COVID claims Ruth Sanders, 89, prize-winning Atlanta teacher

Ruth Sanders taught generations of Atlanta students.
Ruth Sanders taught generations of Atlanta students.

Some of her high school students called her “Mother Physics,” an affectionate nickname handed down from class to class.

Ruth Sanders, a demanding, creative teacher, was childless, but left her imprint on decades of science students at Grady and Lakeside high schools.

“She was a mother to everyone, which was interesting, because she had no children. She lived for those students,” her niece, Elizabeth Bennett, said.

“She was really a character, a brilliant teacher, and very creative in how she taught,” said former student Jennifer Bullard Madsen. She had students do experiments such as allowing a showerhead enough water pressure to drip one drop just as the proceeding one hit the floor. “She used that to help us figure out how to calculate the constant for Newton’s law of gravity.”

In a 2007 retrospective, Sanders told the Grady High School newspaper she was not a popular teacher, but many students told her they were glad she held them to a tough standard.

Ruth Virginia Kirby Sanders died from COVID-19 on Jan. 30, two weeks shy of her 90th birthday.

She was born Feb. 13, 1931, in Woodland, Alabama, the sixth of seven children, the only girl, and almost certainly the only person from her high school class to meet both Albert Einstein and the poet Robert Frost.

“She was raised to be very independent,” Bennett said. “She felt like she was free to become anything she wanted.”

Her family had no money for college, but she got a scholarship to Jacksonville State College, and got off the bus as a freshman wearing a dress made of chicken feed sacks and carrying all her belongings in a brother’s U.S. Army duffel bag. When the poet Robert Frost visited the campus, all the students had to write poems, and he called her onstage and read hers the student body.

She discovered she liked teaching fellow students, switched from pre-med to physics, and changed the course of her life. She earned a Bachelor of Science from Jacksonville State and a Master of Science from the University of Alabama. She taught there before moving to Atlanta to become the first female physics teacher at Grady High School in 1956.

Among her students: Yolanda King, daughter of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta King.

While at Grady, she married another science teacher, Eugene Sanders, also a highly regarded teacher who mentored many students, had organized the Georgia State Science Fair in 1948 and directed it for six years.

Ruth Sanders helped launch the science curriculum of the Georgia Governor’s Honors Program in the early 1960s, and was selected to serve on the national Physical Science Study Committee, a task force that developed standards for high school physics. That work took her to universities like Princeton and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology during summer vacations. An encounter in a Princeton lab became one of her oft-told stories.

“She walked into the lab one day and found Einstein looking through the wrong end of the spectrometer,” recalled Bennett. “She said, ‘Professor Einstein, I think you might see better if you looked at it the other way.’ "

In 1970, Lakeside High School in DeKalb County recruited her aggressively and she switched, becoming the chair of the science department at Lakeside. She retired in 1992.

In a private Facebook group, former Lakeside students paid tribute to her after her death.

“When I finished my Ph.D., my mom sent Mrs. Sanders a copy of my dissertation,” wrote Ralph Whaley. “She called me on the phone, and we had lunch together in the summer of 2001…. She wanted to know all about my research. She taught me more about hard work and scientific ethics than any college professor.”

“I was thinking of her just yesterday, how she would lock the physics classroom once the bell rang,” wrote Darci Cosgrove. “You couldn’t get in, no matter how long you knocked on the door!”

Sanders was known for helping students excel at highly competitive national science competitions, attend prestigious universities and go on to careers in science.

“I was the only Westinghouse Science Talent Search semifinalist in the state of Georgia my year, and an International Science and Engineering Fair first place winner, and none of that would have been possible without her,” said Madsen, who attended the Yale School of Public Health and is now working with the federal government on COVID-19 testing.

Sanders told the Grady student newspaper, “I was told I sent more students to MIT and Georgia Tech than anyone.”

She received two Presidential Awards for Excellence in Science Teaching.

Sanders is survived by many nieces, nephews, and cousins. A virtual memorial service will be hosted by Glenn Memorial United Methodist Church via Zoom and on the church’s Facebook Live page at 2 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 21. Family and friends are asked to contact the church for reservations. Sanders requested that memorial contributions be made to the public school of the donor’s choice.

ExploreRead the family-placed obituary and online guestbook for Ruth Sanders

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