CHARLES TOWN – George Rutherford, a longtime community leader and the president of the Jefferson County Branch of the NAACP since 1974, is clearly a believer in redemption.
He doesn’t want to see our society give up on anyone.
“When I see kids failing out of high school, I think a lot of them are late bloomers. They can still make it,” Rutherford said. “People want to think that just because you flunk out high school, that you are a dummy. It’s just not always true.”
Rutherford himself ranked last in his class at segregated Page-Jackson High School – and was not even sure he’d graduate.
In the early 1950s, the superintendent of the school system didn’t hand out diplomas at Page-Jackson. Instead, students were tasked with presenting the diplomas to their classmates.
Rutherford had delivered the diploma he’d been handed and then had to wait and see if anyone would put a diploma into his hands.
The paperwork did come through.
“I could have passed out,” Rutherford said.
Years later – many lessons learned – he would go on to complete a double major in education and biological sciences at then-Shepherd College and later got his master’s in biological sciences at Marshall University.
He recalls how George King, a civics teacher at Page-Jackson, knew the 18-year-old needed a passing grade in his class to get his diploma. “Mr. King let me slide,” Rutherford said. “If not for him, I would have never graduated high school.”
Normally, King held students to high standards. Take the time he saw Rutherford smoking.
“He promised to make me eat that cigarette and that he’d go upside my head if he saw me smoking again,” Rutherford said. “I have never touched a cigarette since.”
During high school, Rutherford was urged to go on to college. Barbara Hennessey – the wife of Bill Hennessey, the owner of a Pontiac dealership where Rutherford worked –suggested he consider her alma mater, Temple University, in Philadelphia.
He knew of African-American military veterans who were attending classes at Storer College in Harpers Ferry, the teacher training school founded in 1867 and open to people of any race and both genders. Rutherford enrolled in night classes at Storer but quit after three months.
“I was young and foolish,” the 82-year-old said. “I never really followed through with any of it and eventually, I enlisted in the service.”
He served as an Army paratrooper during the Korean War and after returning to Charles Town, Rutherford enrolled at Shepherd. And started to struggle.
He says he was on course to finish with straight Fs but an admissions administrator allowed Rutherford to withdraw without counting the Fs against him.
Rutherford was able to re-enroll, this time while working a full-time night job at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Martinsburg. He didn’t squander his second chance.
“By the end of that semester, I had taken six hours and I had six hours of Bs,” Rutherford said.
The rest of his years at Shepherd, he stayed on track. “I didn’t make any Fs, Ds or As,” Rutherford said. “All my grades were Bs or Cs.”
In the mid-1950s, Shepherd was just becoming an integrated school.
“Shepherd wasn’t a picnic,” Rutherford remembered. “Black students weren’t welcome at the student union and we all ate lunch outside in our cars.”
Rutherford took a dance class for one of his physical education credits and that proved difficult.
“All the women in the class were white and I couldn’t ask them to dance because that would have been hell on them,” Rutherford said. “Most of the time, I danced with the teacher.”
He said he learned lessons that have followed him throughout his life.
One came from Ray Harris, a professor at Shepherd. “He was always so hard on me,” Rutherford remembers. “I thought he was one of the most racist people I’d ever met. He would ask me the most difficult questions in class. It was like he was trying to embarrass me and there was nothing I could do about it.”
Then one day, Rutherford’s opinion of Harris changed.
“He saw me walking across the courtyard and motioned me over,” Rutherford said. “It was my final semester and I didn’t have him for any classes, and I was happy about that. It meant I would graduate.
“I thought I could cuss him out. There wasn’t nothing he could do to me.”
Instead, Harris suggested Rutherford pursue a master’s in biology at then-Marshall College in Huntington.
“He told me he had a brother who was the chair of the biology department and that he would write me a letter to get me through the door,” Rutherford said.
Harris followed up on his offer.
“It’s a funny thing, I talked to other black students who had the same experience with him,” Rutherford said. “I think he pushed black students harder. He felt that if black students were going to get anywhere, they needed it.”
Rutherford earned his master’s in nine months while working at the VA in Huntington.
He went on to apply for one of 12 vacancies for full-time openings at the Huntington VA – but Rutherford, with a master’s degree, got overlooked in favor of other men lacking even high school degrees.
He filed a complaint. “There was an investigation and I won,” Rutherford said.
Rutherford would go on to retire from the federal government after 42 years of serving as a Job Corps counselor and teacher, park ranger, finance manager, urban planner and space utilization specialist. ’
His awards over the years have included the T.G. Nutter Award, the highest honor from the state NAACP and the West Virginia Martin Luther King “Living the Dream” Award. One of the founders of the Jefferson County Black History Preservation Society, he’s also been named the Ranson Citizen of the Year.