#MightyTask: Tonya Rutherford ’90

Friday, August 23, 2019
Tonya Rutherford ’90

Tonya Rutherford ’90 has sharp cheekbones, dark curls, and the authoritative voice of one who knows how to speak out and make people listen. Early in our conversation together, she stands up to survey the bookshelf behind her briefly before pulling down a volume: The Renaissance Soul: Life Design for People with Too Many Passions to Pick Just One by Margaret Lobenstine. Rutherford declares this to be the book that best exemplifies her life. Anyone who is even vaguely acquainted with her would have to agree. Rutherford has always been an ambitious and straightforward person, and even her childhood dreams were jam-packed with versatile goals (she planned to serve as a judge by day, moonlight as a broadcaster for the six o’clock news, and spend the weekends as a hairdresser). This drive and determination led her to and helped her flourish at Mercersburg.

Rutherford attended an arts-focused school for the first half of her high-school career—something that surely contributed to her skill as a first place Declaimer in 1989 for the Marshall Society; however, she knew she wished to broaden her world and her personal reach and influence to include international experiences while taking the lessons of the south with her. Mercersburg was just the place. 

“I found my niche,” she says as she describes her arrival at Mercersburg. “The faculty really allowed me to be myself and rewarded me for being myself.” She quickly became an outspoken and well-recognized voice on campus. No one needed to give Rutherford permission, and she didn’t need to ask for it. She didn’t come to Mercersburg to “find her voice.” She had learned from her politically active and social-justice-conscious family how to speak with purpose. Mercersburg allowed her to foster that.

When Rutherford arrived at Mercersburg, she made up 50 percent of the black female population. She keenly felt the need for a safe space where students of African descent could be completely themselves, and she also wanted a vehicle to educate the community about racial issues. To that end, Rutherford made a motion to start a Black Student Union at Mercersburg. Rutherford acknowledges with gratitude the support of the faculty for her endeavors: “Even though I was very vocal on controversial issues, they [the faculty] were very supportive of my right to speak.” Certainly, there were detractors when it came to her actions, but Rutherford felt more support than otherwise from her school community, which encouraged her to continue speaking out (not that she would stay silent either way). Thirty years later, the BSU is still an influential presence on Mercersburg’s campus.

After Mercersburg, Rutherford once again made her dreams into reality: she entered the legal field by way of the art industry to which she’s always been attached. Rutherford married the colorful nuances of art to the more steady, practical rules of law in her role as managing associate general counsel at Verizon. In common terms, she serves as the bridge between Verizon and huge companies like Disney to negotiate terms for serving their media through her company. “Content is basically what I do,” she says. “I enjoy it because it gives space for so many voices and perspectives.” Even now, Rutherford is ensuring that her vision for creating safe spaces for people of all creeds and colors is realized. She is creating a world in which reflections of every child are seen everywhere, even on their screens. One would expect no less from a woman who has dedicated her life to the renaissance of daily accomplishments. 

Editor’s Note: Eliza DuBose ’20, of Rollinsville, Colorado, is a Writing Center Fellow, a Language Media Center Ambassador, and a member of Stony Batter Players.