SALISBURY — It's appropriate Ruth Booker has often been referred to as the “Hat Lady.”
She has been a woman of many hats — caregiver, seamstress, craftsperson, designer, turban and hat maker, bowler, beauty queen and NASCAR fan.
Booker will even tell you she's a pool instructor.
“Look on the wall over there,” says Booker, who always wears one of her self-designed turbans.
Sure enough, on the far wall of the pool room at Rufty-Holmes Senior Center is a photograph of Booker sizing up a pool shot while others look on.
But why do people sort of chuckle first when asked to describe their friend Ruth Booker?
“She's a character — with a turban,” Thomasina Paige says. “She's full of surprises, and her bark is much bigger than her bite.”
Rick Eldridge, head of the senior center, says Booker has been an ambassador for the place. He also calls her a fixture, much like an important piece of furniture in the living room.
If you walked into the living room and the sofa were gone, you would make note of it right away, Eldridge said.
The same goes for Booker. “We notice when she's not here,” he says. “She's a piece of work.”
Eleanor Qadirah, Booker's daughter, calls her the senior center's mascot.
Friday just happened to be “Ruth Booker Day” at Rufty-Holmes Senior Center in recognition of her 90th birthday, which is today.
Booker didn't know it, but a roomful of friends waited for her in the pool room Friday afternoon after she left her Christmas meeting with pen pals from Corriher-Lipe Middle School.
During the school year, Booker shares letters back and forth with a boy from Kannapolis who goes to the school, and it was her chance to meet him in person.
Booker just happens to share her birth date with former Salisbury Police Chief Mark Wilhelm, who was there to give his congratulations.
“Are you staying out of trouble?” Wilhelm asked.
“No,” Booker answered quickly. Also in the crowd was Janis Hudson Smith, whose earliest childhood memories are of sticking close to Booker when Ruth was working for the Hudson family.
Smith shared her grainy mid- 1950s photographs of Booker at her 2-year-old birthday party and when Booker would carry Smith out to the wash line in a clothes basket.
“That's why I turned out as well as I did — because of Ruth,” said Smith, who likes to tell people Booker was her second mother.
Booker said she has “children” such as Smith everywhere.
When former U.S. Sen. Elizabeth H. Dole was an infant in Salisbury, Booker also looked after her at times. She remembered once how the little Elizabeth Hanford couldn't quite pronounce her name and would call her “Rufie.”
When the late Mary Hanford, Dole's mother, celebrated her 100th birthday, Booker and Qadirah were among the people invited.
Other Salisburians know Booker for her talents as a seamstress, making dresses, blouses and coats to match her hats and doing alterations.
For years she did alterations for stores such as Purcell's and Belk-Harry, and she also created store window displays.
In the 1970s, she co-founded the Rowan Craft Association with Alane Privett and served as its president.
A scrapbook full of the projects and activities of the busy craft association in the 1970s was brought to the birthday party Friday afternoon.
Booker grew up in Chesterfield, S.C., as the third of 11 children. She moved to Salisbury as a teenager to take care of a sick aunt. For several years as a young woman, she lived in Philadelphia and New York before moving back to Salisbury in the 1950s.
She would volunteer for the J.C. Price American Legion Ladies Auxiliary and one year was the post's beauty queen. She also was an accomplished bowler, a volunteer at the VA hospital in Salisbury and an art instructor in Artex decorating.
But most people know her for her hats and turbans.
She said Friday she has been making turbans since 1965, and many of her friends have never seen her without one.
Booker has touted the turbans as decorative accessories and protection against wind and rain. She also made them for women undergoing chemotherapy treatments who have lost their hair.
They are stylish. She once told the Post she started making cloth, fur and velvet hats, too, because she tired of seeing women walk around with curlers in their hair.
A woman always needs a hat, she said. It can keep you warm, keep you cool or keep you dry.
At 90, Booker still drives. She still sells her turbans, hats and aprons at the Salisbury Farmers Market.
She also likes to attend chair yoga classes three days a week, besides many other activities at the center.
Wherever she goes, Qadirah said, Booker is promoting the senior center.
So, was the woman who is full of surprises taken aback by her surprise party Friday?
“Nothing surprises me,” she said.
Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263,or firstname.lastname@example.org.