Ruth Uy Asmundson MS’68 left her remote village in the Philippines on a Fulbright Scholarship to pursue a master’s degree in chemistry at Wilkes. She then went on to obtain a doctorate in agricultural chemistry from the University of California, Davis. While pursuing her doctorate, she met and married the late Vigfus A. Asmundson, then mayor of Davis, Calif., not realizing she would one day become mayor herself. Her extraordinary journey is featured in the Fall 2010 issue of Wilkes magazine. Here’s a peek into the details of her fascinating life.
Q. Can you tell us more about your childhood in the Philippines during World War II?
A. I am the fourth of eight children (five girls and three boys). . . I grew up in a small barrio (or village) in the northern part of the Philippines. The village did not have electricity, running water or paved road. The nearest doctor or hospital was half a day away, so my mom delivered all of her eight children by herself. The barrio now has electricity but still no running water and the road is still a dirt road.
I was born at the end of World War II. During the war, my parents collaborated with the American soldiers and thankfully, were not caught hiding American soldiers. Otherwise they would have been tortured by the Japanese soldiers. One of my uncles was caught and was tortured terribly; he survived but was so sickly that he didn’t live long.
My parents hid soldiers inside hollowed bales of tobaccos and, after the war, when these Americans came back to the United States, they would send my mom books, magazines and newspapers. My mom, despite only achieving a sixth-grade education, was well-read and, because she had medical books and other scientific books, she ended up as the local doctor and veterinarian for the barrio.
A. I came to Wilkes University at the end of August 1966 after a month of Fulbright orientation at the University of Hawaii in Honolulu. I stayed with Dr. and Mrs. Pete Rozelle, who was the chair of the chemistry department at Wilkes University. He was also my major advisor for my master’s program. My first memory was when I saw my first snow at 4 p.m. in the afternoon, Nov. 18, 1966.
Q. What was your reaction to winter in northeast Pennsylvania?
A. I had never seen snow before coming to Wilkes University. The first time I saw snow I didn’t know what it was. Then, early the next morning when I was going to the 6 a.m. mass. I remember coming out of the dorm and everything was so white. It made me feel like I was an angel in heaven. I put on my boots and just ran around and around the dorm. However, being Philippine born, the cold, cold winter was too much for me so, after two years, I moved to Davis, Calif., to study agricultural chemistry.
Q. Can you tell us more about your family? I understand all your children are as interesting and accomplished as you are.
A. Vigfus and I have four daughters and also raised two of my nephews.
Alinia Asmundson graduated from Dartmouth College with degrees in mechanical engineering and women’s studies. She also received her master’s degree in engineering management from Dartmouth. Her husband, Omen Wild, is a computer engineer. Alinia now works for Intel and Omen works at the University of California, Davis. They have a 2-year- old son, Zypher, and a 3-month-old daughter, Zhayne.
Irena Asmundson graduated from MIT with degrees in math and economics, and received her doctorate in economics from Stanford University. She now works at the International Monetary Fund in Washington D.C.
Vigdis Asmundson graduated from University of California, Davis with degrees in biological sciences and classics and is now a teacher. She is also an active philanthropist. She was a Peace Corps volunteer in Togo, West Africa and just came back from six months of volunteer work teaching in Somalia.
Sigrid Asmundson, a lawyer, graduated from UCDavis with degrees in political science and communications. She also received her juris doctorate from UCDavis School of Law. She is married to another lawyer, Tyler Asmundson, who changed his last name to Asmundson after marrying my daughter. They have a 7-month-old son, Zach.
Q. You raised two of your nephews. Did you adopt them?
A. No, we just raised them but they kept their last name. My sister died of breast cancer 20 years ago. Her husband died two years before she did. We took the boys in when they were 9 and 11.
Wilfred Uy Cartano graduated from the University of Arizona with a degree in business. He works for an Apple Computer store in the Bay Area, California.
Jonas Uy Cartano has a music degree from Carlton College and a master of music administration from Harvard University. He works at Music America in Washington D.C. as a program director.
A. My first grandson is Zypher Vigfus James Asmundson-Wild, born two years ago to my daughter Alinia and her husband, Omen. They also have a daughter, Zhayne Lane Jo Asmundson-Wild, born this past May.
My daughter Sigrid and her husband Tyler have a seven-month-old son, Zachariah Davis Asmundson.
All my grandchildren live within 10 minutes of me, so I am able to see them on an almost daily basis.
Q. When you finished your doctorate, you returned to the Philippines, even though your husband had already asked you to marry him. How did you end up returning to the United States?
