Ruth DeNault An Independent Spirit
May 18, 2014 03:52PM
By Don Kindred
Ruth and sons; Bob, Don, Steve and Tom.
by Donia Moore
Some people might say that intelligence is something you can’t “see”, but they haven’t met Ruth DeNault, President of DeNault’s Hardware-Home Center. Ruth positively radiates it, along with a keen sense of humor and an unbridled enthusiasm for life. This elegant, chic woman is as strong and single-minded as a person can be when it comes to her family, her business and her civic loves.
Family, of course, comes first with Ruth. All four of Ruth’s and Jim’s sons: Bob; Steve; Don; and Tom are an integral part of DeNault hardware business, each with their own Vice President responsibilities in different areas of management expertise. Many of her grandchildren also work in the stores. But Ruth, as President, Secretary and Treasurer of the company, is the unflagging spirit of the business. The National Retail Hardware Association recently awarded her the Top Gun in Hardware prize. It’s the first time a woman was so honored.
Ruth is no stranger to the hardware store business or to hard work. Her mother’s family established the general store and the hardware store next to it in the 1800s in southwestern North Dakota. As schoolgirls, Ruth and her sister were needed to help out in the store with her family.
The family has deep roots in North Dakota. Her father’s parents homesteaded their land in 1899 when the west began to open up for expansion. Many Germans from the Ukraine settled there, and they were primarily farmers. Although they didn’t need much in the way of food since they grew their own, the General Store and the hardware store opened by Ruth’s family was a welcome addition to the town for supplies, tools and other items needed by the burgeoning agricultural population.
Ruth’s grandfather built the family’s first home - a long low building made of stone, with one end reserved for the livestock, and the other end for the family’s living quarters - typical of the building style in that area. They were very hard workers and it wasn’t long until they were able to buy the lumber to build the graceful two story first home Ruth remembers, with the original stone home becoming the barn. “There was a real spirit of independence at that time”, she recalls.
When Ruth graduated from high school with her class of 13 students, she received a scholarship and went away to college at the University of St. James in North Dakota. Jim was also attending college there as a business major, a couple years ahead of her. It was love at first sight for Jim. He had to convince Ruth, though, and he wasn’t afraid to ask his friends for help. On one occasion, they were on their way to a football game, along with one of the drummers in the band. Jim convinced his friend to pack his drums in the back seat in such a way that it forced Ruth to sit closer to him! A few more of these moves soon convinced her that he was serious and she agreed to marry him.
They returned home following Jim’s graduation. His father was in the insurance industry. but Jim knew that he didn’t want to be in that business. He’d always liked the retail end of business where customers would come to the store instead of having to go out to find customers. He wanted to start his own retail business but knew he would probably be drafted into the Korean War within a few months. He decided to go to work for a brand new hardware store in Jamestown, North Dakota. The owners were just starting out and couldn’t afford to pay an employee. Jim really wanted the retail experience and agreed to work for $130 a month at the store. He stayed for about six months until he was drafted into the U.S. Army where he served from 1951 to 1953 as an Artillery Officer.
While he was serving, his parents decided to retire to San Clemente. When he returned, he and Ruth came out to San Clemente for a Christmas visit. They originally had designs on moving to Northern California, up into what is now the Silicon Valley. The development climate was already beginning to flourish and seemed to be a good environment for a new business.
The spell of Southern California and San Clemente was hard to break, however. Jim’s parents did not want them to leave so they arranged for him and Ruth to work at the tiny local hardware store called Builder’s Hardware and Paint Supply as a Christmas job.
“Jim worked in the store and I did their accounting on a part-time basis,” Ruth confides. “They were severely under-capitalized.”
It wasn’t long before Ruth and Jim bought out the original owners who were ready to retire and trust their business legacy to the young couple. They kept the original name from 1956 to 1964, until they moved it to a new, larger building across the street and named it San Clemente Hardware Company. Under their guidance, with Jim as President/CEO and Ruth as Secretary Treasurer, the tiny store grew and grew until they had to once again look for larger quarters. In 2001, they bought lots on the old highway (now El Camino Real) and DeNault’s Hardware was born. It kept growing, largely in part to their wonderful customer service, and the store location finally ended up on North El Camino, where it remains today.
Ruth DeNault involvement with the community is legendary - especially with our beautiful Casa Romantica, home of the town’s founder Ole Hanson. Originally asked to serve on the nominating committee for a Board of Director’s search, it soon became apparent to her and her three colleagues that they would have to serve as the first Board of Directors, since everyone they approached was already committed to other itineraries. Many years later, Ruth is still a proud member of that original board and is currently serving another term as President.
As well as Ruth’s tireless work in securing Casa Romantica’s present and future, she serves on seven different boards throughout Orange County and as far away as North Dakota. One of her favorites is The Archeological Society in Orange County, where she is currently serving a term as President. She is a founding director of the Arts and Learning Conservatory for Children in Santa Ana.
“This is an interactive program that fosters social awareness and self confidence by teaching children an appreciation of the performing arts. It is available now in 30 Orange County Schools” she related.
Ruth also serves on the board of Concordia University Foundation, Irvine. When Jim died, she decided to go back to college to finish her education. She not only earned her Bachelors Degree in Business Administration, she went on to earn her Masters degree there as well. She still has strong ties to the Jamestown College Board of Trustees, where she and Jim originally attended college, and serves on its Board of Directors.
The Center for Lutheran Philosophy and Thought and the Historical Society for German Heritage in Russia are two other philanthropies that claim her attention.
As for that first hardware store in North Dakota, Ruth’s mother’s family still owns and operates it. Family roots run deep.