By the time you read this, Olivia Deese will be on her way to College Park, Maryland.
The campus of the University of Maryland will be invaded by high school and middle school students, there to compete in the finals of the National History Day contest Sunday-Thursday.
These young people have become well-versed on such subjects as the Jefferson-Hamilton Feud and the impact of Mr. Rogers and his neighborhood. (A timely subject with Friday’s release of “Won’t You Be My Neighbor” and another movie about Fred Rogers, “You Are My Friend,’’ starring Tom Hanks, in the works.)
It’s safe to say Olivia, a rising eighth grader at the Academy for Classical Education in Macon, will be the lone expert on the inspiring story of the late Dr. Lolita Garcia Rutland.
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Olivia, who turned 13 two months ago, is typical of many young ladies her age. She loves watching movies on Netflix. She is a cheerleader at ACE and hopes to play tennis in high school. She has been baking cakes and cookies in the kitchen with her aunt, Suellen Richardson, since she was old enough to tie her own apron strings.
Although her favorite subject is math, it was a social studies project that punched her ticket to the national contest. National History Day is a nonprofit organization headquartered in College Park. As part of a year-long program, more than a half-million students in grades six through 12 competed in the contest. This year’s theme was “Conflict and Compromise in History.’’
While some of her classmates settled on suggested topics such as the Cuban missile crisis and the Salem witch trials, Olivia stayed close to home for her topic.
She had never met Rutland, but she had heard her aunt talk about this remarkable woman, who grew up in the Philippines.
Suellen, a retired nurse, credits the influence of Rutland as the reason she chose nursing as a career. She attended Rutland’s 97th birthday celebration last August. She has been friends with her daughter, Maria, since they attended Northeast High School together.
“Olivia had heard me tell the story,’’ Suellen said. “She had this history project due and asked if she could interview Mrs. Rutland.’’
It was arranged for the week of Thanksgiving last year since Maria, a Presbyterian minister in Illinois, would be in town to visit her mom at John Wesley Villas.
Olivia developed a website, devoting 1,197 words to telling Rutland’s story. She named the project “The Journey of One Woman Through Political, Social and Cultural Conflicts and Compromises Across Eight Decades.’’
“After surviving Japanese persecution, she turned to America for a better life, only to face a different type of persecution,’’ Olivia wrote. “As a Filipino woman in the American South, she was shunned personally and professionally. Yet she overcame each barrier she faced and emerged as a leader and innovator in the treatment of mental illness and the expansion of nursing roles.’’
Rutland was a student nurse in Manila during World War II, when the Japanese took over the hospital where she was working, forcing doctors and nurses at gunpoint to care for the wounded Japanese soldiers. While other medical personnel deserted the hospital when it was under fire, she stayed and helped.
Her mother died during the war. Her father was a survivor of the Bataan Death March. Her brother was hunted down by Japanese soldiers and was never seen again.
Out of 4,000 applicants, Rutland was one of only 12 people following the war to receive scholarships through the U.S. State Department. She became a clinical instructor at Emory University and St. Joseph’s Infirmary in Atlanta, where she met and married Carey Rutland, who was from Cassville, a small community near Cartersville .
The Rutlands moved to Macon in 1957. Her husband worked for the Social Security Administration. Rutland applied for a nursing position at the old Macon Hospital. Despite her experience, she was not hired. She accepted a job at Central State Hospital in Milledgeville, where she spent eight years initiating programs focused on the rehabilitation of mentally ill patients.
She worked as a consultant with V.A. hospitals in several states, caring for many World War II servicemen who had fought in the Pacific Theater. In 1970, she was named the first director of nursing at Macon Junior College (now Middle Georgia State University) and developed the college’s associate nursing degree program.
Her influence extended beyond nursing. She and her husband were among those who helped organize the Macon Outreach food program at Mulberry Street United Methodist Church. The Rutlands regularly hosted foreign students and international newcomers in their home.
It all made a lasting impression on young Olivia.
“She was an example of how you can overcome anything if you put your mind to it,’’ Olivia said.
Rutland died on March 2, the day before Olivia was named a winner in the regional at Howard Middle School. Olivia qualified for the nationals after advancing in the state competition at Mercer University.
One of the colleges Rutland attended when she arrived in the U.S. was the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., only five miles from the campus where Olivia will be keeping her memory alive in College Park.
Olivia said going to the nationals is a way to honor an amazing lady who would be proud to know her story continues to be told.
Ed Grisamore teaches journalism at Stratford Academy and is the author of nine books. His column appears on Sundays in The Telegraph.