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From Near Death in Somalia, PCV Ken Rutherford Returns To Success at GU and Beyond
From Near Death in Somalia, PCV Ken Rutherford Returns To Success at GU and Beyond
From Near Death in Somalia, a Hero Returns To Success at GU and Beyond
By Laura Saldivar
Special to The Hoya
Courtesy Ken Rutherford
Ken Rutherford (S ’91, Ph.D. ’00) was selected as an ‘Everyday Hero’ by United Airlines. The honor includes a trip to the Winter Olympic Games in Salt Lake City.
As Ken Rutherford (S ’91, Ph.D. ’00) lay bleeding in the Somali desert, reflecting on his 32 years of life, he asked God for a second chance. He thought of Kim, his two-month fiancee, and wished he could live to marry her and start a family. He thought of his dream to be a teacher, a chance to pass on his life experiences. Rutherford was given his second chance. John Magistro knew this, and soon so would the world.
This week, United Airlines is flying Rutherford to watch the Winter Olympics in Utah. He is not an athlete, nor is he a media representative. Rutherford is a survivor, just your average everyday hero.
For the last 22 years, United Airlines has been a sponsor of the U.S. Olympic Team. This past December they launched “Everyday Heroes,” a new program to give Americans a chance to recognize someone they felt had made an amazing contribution to society. This nation-wide contest, in which applicants submit a 250-word essay describing a personal hero, received more than 7,000 essays from people all over the country. Of the 7,000 “everyday heroes” recommended, 25 were chosen to win an all-expense paid trip to support the U.S. Olympic Team at the Winter Games in Salt Lake City. Of those chosen was an essay written by John Magistro. In it he described the remarkable life of his close friend and Georgetown alumnus, Ken Rutherford.
In 1988, while doing anthropology field research in West Africa, Magistro met Rutherford, who was there volunteering with the Peace Corps. Working with the same ethnic group enabled them to spend quite a bit of time together, and they became fast friends. After their time in Africa though, Rutherford and Magistro lost touch.
After returning from the Peace Corps, Rutherford went to graduate school at Georgetown. In the midst of his studies, Rutherford left to serve as a training officer in Somalia. There he helped Somali families achieve financial stability by applying for small loans.
During this same trip, as he was traveling by truck across the terrain, Rutherford’s vehicle hit a landmine, and most of his right leg was blown off.
“In the accident I had bit off part of my lip, so I thought I was bleeding internally and that I was going to die,” Rutherford said. “I remember laying in the truck, looking at the clear blue Somali sky thinking that if this was the way I was meant to go, I was going to go.”
He thought of all that he had accomplished, but then began thinking of everything he had yet to accomplish.
“I thought, ‘I am madly in love with this girl back home,’” he said. “If the Lord kept me around, I could marry Kim, have kids and become a teacher.”
That was all he wanted.
Rutherford, being the only one in the truck who knew how to operate the radio, called for help. Half an hour later, rescue workers arrived and transported him to a nearby hospital. Despite the absence of painkillers, the remainder of his right leg was amputated. After the operation Rutherford was transported to a hospital in Geneva. His fiancee flew to be by his side throughout the recovery.
In the fall of 1995 Rutherford returned to Georgetown with his new wife and baby to begin working toward his Ph.D. in the government department. It was not until that year, while listening to the report of Rutherford’s accident on National Public Radio, that Magistro again heard of his friend.
“I know from my experience in graduate school that it’s a lot of pressure and a lot of work,” Magistro said. “Ken was doing it all while married, raising a family, and struggling with his injury. Despite so many different levels of adversity, he managed to deal with it.”
Rutherford grew to love Georgetown. He became passionate about his classes, and found his professors to be some of the best mentors he had.
“It was unbelievable how interactive the Georgetown professors were with me,” Rutherford said. “Everything from helping me with my dissertation to helping me choose a career, not to mention the wonderful doctors at the Medical Center who amputated my left leg.”
Rutherford chuckled as he recounted the procedure.
