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A Tribute to O.C.'s Beloved Grande Dame

March 17, 1997|ANN CONWAY

It seemed a surprising selection: a choral solo of "My Way."

But the pop classic, per- formed along with hymns at the funeral of Ruth Segerstrom, perfectly suited his 99-year-old mother, says her son, Henry Segerstrom.

"She had the qualities of great calm, dignity and zest for life," he says.

An ambitious and generous woman, Ruth Segerstrom was a philanthropist and an integral part of Orange County's inner circles of big business and high society.

Her family developed the retail monolith South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa and gave millions to develop venues for the arts in the county.

Often putting the needs of her family and community ahead of her own, she still managed to chart a course of personal style and sophistication.

She was a matriarch--a grande dame, as they are sometimes known.

At the helm of prominent, wealthy families, these senior members of a clan--Brooke Astor of New York, Dorothy Chandler of Los Angeles, Rose Kennedy of Boston--sought to inspire their children and elevate the quality of life for others.

And it is done with a graciousness we're not likely to see again soon, says social observer Letitia Baldrige of Washington. "I call them grande dames or dowager duchesses," says Baldrige, who was chief of staff for Jacqueline Kennedy in the White House. "These women represent a time of grace and style that is in very short supply today."


There are some budding candidates--women with great fortunes such as Mrs. William Gates, Baldrige observes. "But they won't have their chance for a generation or two. To be considered, a woman has to be over 70--preferably 80--and live until she's 90 or so."

She must want to combine her personal wealth with the wealth of others "to accomplish good works," Baldrige says. "And she must have style--style in everything," she adds, from the way she dresses and runs her home to how she conducts herself with people of all ages.

An example of Rose Kennedy's gracious style: "When my daughter made her first communion," Baldrige recalls, "Rose took the time to write her a beautiful letter. Here she was, after the assassination [of JFK], and she writes a letter to a little girl. . . ."

Ten years ago, nearly 400 people got a glimpse of Ruth Segerstrom's generous style during a tribute to her by the Orange County chapter of the American Cancer Society: As she received a standing ovation for helping found the chapter in 1947, she turned the spotlight on her family, including her son. "Come here, Henry!" she called, reaching to give him a hard hug. "I'd like to emphasize that this is a family affair . . . so I want to introduce my family."

As cards and letters of condolence have poured into the Segerstrom family following her death Feb. 28, Henry Segerstrom has been moved by how many people knew his mother. "She related so well to everyone--without regard to age or circumstance," he says. "Obviously, she inspired many people she never met. . . . That is a great tribute to her."

Maura Eggan of Atlanta, former marketing director of South Coast Plaza, remembers the day Ruth Segerstrom welcomed her and her sister--who was visiting from out of town--to her Lido Isle home, which was filled with fresh flowers and precious antiques. "She had us to lunch and gave my sister a tapestry knapsack--which was so lovely and gracious," Eggan says. "Like so many people who have lived in Orange County, my life is the richer for having known her. She extended many kindnesses to me."

The combination of largess and longevity is rare, Baldrige says. "It's in the genes--inherited from past ancestors, maybe a grandparent. Health and longevity is inherited; grace is too."

Ruth Segerstrom was born in Indiana on land granted her family by her great-grandfather. (The deed was signed by President Andrew Jackson.) Raised in Indianapolis by her Scottish Presbyterian mother and her father, who descended from Protestant colonists, she was taught the moral and ethical values by which she lived, says Henry Segerstrom.

Adds his sister, Ruth Ann Moriarty of Santa Ana: "Mother was born in the Victorian era--when you respected your parents, when education was very important and you were to make the very most of yourself."

After meeting Anton Segerstrom, who was in Indianapolis serving in the U.S. Air Force, she told her parents she would marry him and move to California. Her mother offered her a fur coat to remain, but she declined, coming to Santa Ana in 1920.

"She was determined and independent," Moriarty says.

Eventually, she would become a managing partner of C.J. Segerstrom & Sons, joining her nephew Harold Segerstrom and son to develop one of the country's most successful retail centers.

The philanthropy of the Segerstroms has also changed the landscape--with the family donating millions to create the Orange County Performing Arts Center and South Coast Repertory, both also in Costa Mesa.

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