers, Ruth asks that donations be made to Domestic Abuse Intervention Services in Madison and the Women’s Resource Center and Bethany Apartments in Racine.
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