Thumbs Up to Woody Rutter

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By Lanier Laney

Joseph Wood Rutter (aka “Woody”) is Headmaster Emeritus of Beaufort Academy and current Board Chair of Thumbs Up, Inc. He was born in Baltimore, Md., and was raised there and in Darien, Conn., and Nantucket, Mass., and was the oldest of four children.

The kids of Thumbs Up pose with Woody in front of his 1949 Plymouth Woody.
The kids of Thumbs Up pose with Woody in front of his 1949 Plymouth Woody.

His maternal grandfather was born and raised in Edgefield, SC, was a professor at Johns Hopkins and developed and patented Silica Gel, now widely used as a dessicant (as in those little packets in vitamin bottles).

He attended Phillips Exeter Academy, then Washington and Lee University where he got a Master’s in Romance Languages and Comparative Literature. He got his PhD at UNC Chapel Hill.

Raised in the North and schooled in the South, Woody says, ”I always knew that I would live in the South, and hopefully in South Carolina.”

After college (where he started teaching French while pursuing his doctorate) Woody decided to become a teacher. Interestingly, he taught for a term at a private school in Mbabane, Swaziland, in the mid ‘70’s, where he taught Nelson Mandela’s two daughters. Mr. Mandela was imprisoned on Robben Island at the time.

Woody later worked at Salisbury School in Salisbury, Conn., a boarding school, for more than 30 years most notably as Chair of the Language Dept., then Director of Admissions, Director of Development and Assistant Headmaster. There he coached baseball, soccer, football, squash, ice hockey, and was a dorm parent, etc.

Woody took a six-month sabbatical in the early ‘90’s and worked as a volunteer for Emory Campbell at Penn Center for

Sister Mary Trzasko, founder of Thumbs Up. Jackie Parker, former Executive Director of Thumbs Up Rosalyn Browne, current Executive Director of Thumbs Up.
Sister Mary Trzasko, founder of Thumbs Up. Jackie Parker, former Executive Director of Thumbs Up Rosalyn Browne, current Executive Director of Thumbs Up.

three of those months while staying with his sister and brother-in-law, Carolie and Pokey Frazer, on Cat Island.  He  met many Beaufort folks then, and received a call in 1998 asking if he would be interested in being a candidate to head Beaufort Academy. He was offered the position, and worked there “happily” he says for six years. Says Woody, “I remain in close contact with the academy, which I greatly respect. I love Beaufort, and whenever I travel, I love returning to the Lowcountry.”

He was asked to join the board of Thumbs Up about eight years ago, and has served as the board chair for the last few years.

Thumbs Up was founded by Sister Mary Trzasko almost 15 years ago. As a tutor in the Beaufort public schools, she realized that she was working with a number of normal elementary school students who came from families that were unable to help them with their homework.  Sister Mary — a dynamo — arranged for a room at the Boys & Girls Club in Beaufort, and worked with students after school. She quickly rallied a number of volunteers who cooked meals for the students, worked with them five days a week, and monitored their progress. Each week, she visited the school classrooms of each of the students during the morning: observing, and getting feedback from the teachers and volunteers. She made sure the students had doctor’s appointments, took their medication when needed, and held parenting sessions with the parents in homesite visits.

Sister Mary’s mission to help children succeed in school and life is Thumbs Up’s mission today. When she retired some six years ago, she was succeeded by Shiela Cole, a licensed social worker, who brought new initiatives to the program.

Woody says, “When Shiela left to follow her husband to his job in Texas, Thumbs Up was fortunate to have Jacqueline Parker, a retired Beaufort County teacher and administrator, who did a wonderful job at Thumbs Up. When her ailing mother required her nearly constant attention, Jackie helped us to find and hire Rosalyn Browne to succeed her. Rosalyn is pure gold.”

Born and raised on St. Helena Island, her parents were Penn School graduates.  Her father, Roy Browne, was much beloved in Beaufort, and the new health center adjacent to the St. Helena Library is named for him. He also served for years on Beaufort County Council. Rosalyn was educated at Boston University and Northeastern University, taught in the Boston area, and was the first principal of Whale Branch Elementary School.

“When I was seeking references for Rosalyn, I called Larry Rowland, and I will never forget his words. ‘Woody! She’s St. Helena royalty!’” Woody recalled fondly.

Sister Mary still serves on the board of directors, “and is a guiding light,” says Woody.

