After Radcliffe, Baker Goes Her Own Way

“My days at Radcliffe have no bearing on my life today,” says Ruth M. Fitzgerald `51 in an unapologetic tone and slight Boston accent. She is probably one of a handful of Harvard graduates who has a right to this claim.

Fitzgerald returned to her family’s farm and orchard after graduation where she started first a family and then a bakery.

“I look at the other people who graduated with me, and they are doctors, lawyers, presidents of colleges and PhDs,” she says. “But I’ve been very happy with my life.”

According to family lore, a lack of beds propelled Fitzgerald into the baking business.

“When she had her second child, William, she realized that she needed another bed and another room. She got the idea to sell pies [to make money],” says Cathy Fitzgerald, her daughter-in-law.

“It was just a matter of survival,” Fitzgerald says. “In those cases, you just kind of, as they say, fly by the seat of your pants.”

On the orchard, it seemed a natural progression to use the excess fruit for pies.

Though she maintains “you need no special training to be a baker,” Fitzgerald does credit one part of her education as having been especially helpful.

“Nursing helped me very much with the sanitation aspects of the business,” she says, referring to a program she took at Radcliffe in conjunction with Mass General Hospital (MGH).

Fitzgerald says she was always more interested in nursing than in getting a Harvard diploma.

“I’ve wanted to be a nurse since I was a youngster,” says Fitzgerald, who came to Harvard by default when MGH’s nursing program wouldn’t accept her because she was too young.

“Definitely my thoughts were on MGH,” she says, her tone of voice indicating a lasting disappointment.

One of her dissatisfactions with Harvard was that it impinged on her nursing time.

“It seemed to me that Radcliffe did not bend to the hospital’s needs,” she says. “It was really the hospital that bent to Radcliffe’s.”

Nursing comlications aside, Fitzgerald asserts that she was happy at college.

“In enjoyed it, I really did,” she says.

She majored in English, a department in which she found her fellow students dazzling.

“Rona Jaffe [bestselling author] and I were both in class together,” she notes. “She was brilliant even then––I was very average.”

Fitzgerald, who went to a local public school in Methuen, Mass. Found the other students’ credentials slightly overwhelming.

“I felt very young and inexperienced,” she says, “especially with so many prep school kids around. An awful lot of them get in.”

She recalls the seemingly magical process by which she was eventually able to catch up.

“I started with a D and got up to an A by the end,” she says. “Someone must have taken me under their wing.”

Those A’s are far from the mind of those who know her today.

“I doubt many people know about [where she went to college],” Cathy Fitzgerald says. “The only time we ever discussed the subject was when my children turned college age.”

If she has been completely satisfied with her career, it is because it has allowed her to join family values with her work.

“It’s only been a couple of years that a family member didn’t either bake or make the crust or slice the apples of every single pie we sell––and we sell thousands each day,” her daughter-in-law says.

And Fitzgerald proudly counts off the growing clan that inhabits the orchard grounds.

Not only “have I been here for our parents, both my husband’s and my own, but now we do have a family right here on the premises,” Ruth says, proudly counting off three children and a current tally of nine grandchildren––three each.

The entire family comes from the area around Methuen.

“You have to know where you come from,” Fitzgerald says, “and we’re real old New Englanders. We go back, DAR [Daughters of the American Revolution] and all that.”

She muses for a minute before adding, “I never imagined I’d be doing this, but it’s worked out very well. I wanted to be with my children growing up. We truly are so lucky.”