“I actually purposely scheduled the operation for a Wednesday so I could go to class on a Thursday,” he said. “They ended up giving me an epidural shot and I couldn’t attend, so my professor brought me a tape recording of the lecture.”
As a disabled student and having surgery every four or five months, Rutherford said Georgetown was “good to him,” providing him with many resources.
“I was living at RiverPlace in Rosslyn, and the GUTS bus made a special route so it could drop me off at the loading dock behind the building,” he said. “I was also given a private room in Lauinger so I could rest in between classes.”
While the university was accommodating to his injury, paying tuition while supporting his wife and children was a constant concern. But soon Georgetown addressed that problem as well.
“I did not have a scholarship my first year, and I had to borrow $20,000. Every year after that Georgetown offered me a fellowship,” Rutherford said. “I am not a smart guy, but I work really hard, and Georgetown taught me that hard work pays off.”
Practically every year of his doctorate study, Rutherford’s wife Kim was having a baby — three in total, all at Fairfax Hospital in Virginia.
“I remember it was Dec. 6, 1996 and I was finishing up a paper for a class. This particular professor specified on the syllabus that he would accept absolutely no late term papers. It was due that night, and I was in the middle of spell check when my wife came in saying her water broke,” Rutherford said.
After making a call to his professor, he and his wife went to the hospital. The baby was born at noon, and at 1 p.m. Rutherford was handing in his term paper.
“The professor asked me, ‘What are you doing here,’ ” Rutherford said. “So I responded, ‘Well, you said you don’t take late papers.’ He grabbed my paper and told me to get back to the hospital.”
During his time at Georgetown, Rutherford helped co-found the Landmine Survivor’s Network, an international awareness organization for victims of landmines. He traveled all over the world to give lectures.
Upon completing his Ph.D., Rutherford accepted a job to teach at Southwest Missouri State University. He said his colleagues warned him that making such a move would be committing “professional suicide.”
“It was my dream to be a teacher and a father. I felt that if I did not teach, I would be a failure,” Rutherford said. “My wife’s dream was to be a stay-at-home mom and I just felt like we could do all that in Missouri.”
Today, the Rutherfords have realized their dream.
“I have always been an optimist,” Rutherford said. “Everything works out for the best. It’s amazing what people can accomplish when they focus.”
Now Rutherford has received another unexpected reward for all his hard work — a trip to the Winter Olympic Games in Salt Lake City, Utah.
When Magistro wrote the essay about why Rutherford was his “everyday hero,” he did not let his friend in on the secret.
“I didn’t want to build any expectations because I knew there would be a lot of entries,” Magistro said.
In the 250 words of his essay, Magistro paints quite a portrait of Rutherford, describing him as a “living miracle” whose energy and spirit are “boundless.”
“He was right on the threshold of death,” Magistro said. “People come out of those experiences devastated, but in his instance, he compensates for that by living every moment to the fullest. He has a mission in life and works endlessly to accomplish that goal.”
Rutherford said he had no idea there was a competition, and never thought he had made an impact on Magistro’s life.
“John just calls me up one day telling me about this “Everyday Heroes” contest and says, ‘You know I never told you this … but you’re mine … and you won,’ ” Rutherford said.
For four days Rutherford, his wife and Magistro will enjoy VIP seating to practically every Olympic event. They will watch such performers as Creed, Marc Anthony and Nelly Furtado as well as some of the finest athletes the planet has to offer. However, Rutherford says he is more excited about meeting his fellow contest winners and hearing about their stories.
“I feel so balanced and lucky,” Rutherford said. “My philosophy is to never live your life wondering ‘what if?’ Pursue what you believe to be true. There are so many opportunities out there, and we all have gifts to bring our society.”
Rutherford says God gave him a second chance, and as husband, father and professor, he is now living his dream.
“I did not know it until I almost died, but every day is a great day to be alive.”
It is certain that Magistro, and the many other people whose lives Rutherford has touched hope are many more of those days to come.