A. After my Ph.D. program at UCDavis, I returned to the Philippines as a professor of chemistry at my alma mater, Adamson University, in Manila. I was also appointed as chair of the graduate program in chemistry.
As a Fulbright Scholar, I had to go back to the Philippines for at least two years before I could come back to the United States. However, six months after I left the United States, Vigfus came to the Philippines to ask me again to marry him and I said yes again. We applied for and were granted a waiver of the two-year residency requirement from both the Philippine and United States government.
Q. You were the first Filipina elected mayor of a city in the United States. What is it like to be part of a historic “first” like that? (NOTE: Asmundson retired as mayor in July 2010.)
A. I am told that I am the first Filipina (Filipino woman immigrant) to be elected mayor of a city in the United States. We’ve had several Filipino (male) mayors, past and present, in the United States. We now have a second Filipina mayor in California, in the city of Colfax.
I’m proud to be the first Filipina mayor. The recognition and power of being one is an asset as I travel to other countries, especially in the Philippines. The power that comes with it is tremendous, but I try to stay grounded by thinking of myself as a “public servant” to the community, for the people who chose me to represent them.
Now that I have this title my visits to the Philippines are packed with political events and appearances, which is very different from before. I am frequently asked to travel around the Philippines, appear on national television, be a guest speaker at events and talk to people about leadership and making a difference. I also received many letters and emails from other Filipinos telling me that I have inspired (them), which makes my new hectic travel schedule worth it.
Q. Have you ever encountered discrimination as a woman or a minority?
A. I don’t know if I’ve really felt discrimination being a woman or minority because I won’t allow it. When I sense that I’m being discriminated against, I confront the person and the issue. I believe that discrimination or prejudice is a two-way street. The discrimanatee needs to educate the discriminator about what they are doing wrong. Sometimes the discriminator doesn’t even know that what he or she is saying or doing is discriminatory.
Whenever I’m in a situation that is making me uncomfortable, I talk to the other person about it. During my many campaigns for elected positions, I didn’t feel that people were looking at me as a woman or as a minority.
At the early start of my political career I was asked if I’m running as a woman or as a minority. I said that I was running for the position, not against any candidate, and that people should vote for me if they feel I am the best person for the job.
One time this was brought up at the dais about my being a woman and I said that I’m just as good as the men. One of the three male council members said, “Well, Ruth is actually better than us.” I have never received that question again.
Q.. Do you have any advice for people hoping to get into politics?
A. Register to vote and vote at every election. It is your right and responsibility to vote and elect the best person you know to represent you in government. You cannot criticize your elected officials unless you have voted. You cannot criticize unless you do something about the issue or problem.
Power is very seductive and tempting. You need to stay grounded and not succumb to those temptation. Think of yourself as a “public servant.” You are elected to serve the public to do what is good and right for your community. You cannot please everybody, but you need to do the best you can. You have to have integrity; do the right thing, especially when nobody is looking.
Q. You served two terms as mayor and spent more than 18 years in public service. How did you celebrate your retirement?
A. The first party was the "Getting Mom Back" Retirement party hosted by my daughters. Over 250 of my friends came to celebrate that Friday evening (right after my last council meeting). Fortunately it was a beautiful day, so it turned into a garden party. It was wonderful to see so much support from my fellow community members as well as several public officials from the surrounding areas.
Another party was given by the Davis Filipino Group. It was a surprise party. They asked my kids to get me out of the house for two hours and, when I came back, I saw all these Filipinos of all ages in Filipino dress. The house was packed, decorated with all things Filipino, and they had a big banner in the garden. We had a sit-down dinner for over 100 people and the food, WOW, was all Filipino food with an entire roasted pig (lechon) as the centerpiece.
The program started with the two national anthems -- U.S. and Philippines -- and young children performing Filipino songs and dances, followed by performances by the UCDavis graduate students. The men serenaded me, with adults as well a children dancing and singing. The performances included the Tinikling – our national dance. I was asked to participate despite the fact that I haven’t performed that dance in many years! Fortunately, I was still spry enough to be graceful, and my picture dancing was featured in the local newspaper the next day.
Q. What are your plans for retirement?
A. I am 65 years old and have spent the last 18 years in politics. It is now time to focus on my personal life, enjoy quality time with my kids, grandkids and my 90-year old mom. And of course I continue to dote on my grandchildren, who I frequently watch and who visit me almost every day.
I will still be active in the community. In the city, I want to continue working on sister city relations and was recently named the first Sister City Ambassador for the City of Davis. For the school district, I want to help the fundraising to support vital programs in K-12 education. . .