After the Fire
Cardinal Newman High School in Santa Rosa was devastated by wildfires. Top priority now: Take care of one another.
If we are intended for great ends, we are called to great hazards.
- John Henry Cardinal Newman Posted on the Cardinal Newman High School Facebook page Oct. 12
As principal of Santa Rosa’s Cardinal Newman High School, it wasn’t a lesson Graham Rutherford ’81 was looking to teach the 620 students in his charge. But when the Tubbs fire destroyed half of the private Catholic school’s 34-acre campus in the early morning of Monday, Oct. 10, Rutherford turned the near-tragedy into a learning and service opportunity.
“What I’m saying to students is: Right now, you’re living this history,” he says. “We’ll all understand it later. But now, you want to stay connected with people and active if you can. Person-to-person outreach does matter. That’s our first priority, taking care of each other. From there we’ll build and move forward.”
Rutherford’s connection to Cardinal Newman runs deeper than his past 14 years as principal. He also taught there for 20 years, and before that he was a student, graduating in 1977 with letters in baseball and football. In fact, his red and gold letterman jacket, along with awards, his personal library, and mementos from trips abroad that made up his office’s “little museum,” all were lost in the flames that hopscotched across campus, leaving behind a crazy quilt of charred buildings alongside facilities and greenery that went nearly unscathed.
While the fire zone was off-limits, Rutherford caught a ride to campus the Tuesday morning, following with a coach who also is employed by a utility company. The staff member’s work truck allowed them to access the site. “If you could see the area, you’d see burnt-out lawn and a little island that didn’t burn,” he says. “The lawn looks good; the south half of campus looks good. Then you turn your head and look north and it’s, ‘What happened?’ It looks like a bomb went off.”
Rutherford estimates that some 60 families of students have lost their homes to dry-foliage-fueled fires that began roaring through Santa Rosa late Sunday, Oct. 8. Those in the tight-knit school community who have been more fortunate have opened their doors to those who have lost everything.
“It’s certainly a sizeable number at this point,” Rutherford says. “When you add the displaced, at least 20 to 25 percent of the students are out of their homes. It’s a significant disruption, and the problem is there are new fires coming on.”
His own home in Windsor, just five miles north of Cardinal Newman, he says, thankfully, still stands. However the gas in his home had been off for days when he shared his story.
“A couple times, the fire has been about a mile away,” he says. “We’re on the plan-to-evacuate status. In the meantime, it’s been spending-time-on-the-school status. We’re trying to hold the school community together.”
'What's going to happen?'
It’s too early to craft a definitive recovery strategy for campus, but plans for resuming students’ education are on track. Thanks to a past partnership with Cisco Systems, Rutherford and his team are preparing to relaunch the school year in the coming week by offering some classes online. Resuming brick-and-mortar lessons, however, will take time given the extensive damage to campus. But it’s not all bad news.
“For us, it’s going to make it difficult to hold classes,” he says. “We lost 20 classrooms. The remaining classrooms, plus the gym, multipurpose room, the new science building and some original classrooms—those should be good.”
In the meantime, he understands that his students are grappling with unprecedented life experiences, and it’s his job to help them learn and grow in choosing how they respond.
“The kids who took the SAT on Saturday, their tests got burned up. They would have gone out in the mail Monday, because the post office was closed Sunday.” As of Monday, the post office was no more. Eventually, those tests will get retaken.
When one girl asked her principal, “What’s going to happen? It’s supposed to be our senior year?” the pragmatic Rutherford told her, “‘Well, it’s going to be memorable.” Then he encouraged her to work together with classmates to build new memories. Another student is already partnering with a cousin who attends St. Ignatius College Preparatory in San Francisco to organize a fundraiser benefiting Cardinal Newman.
“Individually, you can start to get too unhappy about your individual losses,” he tells students. “But taking care of each other, we can get back to learning. We’re going to get back to your education.”
The broader educational community’s response also has been heartening for Rutherford.
“We’ve received positive support from Catholic schools. Archbishop Mitty in San Jose is doing a fundraiser, St. Vincent in Petaluma is putting on a spaghetti feed. We’ve gotten calls from Marin Catholic, Bishop O’Dowd, Carondelet. There are people making an effort. It’s a Catholic-school thing. I really appreciate the outreach.”
He also appreciates hearing from those in the SCU community interested in offering support.
If people feel they can contribute financially, that’s welcome, he says. The Cardinal Newman community also appreciates prayers, positive thoughts and messages of concern, all of which can be shared on the school’s Facebook page.
“We have a number of students going to Santa Clara; I always enjoy writing those letters of recommendation,” he notes, adding that his school staff includes six SCU alumni.
“We want the Santa Clara community to know we’re fortunate to have Santa Clara grads working hard at this school, and we appreciate the support and concern of everyone.”
His service mindset and faith, both reinforced by his Santa Clara experience, he says, have served him well during Cardinal Newman’s time of crisis. He calls it the biggest challenge of his professional career, adding that his education and years as an educator have prepared him.
“I don’t believe this has happened to us as some punishment,” he says, considering the role faith has played in his response. “This is the challenge of taking care of each other and being part of a community and, hopefully, being those who help others. This is part of what we teach.”