Ruth Hubbard Cousins an Extraordinary Woman

Ruth Hubbard Cousins (1920 –2007)

by John D. Hogan, St. John’s University

     Ruth Hubbard Cousins was one of those rare and remarkable people who left a lasting impression on virtually everyone she met. She had charm in abundance, and she matched it with hard work, intelligence, and a sly sense of humor. As the director of Psi Chi, the National Honor Society in Psychology, for 33 years, she transformed the organization from a simple record-keeping club into a vibrant association. Most of what Psi Chi is today can be traced to her leadership. And she accomplished it all with style and grace, in spite of early hardships that would have toppled a lesser mortal.

     Ruth Hubbard was born on May 21, 1920, in Waleska, Georgia, one of six children. Her parents, Charles and Frances Boston Hubbard, were both teachers. Her father later became a highly successful construction contractor. In 1941, Ruth married James Cousins, who had majored in economics at Duke University and would later obtain a certified public accountant certificate. His business background would prove crucial to Psi Chi.

     Ruth was interested in psychology, and she enrolled in an introductory course at George Washington University— eventually she would earn both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree from the university. Eva Johnson taught this course, and it was she who asked Ruth to become the executive secretary for Psi Chi. After consulting with her husband, Ruth agreed to take the position for one year. She and Jim knew that they could help put the organization on its feet, and indeed, with their complementary skills, they laid a foundation (including a first contact with the Internal Revenue Service) that would serve the organization effectively for many years. In that initial year, even their two young daughters, who filed and typed, contributed to the effort. As the year drew to a close, Jim Cousins had an appendicitis attack. A few days later he died as a result of a bungled medical procedure. The effect on Ruth was devastating. Despite her grief, she began making a new life for herself and her children, which included managing some family business holdings. She also decided to remain with Psi Chi. One of the first things she did was to push for a larger mission for the organization, and the new national Psi Chi president, Wayne Dennis, was receptive to her ideas. Little by little, she began to implement them. Most important, she began working to have Psi Chi admitted as a member of the Association of College Honor Societies (ACHS), a goal that was soon achieved. Psi Chi did not have a strong financial base in the early years, and Ruth was not well paid. But as the number of inductees increased, with the related growth in income, she was eventually able to hire an assistant and purchase some computers for the office. Psi Chi programs were now held at regional conventions throughout the country as well as at the annual meeting of the American Psychological Association (APA). The speakers were often distinguished psychologists, and Ruth came to know many of them personally, from E. G. Boring and Neal Miller to Florence Denmark, B. F. Skinner, and Philip Zimbardo.

     Despite the success of Psi Chi, the years were not without hardship. Few people knew the reason Ruth had never completed her doctoral degree—one of the national Psi Chi officers had walked off with her dissertation idea, and Ruth said she was too brokenhearted to begin again. The Psi Chi president encouraged her to bring the person up on ethical charges, but she declined. Ruth’s daughter Joan was involved in a serious automobile accident in which she almost died. One of the first people to call Ruth after the accident was B. F. Skinner. Some years later, Ruth herself was diagnosed with breast cancer. During her recovery, she continued her duties without a word of complaint. In 1981, Ruth joined her daughter Carol Tracy to co-found Psi Beta, an honor society for deserving students at two-year schools. Psi Beta flourished and soon became the first such two-year honor society accepted into the ACHS. By the time Ruth retired in 1991, Psi Chi not only honored students but also offered a rich national network of awards, conferences, and activities to serve students and faculty across the nation. A letter to Ruth from 1929 Psi Chi co-founder Edwin B. Newman summed up her accomplishments succinctly. He wrote, “Far more than most people realize, Psi Chi is not what we founded, it is what you have made it” (letter dated August 13, 1989). Ruth received many accolades in her later years. She was one of the first women to serve on the board of the Society of Association Executives in Washington, DC. In 1991, she received a lifetime honorary membership in APA. In retirement, she continued to be active, researching local and family history. She remained in contact with many of the psychologists with whom she had worked in Psi Chi, particularly those she labeled her “maverick” and “wayward” sons. They included Harold Takooshian and the author of this obituary. Two others, Stephen Davis and Joseph Horvat, dedicated a book to her. Until the very end, Ruth maintained the same upbeat style and friendliness that she had exhibited her entire life.

     Ruth Cousins died on January 11, 2007. She is survived by her daughters, Carol Tracy and Joan Cousins, three grandchildren, eight great-grandchildren, a multitude of friends, and tens of thousands of students who benefited from her gentle and giving spirit.

<p>Ruth Cousins (left) and daughter Carol Tracy (right)</p>

Ruth Cousins (left) and daughter Carol Tracy (right)

NOTE: This tribute first appeared in the January, 2009 issue of American Psychologist. This article is reproduced with the express written permission of the American Psychological Association.

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