Lessons to live by

Gainesville teacher, philanthropist celebrates milestone

Former University of Florida professor and local philanthropist Alfred Ring, seen here Friday, turns 100 Jan. 25. Local points of interest that bear his name include UF's Alfred A. Ring Tennis Complex and the Alfred A. Ring Park.

ROB C. WITZEL/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Monday, January 17, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 16, 2005 at 11:44 p.m.


Birthday open house

In honor of Alfred A. Ring's 100th birthday on Jan. 25, his family will hold an open house on Saturday. The event will be held from 2 to 6 p.m. at Ring's home, 1908 NW 7th Lane.

A few days before his 100th birthday, the teacher is still teaching.
Today's lesson: Success on the tennis court.
"The secret of a good game is to keep the ball on the racket as long as possible," Alfred Adolph Ring said Friday at his northwest Gainesville home, sweeping his arm in a long arc as he sat on a maroon couch. "Spin on the ball is the most important part of tennis, and the longer you keep the ball on the racket, the more spin you get."
Normal conversation is difficult these days for Ring, who is next to deaf, frail and hasn't played tennis since he was 95. But when a shouted question does register, it is for the listener just to sit back and become a student of the retired real estate professor and philanthropist who adds centenarian to his credentials on Jan. 25.
On the secret of life: "Keep calm," he said after a characteristically long period of thought. "By that I mean take everything with a sense of balance."
On teaching: "I am what you call a born teacher," he said, his cloudy-gray eyes brightening at the thought of the passion that hasn't diminished since 1947, when he arrived at the University of Florida to teach real estate. "I enjoy explaining things, and feel I'm good at it."
On donating a dozen acres for Alfred A. Ring Park, Gainesville's 20-acre greenway that extends for nearly a mile along Hogtown Creek: "I've always felt about money that you can't take it with you," he said. "I've tried to do something to make the world a better place. I'm a naturalist, and I like to see land developed to the highest and best public use."
On aging: "I'm getting old - they tell me," said Ring, who also is the namesake for UF's tennis pavilion to which he donated $2 million, and has endowed a real estate lecture series at the school. "But I don't know what people mean when they ask how it feels to be old. Do I feel young? That would be the wrong impression.
"I enjoy life," he said after another thoughtful pause.
A full life it has been to enjoy. And, at times, to struggle through.
Meager beginnings Born in southeastern Germany in 1905, Ring was the youngest of five children. At 9, he was working in his family's bottling works while his father and a brother served in the German army in World War I. By 14, the necessity of earning a living caused him to leave school. He became an electrician's apprentice, and had worked in coal mines and for electrical firms by the time Germany's economy collapsed and he boarded a steamer at age 20 for a new life in America.
He arrived in New York in 1925 with a $100 farewell gift his parents had given him. Living outside New York City with an aunt whose family operated a boardwalk concession, he sold drinks and snacks and picked up bits and pieces of English. He trimmed trees, dug holes for power poles and was noticed by his bosses for his initiative, fearlessness and hard work.
Reaching higher Always wanting to improve himself, he started reading novels to learn English. He was especially fond of Alexandre Dumas, Ring said Friday as he recounted how reading led him to writing - three real estate textbooks, the first of which earned him his first million - and also caused him to stop smoking.
"I got interested in reading to improve my language," he said, a hint of his native tongue faintly evident in his voice. "I got so excited about novels, particularly Dumas. I was reading 'The Three Musketeers,' and I'd light a cigarette and the next thing you knew I burned my finger because I was so interested in the story. So I stopped smoking."
Ten years ago, Ring chronicled his life in a memoir written specifically for his family, which includes daughters Georgia Rolfe of Gainesville and Katharine Shepherd of Connecticut, six grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren. Widowed twice, he was married for 41 years to Elsie Bardusch Ring until her death in 1973. Two years later he married Emily White Mclachlan - for whom a wildflower garden in Ring Park is named - and she died in 1996.
In memory of each of his wives, he paid for two chapels at the Miles Memorial Health Center in Maine, where the Rings spent many summers.
Characteristically for this generous man, he has shared his memoir with close friends he thought also might find it interesting.
"Talk about a renaissance man," said John James, executive director of Gator Boosters and a friend of Ring's for 25 years. "He's a man with a brilliant sense of humor and mind. He cares about the environment, he cares about athletics. I have learned so much from this gentleman."
Love of the game James shared a story he heard about how Ring got interested in tennis, long before he donated $1 million for construction of the campus tennis pavilion and later another million to upgrade the facility.
"He couldn't find a men's faculty tennis league, so he asked the coach if he could join the women's league," James said. "The coach said he'd have to ask the women. And they said he could join their league."
Ring's health and independence started to decline after he fell off his bike and hurt his back in 1997, when he was 92. But he still pushes his wheeled walker to the street corner most days, and, occasionally, across the room to his grand piano.
Still going strong He didn't have to be asked twice Friday to play a tune, and scooted to the piano. He couldn't remember the name, nor could he hear the music, but his fingers landed true on the keys and the sound was sweet as he played a song from his distant memory.
Back at the couch, his breathing more labored, the teacher contemplated a few moments about life at 100.
"You think of many things until you're asked a specific question," Ring said. "But my head just swims with ideas."
Bob Arndorfer can be reached at (352) 374-5042 or arndorb@gvillesun.com.

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