Trustee Pat Peyton ’84 was at an alumni event in Philadelphia sometime in the 1990s when she first met Barbara Rutberg, then serving on Emerson’s Alumni Board. As Kappa Gamma Chi sisters, the two bonded, and Peyton mentioned that she had wanted to get more involved in supporting the College.
More than a decade later, Peyton got a call from Peter Loge ’87, a political communications consultant and, at the time, Alumni Board chair. The Alumni Board had a vacancy, Loge told her, and Barbara Rutberg thought she might be a good candidate.
“She remembered meeting me. I was on her radar for more than 10 years,” Peyton said. “She has a gift for remembering, and it’s because she cares.”
Rutberg, as Alumni Board president, director of alumni relations, three-time interim vice president of development, and most recently, consultant to the vice president for institutional advancement, made a career out of caring about the Emerson community. This week, she will retire, leaving numerous gifts, crucial connections, countless friends, and a formidable legacy as one of Emerson’s biggest supporters.
“While Barbara may be departing Emerson, she leaves a powerful and enduring legacy of which we are the happy beneficiaries,” President Lee Pelton said in a letter to the community announcing her retirement. “Her focused commitment to building strong, lasting relationships has had a significant impact on the College.”
A Sudden Career Switch
A Speech Pathology and Audiology major at Emerson, Rutberg ’68 had a first career as an early development specialist, working with young children. In 1999, her work on the Alumni Board led to a surprise job offer as director of alumni relations, and she started on a “steep learning curve,” decoding the best ways to bring alumni back into the fold, make connections between students and successful Emersonians, and—one thing she never imagined doing—asking people for money.
“There was such a diverse, talented, creative alumni body,” Rutberg said, “and when you come into this position, you have to wear many hats, and those hats represent so many different generations, different experiences and interests.”
Suddenly, Rutberg found herself organizing an alumni panel in New York City with cosmetic mogul Bobbi Brown ’79 and then-celebrity publicist Kathie Berlin ’65. She was jetting off to Los Angeles to host with Kevin Bright ’76 a massive alumni event on the set of Friends, which Bright produced. She was camping out to talk to then-AMC President of Programming Joel Stillerman ’84 at his New York office.
But more importantly, she was learning everything she could about the Emerson alumni, students, and faculty she met.
“What I learned is you really have to immerse yourself in their worlds,” Rutberg said. “It’s not about just doing events; you have to educate yourself about their fields and their interests to try to find points of engagement with the College.”
Doing Her Homework
Iwasaki Library Executive Director Bob Fleming knows exactly how deeply Rutberg will dive into the worlds of alumni. Often, when she was going to meet with alumni, she would ask Fleming to help her research not just the graduates, but also the College itself during the years they were students. She would find out what professors they might have had, what clubs and events they may have been involved in, what the campus culture was like. All in an effort to make the alumni feel like part of the Emerson continuum.
“The College’s story is what binds us all together; it’s how we all got here and do what we do, and it’s why people keep coming back,” said Fleming, who has also worked with Rutberg on organizing the annual Alumni Weekend and called her “one of the most special people I’ve met over my 30-plus years at the College.
“I’ve seen her engage with people across the spectrum of alumni, and she’s good with all of them,” he said. “She can connect with the oldest living alumna, and she can connect with students who graduated from the College 30 years after she graduated.”
Performing Arts Chair Melia Bensussen recalls a recent trip she, Rutberg, and Vice President for Institutional Advancement Ron Korvas took to New York to meet with potential donors. Rutberg said she knew the best way to get to the front of the line to board the crowded train back to Boston, so the three of them would be able to sit together and continue working.
Sure enough, she was able to lay claim to a four-seat table. They settled in, looked up at the signs, and noticed they had bundled themselves onto a quiet car: no talking. Bensussen admitted that she was a little relieved to have a breather. Rutberg’s face “dropped.”
“Barbara was in pain,” she said. “There were going to be three hours that we couldn’t work to make the College better.”
Bensussen said the department has had a tireless friend in Rutberg, who has helped bring in and steward gifts, like alumna Janet Goldman’s ongoing scholarship fund for Performing Arts majors, as well as lured prominent alumni back to Boston to offer insight to current students. With one or two phone calls, Rutberg has brought Henry Winkler ’67, Tony Award–winning producer Jason Grossman ’02, and Spotlight actor Michael Cyril Creighton ’01 to campus, Bensussen said.
Thanks to Rutberg’s work, “we’ve been able to bring a new generation of students to an understanding of what footsteps they’re following in,” she said.
“Humble and Effective”
Peyton, the Emerson Trustee, said Rutberg is more than just a hard-working booster for the school; she’s an innovator who has single-handedly strengthened the Alumni Board and the College as a whole.
She founded a number of alumni affiliation groups, such as GOLD (Graduates of the Last Decade) and EBONI (Emerson’s Black Organization with Natural Interests) Alumni, to further gel graduates’ connections to the College. She reimagined Alumni Weekend, inviting current students to showcase their talents at the annual Alumni Award gala.
She created the Emerson Film Festival in 2000 to highlight Visual and Media Arts students’ work. She also established the Barbara S. Rutberg Scholarship in MFA Fiction Writing.
And there were less conspicuous gifts, too. That baby grand piano that pops up in one of the theaters whenever a show needs accompaniment? Rutberg donated that. The glass partition at the Robbins Center that allows parents to observe their children getting speech or audiology services? That was Barbara, too.
Beginning with her own term on the Board in the 1980s, when Rutberg joined the group of alumni who protested the College’s proposed move to Lawrence, and continuing through her time in Alumni Relations, Rutberg “has been fighting for what’s best for Emerson,” Peyton said.
“She so humble; she doesn’t want credit or attention for the things she does,” Peyton said. “There are a lot of people who do wonderful things and they like to shout about it all day long…She’s working quietly and extremely effectively.”
Rutberg said that behind everything she’s done—the connections, the gifts, the asks, the small favors, and the big ideas—has been a “deep personal commitment” to the College. As an alumna, she knew the value of an Emerson education and wanted to make sure others saw that too.
“Because of what my experience was here, and my belief in that, I could find a way to impart that to others,” she said. “I could see the potential of the growth of the institution, and that to be a part of that would be very exciting.”