From the biggest stages to small town Ohio, Rita Moreno supports Ironton community

Icon, actress, advocate and EGOT-winner Rita Moreno spent her Memorial Day weekend in the small town of Ironton, Ohio, visiting her friend, watching the famous Memorial Day parade and most importantly helping raise funds to support the youth and community of what she considers her 'own little Puerto Rico' in Ohio.

Samantha Pelham | June 4, 2024


In the heart of the small town of Ironton, Ohio, where the longest-running Memorial Day parade in the nation proudly marches, stage and screen icon Rita Moreno graced the Bowman Auditorium on Ohio University’s Southern campus with her humor and heart. At 92 years young, Moreno, an EGOT winner, delighted the audience with her smart quips and anecdotes from her storied life, alongside her manager and longtime friend, Ironton native John Ferguson.

Although Moreno's visit to Ironton was to visit Ferguson and see the famous Memorial Day parade, it was not only for leisure; it was also a heartfelt gesture of support for the local community. Upon Ferguson's invitation, Moreno eagerly agreed to lend her voice free of charge to a fundraising event benefiting OHIO Southern’s Bobcat Academy, a summer camp for local children, and the Ironton Rotary nursing scholarships, which empower aspiring nurses from the region.

“It’s so important to bring any artistic and cultural expression to our community,” Ohio University Southern Dean and Rotary member Deborah Marinski said. “Being in Ironton, the University is at the center of arts and culture in the area and to have a legend like Rita Moreno here to share her stories and visit our small town just left me speechless.”

Moreno and community

Moreno visits with community members during the Memorial Day parade.

“We are very excited to have Rita here and grateful to John for making this connection and bringing this opportunity to our community,” Marty Conley, President of the Ironton Rotary, said. “It's heartening to know that Rita simply wants to enjoy our hometown parade and immerse herself in our community. Her support in the process is truly remarkable. This event bolsters youth services in our area, aligning perfectly with the Rotary's commitment to community support. Rita's participation in our mission is invaluable, and we're extremely grateful for her impact."

During the conversation, Moreno reflected on pivotal moments in her life, from being present for Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, to winning an Oscar for her performance in “West Side Story,” as well as her journey from Puerto Rico, to New York, to Hollywood and the challenges that brought. She shared intimate stories and witty one-liners that had the audience laughing uncontrollably and emphasized the importance of education and community support, drawing from her experience on the hit children’s show “The Electric Company.”

Moreno expressed the gratification of utilizing her talent on the show to educate children, yet she also recognized that education extended beyond the younger demographic. She noted that adults learning English in America would also watch the show to enhance their language skills as well.

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Ferguson shows Moreno a clip from her time on "The Electric Company."

It's not enough to be beautiful, you got to get an education and that is what is going to get you a sense of dignity. You carry it with you, but you can only do that if you take care of you in the most important way.

Rita Moreno

The Bobcat Academy, a longstanding program paused due to the pandemic, offers children in Ironton not only educational opportunities but connections, resources, valuable life skills such as health and wellness, cooking and more, and allows them to get a sense of what college could be like. The Academy also provides students with meals every day and swag that is useful during their time there, as well as at home. Through the event's proceeds and community generosity, the Academy is reigniting its mission of providing educational enrichment and affordable summer childcare options for families this July.

"The Bobcat Academy is a transformative force in our community that offers children summer learning opportunities at an affordable rate, ensuring accessibility and educational experiences for families in the area,” Marinski emphasized.

Additionally, the Rotary nursing scholarships offer local traditional and non-traditional students a pathway to pursue education in healthcare whether that is at the Southern campus or elsewhere. By investing in these individuals, the community fosters a cycle of giving back, as many recipients return to serve their hometowns as healthcare professionals.

OHIO’s nursing program draws both traditional and non-traditional students so the opportunity to receive a scholarship to support their education and career goals, as well as their professional path is really important,” Marinski added. “One of our main goals as educators and rotary members is to make education more accessible regardless of where students choose to go, and it is apparent in their actions and words how appreciative they are of the recognition and to be given a chance.” 

During her captivating conversation, Moreno also delved into themes of resilience, aligning perfectly with Rotary's yearlong emphasis on women and mental health. Moreno embodies this commitment through her efforts to empower women, particularly Latina women, and her openness about mental health issues. She is not only a cultural icon but also a passionate advocate and humanitarian.

For Ferguson, Moreno's visit symbolized a bridge between worlds, showcasing the common humanity that unites us all. He applauded Moreno's humility and advocacy for social causes, urging others to embrace empathy and understanding.

“I’m very pleased Rita is here for a number of reasons,” Ferguson said. “Our world today is so segmented and there is a lot of thought that the people in New York and Los Angeles are different than the people in the middle of the country and I think it’s really good to see that there are people like Rita that tie their own shoelaces…and actually really care about other people. And to hear her express her own gratitude for the feeling that our little town gives her is amazing. I think the valuable message in all this is to take time to hear someone else’s story before you try to tell yours and I think that is what Rita has really done and is doing here.”

In her closing remarks, Moreno expressed her affection for Ironton, her words resonating deeply and encapsulating the warmth and hospitality of the community she had come to cherish.

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Moreno (middle) watches the Ironton Memorial Day parade alongside her friend and manager, Ferguson (left).

“I love Ironton, it’s gorgeous…it’s my own little Puerto Rico in Ohio,” Moreno said.

As the evening drew to a close, the audience basked in Moreno's presence, inspired by her words and energized by the collective spirit of giving back.

“We are so thrilled that you came to Ironton and to this campus and provided this opportunity for our community, you are an absolute inspiration not just to everyone in this room but in our community,” Marinski remarked at the end of the event. “We are so happy that you were able to do this for us and that in being here together you could help the children in our community in a number of ways. I can’t express how important that is to all of us.”