Murfreesboro Central High School graduate Don Rutledge pictured the world, one frame at a time.
One of Don Rutledge's most famous projects was as the photographer for John Howard Griffin's nonfiction book, "Black Like Me." Photo/D. Rutledge
Although an ordained Baptist minister, his call in life was a God-given photo talent that took him around the globe, to all 50 states and more than 140 nations, as a roving photographer for the Foreign Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Commission Magazine.
Rutledge achieved international acclaim in 1961, after accompanying author John Howard Griffin, a journalist who altered his skin color with chemicals to pass as a black person, through experiences in New Orleans and Atlanta. The resulting book, “Black Like Me,” captured national and international attention.
“It was a volatile situation, having a white man photographer in a black community,” noted Rutledge’s wife, Lucy Marie, who was wed to the photographer for 61 years.
The Rev. Rutledge died Feb. 19 his home near Richmond, Va., following a lengthy illness. His graveside service was held Tuesday at Roselawn Memorial Gardens between Smyrna and Murfreesboro with Jennings & Ayers Funeral Chapel in charge.
Before working for Baptists, he travelled the globe for Black Star, a top world photojournalism service, shooting for “Life” and “Look,” and other magazines.
Before entering Christian photography, Rev. Rutledge’s work included multiple dangerous assignments during the turbulent Civil Rights demonstration years in the 1950s and early 1960s.
He and his brother, Clayton who still resides in Murfreesboro, both attended old Central High School.
“I was in class with Clayton, so Don was in a class before us,” noted Central High graduate (Smyrna resident) Dorothy Jean Barnett, age 81. “I recall seeing Don’s pictures in all types of magazines and in Baptist publications, taken all across the globe.”
Dating from boyhood days in Murfreesboro, when an uncle brought him a box camera from Germany during World War II, the camera buff focused on people and their plight as he circled the globe.
“I still have that box camera,” he said during a retirement interview he granted back in 1996.
He didn’t understand his call to ministry, initially.
“I misunderstood as a teenager, when I thought God had called me to preach,” Rutledge focused on the past. “But later, with the help of a wise minister back in my hometown Murfreesboro, I knew God wanted me to use photography as a ministry.”
He offered the following advice for others, whether it’s photography or banking or sales.
“As little children, we all have an active curiosity about life,” Rutledge said. “But as we grow older, many lose that intense interest, and go through life never noticing the colors, textures, sounds and people around us … We’re to be as children, excited about following in Jesus’ foot steps.”
He loved to picture real life as well as the unusual in his frames.
“I photographed a rural pastor who would go out once a week to the garbage dump and get all the whiskey bottles he could find,” Rutledge pictured. “After cleaning them, he placed Christian inspirational notes inside, sealed them and turned them loose to float in a nearby river.
“The bottles would keep on going out to the world down that river,” Rutledge added. “One went all the way out to the Mississippi River and down to the Gulf of Mexico. After 15 years, one bottle was found in Greece. That’s a special ministry that impacted the world.”
The Rev. Rutledge pictured Mother Earth as “Christ’s cathedral.”
“We should treat our earth as Heavenly and respect Mother Nature,” Rutledge shared. “Another special ministry that touched my heart, and filled my camera lens, was this Christian man who had the vision of placing inspirational messages on bands around the legs of ducks and geese as they fly around the globe. He put scriptures on the bands, and people from around the world would send word back to him they’d benefitted from the special words of encouragement. There’s endless ways we can minister to people.”
A love of Christ and his people is what triggered Rutledge and the flash on his camera. One of his last professional assignments touched him profoundly.
“Pictures are windows to the soul,” Rutledge described.
“I did the photographs to go with a reporter’s story about the lives of street children in Brazil,” Rutledge described. “I met one male adult, who had grown up as a street child. He returned to the streets as a missionary for God.”
People may be similar, but “cultures are vastly different,” Rutledge said.
And that includes food.
His global diet even included rats and worms when he sometimes slept for weeks on the floors of “mud huts” in African jungles.
“People are basically the same, except they’re in different cultures,” Rutledge assessed. “But monkey meat compares with nothing I ever put past my lips. I got to the point, I’d not ask what we were eating until after I ate it, for nutritional purposes. You have to eat to do your mission.”
But once he focused on his life’s mission, God opened “the world’s doors” to him, Rutledge said.