Green River College celebrates legacy of Rich Rutkowski

A renaissance man of seemingly infinite interests, a skilled photographer, a master of craps strategy, an avid fisherman, a friend, a colleague, and a man of vision whose tremendous skill at raising revenue helped reshape the campus of what is today Green River College.

On March 11, friends, family, former colleagues and fishing buddies came to the Mel Lindbloom Student Union Building on the GRC campus to honor the life and legacy of former college president Rich Rutkowski, who died in October of 2022.

Given the many capital improvements Rutkowski brought to the campus, some of them visible through the windows, there could have been no better setting to celebrate the man.

“And Rich is here … and Rich is there … and Rich is here,” said Suzanne Johnson, president of Green River College, in an address that passed from one Rutkowski legacy to another.

Johnson said Rutkowski’s proudest legacy, however, would surely have been the thousands of students whose lives he touched, along with every person who worked at the college under his leadership.

Rutkowski served then Green River Community College from 1974 until 2010, first as the college’s vice president of business affairs, then from 1983-2010 as its longest-serving president.

Under his leadership, Johnson said, the college extended its connections and partnerships throughout the local and global communities and launched its International Program. He also obtained funding to make those major capital improvements on GRC’s main campus and establish new campuses in Kent and Enumclaw.

Linda Cowan, former superintendent of the Auburn School District and a GRC trustee, called Rutkowski “a model of what all of us educators want in our students — a lifelong learner.”

The die was cast early on by Rutkowski’s mother, who raised him in a poor area just outside of Buffalo, New York, Cowan said. Mama drummed into her son that the way out of the projects would be through education.

Rutkowski listened and went on to became the top student at every school he attended. His diligence earned him 4-year, full-ride scholarship to a rigorous Catholic college in his hometown.

After two years, he enrolled in the University of Detroit, where he earned his degree in aeronautical engineering. From there he was onto the University of Michigan, where he earned his MBA. A job offer from the Boeing Company brought him to the Pacific Northwest.

Cowan said she first met Rutkowski when she was the principal at Gildo Rey Elementary in Auburn, and his two daughters were students there. In a conversation Cowan remembers to this day, she was amazed to find him extremely knowledgeable about all aspects of education and curriculum.

“We talked about the spelling curriculum, and he knew a lot about it. And I’m saying, how does this man know so much in depth? But it comes back to being a lifelong learner,” Cowan said.

It wasn’t until she and Rutkowski became board members of what was then the School Employees Credit Union and Pemco Insurance Company, Cowan said, that she really got to know just how diverse his interests were.

“I knew he was knowledgeable about elementary curriculum, but he was also a strategic racquetball player, a community leader … and also had a high emotional IQ. Not only was he a lifelong learner, he was also a renaissance man, that is a person who has in-depth knowledge about so many different fields. And he carried that with no arrogance and such grace that he was a gift to each and every one of us,” Cowan said.

Earl Hale, former executive director of the State Board of Community and Technical Colleges, remembered Rutkowski as a colleague, a close friend, a fishing friend and a man with a strategic vision for everything.

“He was an active participant in the larger college system game who understood how financial decisions were made in the system, who got the money and knew how it was all split up,” said Hale.

Rutkowski, Hale added, was active in developing higher education policy statewide, not only at all community and technical colleges, but also at universities.

Rutkowski served on the boards of Gesa Credit Union, College Spark Washington, Pemco, and the Green River College Foundation. He was also a Kiwanian.

Rutkowski is survived by his wife, Shirley, and their two daughters.