Rankin – Tale of Two Sisters 17

Tale of Two Sisters

This overgrown sadness at 3125 Cloverdale Road overlooks the currently popular Cloverdale-Idlewild “Bottom” Park, and it once was the home of Allen C Rankin. Back in 1940 Mr Rankin was general manager of the renowned Teague Hardware Store on Commerce Street, and he was the father of a most talented group of youngsters, ranging in age from 16 to 23. The house could tell any number of stories, but the best one could be called “Tale of Two Sisters”.

The 16-year old, Frances Nell, was going to Lanier, but she and her sister, Ruth Inez, age 19 and attending Huntingdon, aspired to be singers. Somehow, they persuaded dad to spring for voice lessons in Birmingham, a course they followed for three years. The war was on, so they probably went up every week on the L&N railroad. To help with expenses, the girls rented the pool beneath Flowers Hall at Huntingdon and gave swimming lessons. In 1944 the pair set out for New York, having arranged for three additional years of now serious voice lessons. In 1947 the sisters made their joint operatic debut, with Ruth in the lead role, and Frances Nell as primary support. After a year and a few additional engagements, but no contract offers, the sisters took their talents to Europe, where there was a paucity of young professional singers due to the war. There their paths separated.

The younger girl, using the name Nell Rankin, took Europe by storm, achieving such success it defies telling. Nell was called back to New York in 1951 and given a contract with the Metropolitan Opera. She held forth there for 25 years, appearing in more starring roles than any other Met diva before or since. In 1952, at the request of the King of Libya, Nell gave an open-air solo concert off the coast of Tripoli, facilitated by a grand piano the King had flown in from Egypt, on a stage lighted by a US cruiser anchored nearby. In 1953 she gave a solo recital for Queen Elizabeth as part of her coronation ceremony. In 1954 she had the starring role in CBS’s television production of Carmen. Nell retired from the musical arena in 1991, basking in world acclaim for her achievements.

Both young ladies married, but Ruth had two children, which surely contributed to their divergent paths.  Ruth Rankin also had a successful career in Europe, and sang professionally in five countries. But a divorce and motherhood led her to abandon her life in the music world and return to her hometown in the late 1950s. There she re-entered Huntingdon and completed her degree studies in 1961. That step was followed by a master’s degree in audiology from the University of Alabama to add to her years of training as a vocalist. Nell went on to earn a Doctor of Science Degree at John Hopkins. Finally, at age 50, “Doctor Rankin” began a new career as a specialist serving hearing impaired children and adults in the Baltimore area school systems. She earned her retirement there, and once again returned to Montgomery, where she taught voice and diction at Huntingdon.  In 1979 Ruth was honored with the Huntingdon Alumnae Achievement Award for that year. Two absolutely remarkable careers. I look at this old house and shake my head in amazement, but I’ll bet there is still a lot of achievement left within those walls.

-Charles Humphries

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