ADA, OK – For a man who has spent so much of his life pondering the universe and how it works, Dr. Carl Rutledge never questioned his decision to teach at East Central University.
After nearly four decades of service, he has earned ECU’s 2021 Distinguished Former Faculty Award.
“It was such a blessing to teach at ECU,” Rutledge said. “I learned that the highest satisfaction in life does not come from fame, fortune or accomplishments, but from people. It has been a joy to work with such a great group of faculty, staff, administrators and students.”
Rutledge retired as chair of ECU’s Physics department in 2018. In his 37 years of service, he taught not only Physics courses, but also astronomy, photography and Fortran programming. Prior to his arrival at ECU, he taught physics for close to 11 years at Southern Arkansas University. He holds B.S., M.S., and Ph.D. degrees in physics – all three earned from the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. He also majored in mathematics while there.
“I loved my high school physics class and found I had a talent for it,” Rutledge said. “At my high school career fair, I attended sessions on biology, engineering and physics, and physics was by far the most interesting. Physics is the most fundamental science. It explains how the universe works. The basic principles underlie all other sciences – chemistry, engineering, meteorology, environmental science, astronomy, even seemingly unrelated fields like biology and medicine. Also, it didn’t hurt that my girlfriend’s – and future wife’s – father was head of the University of Arkansas Physics department.”
While teaching at Southern Arkansas in 1981, Rutledge found himself overwhelmed as a one-man department and started to search for a more collaborative work environment.
“I started looking for a place where I would have a light enough load to do real quality teaching and I found it at ECU,” Rutledge said. “My family and I were impressed not only with the college, but with the city of Ada as well. It’s a hidden gem in Oklahoma and a wonderful place to live.”
Perhaps one reason for his success and longevity at ECU was maintaining a true child-like fascination with the subjects he taught. (“I still remember the first time I saw Saturn as a boy,” he said.) This sense of wonderment never left him, and he enjoyed connecting with young people who were as fascinated by science as he always was. While at ECU, he served as director of judging for Oklahoma’s State Science Fair from 1982 until 2016, and five years in Arkansas prior to that.
“I participated in science fairs while I was a student during their heyday, right after the launch of Sputnik,” Rutledge said. “Science fairs are great ways to encourage student research but have become less popular in recent years as they require so much time and dedication from teachers who are increasingly overworked.”
Although physics was his primary focus, Rutledge chose astronomy as his favorite course to teach at ECU. He said it was the one course that every student enjoyed, even those who failed.
“Astronomy was fun to teach because it gave students a new perspective on the universe and their place in it,” Rutledge said. “They had a chance to think deep thoughts about its description, evolution and vastness without the need for dreaded advanced mathematics.”
Rutledge saw many changes in his nearly four decades of teaching at ECU, many of them the technological advances that have reframed not only higher education but also the world at large. One aspect that never changed for him was the freedom to teach classes the way he saw fit.
“There was no micromanagement involved,” Rutledge said. “I liked that teaching was valued highly at ECU and that classes were reasonably small so I could get to know the students and help them individually when they needed it. There was always support from the dean and other ECU administrators when projects outside the budget were proposed, such as the observatory we built with student help in 2000. I always felt that administrators were on my side, trying to help me get things done. It is not that way at all institutions.”
Having attended the University of Arkansas as a student, Rutledge understood the advantages of teaching at a smaller school like ECU. The smaller class sizes are a given, but Rutledge pointed out that it isn’t the only benefit.
“Regional universities are vital in today’s world,” he said. “They are accessible in location and price for those who live in the area. Classes are taught by experienced professors, not by graduate students, and research experiences for undergraduates are available.”
Certainly, it would be difficult to remain in one place for very long in the absence of support from one’s colleagues. As most – if not all – faculty members would report, this is not an issue at ECU. As Rutledge explained, it never has been.
“The main advantage at ECU was the people I worked with,” he said. “There’s Bruce Weems, John Bulman, Karen Williams, Fred Pfeffer, Don Stafford, Bob Neman, Don Kellogg, Duane Anderson, Kathy Niblett Gardenhire, Betty Smith and so many other administrators, faculty and staff who have been so nice and helpful throughout the years. Thanks also goes to Ray Hamlett, who hired my late wife Paula as an adjunct math teacher and allowed her to be on campus with me for almost 20 years before she became a full-time instructor at Seminole State College.”
Other members of Rutledge’s family made their ways to the ECU campus as well. His two children, their spouses, a granddaughter, and her spouse all graduated from ECU. Another of his granddaughters also attended, and a grandson is currently enrolled as a sophomore. “None have regretted the decision to come to ECU,” he said.
Rutledge said he has many fond memories of his time at ECU, most of them closely related to teaching and helping students find success. Whether it was seeing an “Oh, now I get it!” moment in a student’s eyes, helping a student successfully navigate a path of study, or simply watching his former students excel in life, Rutledge has no shortage of happy memories to enjoy.
“Staying in one place for 37 years has allowed me to make many long-lasting friendships and see how lives have progressed,” he said. “If I had the chance, I’d do it all over again.”