Thumbs Up was able to purchase its own building several years ago, thanks to Family Resources, Inc., which closed, and dispersed its assets to local nonprofit organizations that had similar missions.  They are happily ensconced on Hamar Street, diagonally across from what we still know as the “Green Street Gym.”

Thumbs Up has long been a United Way agency, and depends heavily on that organization for funding.

Says Woody, “I have been drawn to Thumbs Up because it serves an under served portion of our population.  It is a wonderful group of 18 students (kindergarten through fourth grade), and is reflective of Beaufort — with white, black and brown children, all of whom are eager learners and who have learned how to study, respect adults, and support each other.  The program runs in the summer as well, for five weeks. Students take swimming lessons at the YMCA, do beach sweeps and other service projects, take field trips to various places around the state, while still focusing on reading and mathematics in the classroom. Our summer program ensures that students do not lose ground during the long summer vacation.”

Woody adds, “Our volunteers come from Beaufort, St. Helena, Dataw, Port Royal, and Parris Island.  Many are retired educators, like me, and others simply love helping children in a structured and peaceful environment. We are always on the lookout for volunteers, so I encourage your readers to consider joining us! Once a week, or as often as you would like.”

In his time in Beaufort, Woody has been a volunteer for many local organizations, including Historic Beaufort Foundation (past chairman); the Public Library Foundation of Beaufort County (founding board member, currently serving as secretary); the Advisory Board of the Salvation Army of the Lowcountry; the Rotary Club of Beaufort; Vestry of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church; and Dataw Island Club Board of Directors.

In addition, he is on the Board of Trustees of Salisbury School in Connecticut and ASSIST, Inc. (American Secondary Schools for International Students and Teachers) in Suffield, Conn. In fact, he just  returned from a week in Dusseldorf, Germany, where he interviewed 135 students over the past week. In January, he will conduct the interviews for ASSIST in cities across Europe. Says Woody, “Although I am committed to these organizations, I have to say that Thumbs Up is probably the neediest and most deserving, and I am proud to serve on the board. Thumbs Up stands strong in its commitment to elementary school children.”

Woody continues, “My entire professional career has been devoted to serving young people, so Thumbs Up has been a natural for me. Our children have a sense of belonging, they learn how to achieve, how to act around adults and in many different situations. Their Thumbs Up tutors are their mentors and their friends. Unfortunately, it is a constant struggle to raise funds for Thumbs Up, as we rely so heavily on the United Way, and our funding is cut each year. We do not have a ‘moneyed’ board, and our alumni are still young and not in a position to help us financially.  We do not have a well-established fundraiser, as many local nonprofit groups do. We held a successful Classic Car show at Habersham on December 7, have an annual appeal letter, and receive responses when we send out our newsletters, but beyond that, we rely on donations from friends who know and appreciate the work we do.”

Woody says, “Thumbs Up is always looking for volunteers to work with the children, and we are constantly on the lookout for new funding sources. I cordially invite the readers of this article to stop by 914 Hamar Street between 3:15 and 6 p.m. to see for yourself the work that Rosalyn Browne, her assistant Deborah Smalls and the volunteers are doing. We are truly making Beaufort a better place to live, one child at a time.  My dream is to someday be able to replicate the Thumbs Up model in other parts of Beaufort County and beyond.  What we do could make a tremendous difference in communities like St. Helena Island, Lobeco, Dale, and others.  Unfortunately, we need more ‘Sister Marys’ who see a need, have an idea, and work to make that idea a reality. It is truly amazing what one small organization can accomplish, with the support of the community!”

 

WHAT IS THE MISSION BEHIND THUMBS UP?

Thumbs Up is a year-round after school tutoring program for referred elementary school children whose parents are unable to help them with their homework. The school buses bring the children to the center at 914 Hamar Street after school where they are greeted, given a healthy snack, and take their seats to work with their tutor for that day. When work is done, there is time for reading, playing basketball outside, working in the garden, or doing educational programs on Thumbs Up’s iPads. Volunteers from the Beaufort Art Association help the students to explore their artistic talents.  The Thumbs Up bus takes the children home between 5:30 and 6 p.m. Says Woody, “Our students are with us usually from first grade through fourth grade, so we get to know and understand them as they grow. Our goal is to instill a love of learning, to prevent dropouts or negative behavior.” Parents are required to attend quarterly parenting sessions, conducted by a contract social worker. They welcome contributions of funds or “in kind” donations.  They may be sent to Thumbs Up, 914 Hamar St,, Beaufort, SC 29902, or call Rosalyn Browne at 843-379-8882.