It is often said it takes a special kind of person to be an educator. Gordon Rutledge, who died Monday, did it for more than 50 years.
Mr. Rutledge started his education in 1942, when he attended Southeastern Oklahoma State University, hoping to study medicine. Mr. Rutledge’s studies were delayed in 1944 when he was called into World War II, where he served as a paratrooper. He was a part of nine missions in France, Belgium and Germany during the Battle of the Bulge.
Upon returning, Mr. Rutledge studied for a year at Austin College before finishing his degree in education at Southeastern, and going on to complete his master’s degree in education.
Mr. Rutledge began his career as an educator in the 1950s when he worked as an substitute teacher while also working for the Katy Railroad. He became a full-time coach and teacher at Denison Middle School in 1956. He was known to joke that as soon as his career as an educator started, he was simply moonlighting with the railroad.
As years passed, Mr. Rutledge worked throughout the district as a coach and teacher, before becoming the principal of Layne Elementary in 1967, where he continued as principal until his retirement in 1997. In 1995, he was honored by the Denison School District with its Educator of the Year award. Throughout his career, he earned a reputation for never missing a day of school.
“He was the kind of guy who cared about people,” said Denison Superintendent Henry Scott, who recalls meeting Mr. Rutledge at the start of his career in 1961. The two remained friends to Mr. Rutledge’s death.
“He had a positive affect on thousands and thousands of students and families,” said Scott. “How do you measure the impact of someone who affects thousands of people who then affects their children and grandchildren?”
Teachers who worked with Mr. Rutledge recall his uncanny memory. He could remember each student he taught, even years after they left the school. He could recall not only the student, but their parents and grandparents, said Scott.
Jay Watkins, former Denison School Board president and Mr. Rutledges son-in-law, recalld walking with him in the hospital one day when they passed a man who Watkins estimated was in his 50s. Mr. Rutledge immediately recognized the man as a former student of his and asked him about a favorite sweater he wore as a child.
Scott described Mr. Rutledge’s approach to education as hands on. If a teacher had a family emergency, he would be the one to step in and assist with classes, said Scott. He was known to assist his students in any way he could.
“Family always came first,” said Denison teacher Susan Lovell, who worked with Mr. Rutledge from 1980 until his retirement. The importance of family above all else was something that Mr. Rutledge impressed on all the teachers he worked with, said Lovell.
Jeanna Harris, who taught under Mr. Rutledge from 1989 until his retirement, recalled that he enjoyed talking about family, and paid close attention to the families of the teachers who worked with him.
Mr. Rutledge was described as an instructor who was “strict, but always fair” in his job, and with children.
“He didn’t talk much,” said Harris. “He just cleared his throat and everyone straightened up.”
Mr. Rutledge’s administration style embodied the belief that a teacher’s focus should be on the classroom and the student. He took over other responsibilities that teachers typically had, said Lovell. During lunch, he would serve as the classroom monitor, and he would watch over students during recess, she said.
Mr. Rutledge’s dedication to Denison schools and children continued, even after his retirement as principal as he continued to tutor students at Layne Elementary. In 2000, Mr. Rutledge ran for the Denison School Board. In his 70s, Mr. Rutledge made it a point to campaign door-to-door in his bid for the seat.
Mr. Rutledge was voted as the 2004-2005 Trustee of the Year by the Texas Classroom Teachers Association, beating out over 8,800 other individuals across the state. Mr. Rutledge served on the Denison School Board until 2009. Upon his retirement from the Board, he was given the honorary title of trustee emeritus or, trustee for life, and was the first and only individual to be granted the title by the Board.
On the Board, he was often seen as the advocate for the teachers and educators, said Watkins.
In 2013, Mr. Rutledge and former Mayes and Layne Elementary Principal Fred Smart were honored when the Denison School District dedicated the Mayes Memory Garden to the two men’s service to the City.
In describing his father-in-law, Watkins referenced Jimmy Stewart in “It’s a Wonderful Life.” “He lived a rather modest life, but he is the wealthiest man in Denison,” said Watkins.