Environmental Pioneer Gave Scenic America its First Home
A native of Philadelphia, Ruth Becker was a leading force in environmental issues in her home state before taking her passion to the national stage as a co-founder of Scenic America.
A career in conservation was always in the cards for Ruth. She graduated with honors from Temple University then continued her studies with post-graduate work in environmental education at Penn State. She took on leadership roles in her community, serving as president of the Marple Newtown League of Women Voters and a member of Marple Township’s Reclamation Committee and its Environmental Committee.
In 1974, she was named the first executive director of the Pennsylvania Resources Council.
During her lengthy, 20+-year tenure at PRC, Ruth amassed an impressive list of accomplishments. She introduced new efforts to combat litter, such as reactivating the Litterbug, introducing the “Lens on Litter” photo contest, developing the “Take the Pledge NOT to Litter” program, organizing the Pennsylvania Recycling Network, and launching environmentally minded shopping programs encouraging the use of reusable bags. She collaborated with other green-minded organizations to lobby for the passage of a statewide recycling law, which was signed into law in 1989.
Ruth’s role with the PRC also heightened her awareness of billboard blight—an issue at the core of the PRC’s mission since its founding in 1939. The PRC was born out of a national movement aimed at creating more beautiful highways in the wake of the interstate boom. Although the Highway Beautification Act had passed in 1965, there were issues with its implementation, which organizations such as the PRC sought to address.
“The new law had some good objectives that were never realized. It also enabled billboard companies to gain additional revenue from sign removal,” she noted.
Such issues with the Highway Beautification Act caught the attention of other environmental activists at the time, such as Scenic America co-founder Charlie Floyd, who urged the Carter administration to take action on the shortcomings of this legislation. In 1977, at Floyd’s urging, the Secretary of Transportation formed the National Advisory Committee to re-examine the Highway Beautification Act. The committee was made up of representatives from the billboard industry and environmentalists, with both sides represented equally.
President Carter appointed Ruth to serve as one of the environmental voices on this committee, which began to meet regularly to evaluate the effectiveness of the Highway Beautification Act.
“Industry was looking to further weaken the law. We had other plans,” she explained.
Although the Committee was unable to achieve much before being dissolved by the Reagan administration in 1981, members such as Ruth and Charlie viewed its gatherings as opportunities to have sidebar discussions on other potential pathways to success through activism. At the conclusion of the final meeting, a few of the attendees gathered in a conference room at the Holiday Inn and made plans to form an organization to fight for scenic beauty.
With no money and no staff, Ruth stepped forward and took on the responsibility of formally establishing the National Coalition to Preserve Scenic Beauty, which later became the Coalition for Scenic Beauty—and which ultimately became Scenic America.
In addition to needing some formal structure, the organization needed a headquarters. Ruth convinced the PRC board to house the Coalition in its spacious headquarters building for a few months.
“The few months turned into three wonderful years,” she noted.
After three years at its Pennsylvania home, the Coalition relocated to Washington, D.C., changed its name to Scenic America, and hired its first executive director.
“The rest, as they say, is history. Scenic America has blazed new trails and accomplished much,” she said. Ruth continued to serve on Scenic America’s board until her retirement in 1999. For her extensive contributions, she earned commendations from President George H.W. Bush, two governors of Pennsylvania, and the Pennsylvania House and Senate. The PRC honored her with a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2014, and Scenic America presented her with a Founders Award in 2016.
Today Ruth lives in Monroe Township, NJ, where she now devotes her time to supporting seniors in her community as coordinator of the New Beginnings Bereavement Group and the Care Givers Group. She honors the memory of her late husband of 56 years, Dr. Stanley Becker, and is a doting grandmother to four grandchildren.