Embodying Civic Engagement

On January 26th, Phil Rutledge died.


I doubt if many of the people reading this knew Phil, although he was an immensely accomplished public servant and scholar. Phil was a black man born in 1925 in Dawson, Georgia. He later moved to Jacksonville, Florida, which he left to join the Navy after refusing the demand of a white man that he give up his seat on the bus they both were riding.


Phil’s life was a string of distinctions: an undergraduate degree in Political Science and Sociology, a Masters of Public Health, and a series of increasingly important positions in government, beginning with posts in Detroit city government, then moving to the Department of Labor during Lyndon Johnson’s administration, and Health, Education and Welfare during the Nixon administration. A list of his civic contributions and honors fills four pages.


The  credentials and accomplishments impress, but they leave out the essence of the man Phil Rutledge was: a good, profoundly gentle human being, a man who responded to hate with logic and scholarship. I never heard him raise his voice; I never saw him too busy to help a colleague or a student. He was already an emeritus Professor at SPEA when I joined the faculty, a towering figure in academic organizations, and a tireless worker for better understanding among those of different races, religions and orientations.


Phil believed in the power of scholarship to improve government and in the power of government to do good. He wasn’t naive. He knew that government power could be—and often is—misused. He was a great civil libertarian. But he also had faith that good government was obtainable, that good people and good will could solve problems. He believed in social equity and fair play, in a whole that really did transcend the sum of its parts.


Most of all, Phil preached the importance of civic engagement by the university and those of us who teach here. He believed in using our skills to serve the community, to make  things better than they are. He believed in the possibility—if not the reality—of a fairer system, a more level playing field, a society where human dignity is respected—and he spent his time trying to make it so.


Phil Rutledge was a model of what citizenship should be. His professional accomplishments (particularly given the barriers black men of his generation had to overcome) were impressive, but those accomplishments were “extras.” The lesson he gave us was more elemental—and more attainable. He didn’t return hate with hate; he didn’t let a system that was weighted against him keep him down. He got up every day and was a good human being, a good member of society, and a profoundly engaged citizen.   


In our current, poisonous political environment, where public service is discounted and cynicism is too frequently justified, we all need to remember—and emulate as best we can—the good guys who are working for a better world. Like Phil Rutledge.