Stuart Leavenworth: Sister of Sacramento is ready for a new chapter

Capturing a “sense of place” is one of the fundamentals of journalism, often forgotten these days in the rush to be first. For last 25 years, few in this city have captured Sacramento – all corners of it – better than Ginger Rutland.

Granted, Ginger has an advantage over most of us. She was raised in Sacramento from an early age. She can recall a time when elevated freeways did not slice through midtown neighborhoods, when K Street was a bustling shopping street and when hops fields covered what is now Campus Commons.

In her editorials, Ginger took no prisoners in going after state and local officials who abused their power. But in her columns and editorial notebooks, she brought to life the institutions that helped knit Sacramento together, whether public libraries, churches or the Grant High football team.

Last week, Ginger concluded a quarter-century on The Bee’s editorial board, ready for a well-earned retirement after 40 years of working in TV, radio and newspapers. She didn’t want any big fanfare in her final week of full-time work, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t offer her a tribute.

Ginger is the product of a remarkable Sacramento family – a father who became the highest-ranking civilian at McClellan Air Force Base and a mother who, despite being stricken by blindness late in life, continued to write books into her 90s.

“From the age of ten, I wanted to be a journalist,” Ginger once wrote. “Sitting in front of my parent’s old black-and-white Zenith in Sacramento, I watched the integration of Little Rock’s Central High School, the riots in Birmingham, the lunch counter sit-ins that rolled across the South. Every week I thumbed through Newsweek, Time and Life magazines, captivated by the images I saw and the stories I read about racial injustice. I wanted to be the reporter telling those stories....”

As both a television reporter and Bee editorial writer, Ginger told those stories. When I asked her last week about her proudest moments, she recalled the columns and editorials she wrote in the early 1990s about the Sacramento Police Department and its unusually high rates of jailing blacks for resisting arrest. Those editorials prompted the District Attorney’s Office to change the way it reviews and files such cases.

She also recalled her columns about Stanford Jones. A 35-year-old security guard, Jones was arrested following an altercation with a woman who accused him of damaging her car. Jones insisted he was innocent, but nonetheless had to spend $1,100 to bail himself out of jail. Refusing to plea bargain, Jones stood trial. There, his public defender demonstrated that Jones’ accuser had a criminal record and a pattern of seeking insurance claims for car damages. Jones was acquitted, but then the District Attorney’s Office refused to expunge his arrest and prosecution from the record. After The Bee published Ginger’s column on Jones’ situation in August 2002, a judge granted his request for a declaration of factual innocence.

Ginger crusaded for underdogs, including African Americans and other minorities, but her views on race and racial issues were hardly dogmatic. On numerous occasions, she chided African American leaders and the liberal establishment for exploiting racial situations. An example is her July column about the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the Trayvon Martin killing.

“Want to honor Trayvon?” she wrote. “Don’t march and shout slogans. Help a young black high schooler pass algebra. Give him a summer job. Teach him a trade.”

Although she has received little recognition for it, Ginger has been a thorn in the side of powerful public employee unions for more than a decade. She advocated for pension reform long before it became a cause of Republican and some Democratic politicians, and we doubt she will stay silent on that in retirement. An office pool has already been started on how many days will pass before Ginger calls us with information about a new pension outrage.

There are two qualities that I associate with Ginger. One is humility. She has long believed that journalists, editorial boards and people in general should be less defensive and be more willing to admit when they err or are quick to rush to judgment. “Sorry folks, this is not the Holy Grail,” she would say. “This is just a daily newspaper, and these are just editorials.”

The other is perseverance. Three years ago, Ginger was stricken by breast cancer. Although she was successfully treated, she barely had time to celebrate the end of chemotherapy. Days later, her husband, Don Fields, was sent to the hospital with a stroke that nearly killed him and left him in a wheelchair. While Don has partially recovered – largely because of the dedication of Ginger and her extraordinary daughter, Eva – Ginger’s world was turned upside down.

Yet if you ran into Ginger on the street, you’d never know it. As one of her colleagues, Pia Lopez, said the other day: “I’ve never heard Ginger complain. Not once. She is amazing.”

She is amazing. And over the next several months, she plans to pursue an amazing writing project much different from the ones she has tackled here at The Bee.

Once that is done, and perhaps earlier, I have little doubt that Ginger’s unique voice will find its way to these pages again. This sister of Sacramento can’t keep quiet for long. You haven’t heard the last of Ginger Rutland.