Each year, the Kremen School hosts a reception for students who have earned the Rutherford B. Gaston, Sr. Scholarship. For this award, a student must be accepted in either Kremen’s Teacher Credentialing Program or Master’s in Education Program with an overall GPA of 3.5 or above. The scholarship was founded in honor of Rutherford B. Gaston, a man with a legacy of devotion to the field of education.
Rutherford was born in Griffin, Georgia, the 13th of 15 children. His family moved north to Brackenridge, Pennsylvania when he was only two years old. After serving in the US Army during WWII, Rutherford moved back home and married his sweetheart, Willodyne, on October 13th, 1944. After working briefly at a steel mill alongside his brothers, Rutherford decided he was meant for something greater. That is when he packed up his family, which had grown to include his son Rutherford Jr. who was only three months old at the time, and moved out west, settling in Fresno.
(Willodyne, right, a member of the Iota Phi Lambda Sorority and a Charter member of the San Joaquin Valley Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc)
Rutherford initially enrolled at Fresno State with the goal of earning a Bachelor’ Degree in Business. However, due to the racist nature of the time, he was told “a Negro would have a difficult time obtaining a job in business”. As a result, he changed his major to education, a decision which he claims was the best he ever made. After obtaining his credentials, Rutherford began teaching fifth grade at Columbia Elementary School within Fresno Unified School District.
Prior to becoming the first African American principal in Fresno Unified School District, Rutherford served as lead teacher at Columbia Elementary School.
“One of my fondest memories was as a very young girl in the early 60’s going to my father’s classroom and sitting at a desk with the “big kids”, my feet not yet touching the ground, listening to my father teach,”– explains Eugenia Gaston Reeves, Rutherford’s daughter.
In 1963, Rutherford became the first African American principal in Fresno Unified, simultaneously taking charge of two elementary schools, Teilman and Emerson. These schools were located across town from one another, making dual-leadership a daunting task indeed. Many feared that Rutherford would fail due to the overwhelming nature of the position. Instead, he excelled.
After serving as principal of Teilman and Emerson, Rutherford became the principal of Jefferson Elementary School. Rutherford last location where he served as principal at Bethune Elementary School, a place where the student population was primarily African American. The students under his leadership scored significantly higher on standardized tests than other schools in the districts. Suspicious of their scores, the state of California requested that they be retested, only for Rutherford’s students to score even higher than the first time. Rutherford continued overseeing Bethune’s success for another fourteen years before retiring.
Rutherford believed in ‘each one reach one’ and applied this as he mentored many African American teachers who also became school administrators.
Rutherford’s two greatest joys in life were his family and the sharing of knowledge, causing him to combine the two. To show that love, he established scholarships at Fresno State in both his wife’s name, Willodyne, and his deceased son’s name, Craig.
Upon his death, Rutherford’s remaining four children were initially at a loss as to how they could commemorate their father’s legacy. However, they understood the significance education had on their father’s life. He had earned his Bachelor’s Degree, Teaching Credential, and Master’s Degree through Fresno State, making the Kremen School a natural choice to establish a scholarship in his name.
The Gaston family considers it an honor and privilege to attend the scholarship reception each spring and to commemorate Rutherford’s memory in such a meaningful way. For the past several years, due to the pandemic, the award ceremony has been hosted virtually, enabling a greater number of Gaston family members to attend. They enjoy hearing about these students’ diverse backgrounds and journeys as they receive their scholarships, knowing that they are making a positive impact, not only on the local community, but on the future of education in the Central Valley.
On April 24, 2012, the Fresno Unified School District board voted to name a new southwest middle school after Mr. Gaston. The school opened on August 18, 2014 and was dedicated on September 19, 2014. Gaston Middle School serves students in grades 7-8, and is the first
Fresno Unified School to operate a Health and Wellness Center for the neighborhood community.
The Gaston family legacy also continues on through Rutherford’s brother Everett, his wife Gail and their daughter Summer. Everett is a retired educator who taught at Bullard High School for nearly a decade. Gail is one of the visionary leaders who helped establish the Peace Garden at Fresno State, a space that pays tribute to the many individuals whose lives were devoted to peace and activism. Their daughter Summer is currently an administrator in the Fresno Unified School District. As a result, there has been a Gaston employed in FUSD continuously since 1953, creating a legacy across three generations.
If you are a student currently enrolled in the Teacher Credentialing Program or Master’s in Education Program and would like to apply for the scholarship, visit this link. If you would like to make a donation to the scholarship fund, please visit this website.
(Written by Audra Burwell, a Creative Writing student employed by the Kremen School of Education and Human Development)