School became place of brutal teasing for Derrick. Bathroom breaks and recess were the worst, he says. Every time the shy, overweight child went to the bathroom, boys would bully him. Once, several trapped him there and beat, kicked and urinated on him, leaving him on the floor as they went back to class. “I took a lot,” he says softly. “It’s too painful. I’d rather leave it in the past. I always end up crying.”
His younger siblings often had to fight for him — Derrick didn’t fight. He wasn’t like other kids. He didn’t play outside. He never learned to ride a bike or swim. He preferred to stay in the house, thumbing through fashion magazines or listening to classical music, recalls his brother William Jr. Derrick took refuge in his church choir — and food. Food, while a big source of his pain, was also a source of his comfort.
Derrick finally devised a way to get his classmates to stop bullying him. He agreed to do their homework. But the teachers noticed his handwriting on his classmates’ assignments. They told Regina Rutledge that it might be better if Derrick attended a private school to get away from the neighborhood children. The Rutledges enrolled him in Georgetown Day School.
In the 1970s, tuition was about $3,000 a year, a bit much for the Rutledges, who also sent Derrick’s youngest sister, Regina Ruth, accepted on an academic scholarship. The remaining four children, their mother says, “wouldn’t have been able to cope” at the private school with predominantly white classmates.
To pay for her son’s tuition, Regina Rutledge catered on the weekends, with her six children helping to cook.
Each weekday morning, the family would climb into Regina’s station wagon, and she would drive across town to drop off William at work, then the kids at school, then herself at her school. Every morning, they drove past 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
“I never dreamed that one day he’d be there, in the first lady’s living quarters, in her makeup room. Her children call him Mr. Derrick,” Regina says smiling. “I am just so sorry my husband was not able to see this. ...”
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Rutledge thrived at diverse Georgetown Day. He joined the school choir and theater. The family often went to watch him in student musicals such as “Guys and Dolls” and “My Fair Lady.”
In art class, colors fascinated him, how they blended. While other children drew houses and cars, Rutledge sketched almond-shaped female faces, recalls his childhood friend, Ronald Lucas, 50, now a public relations executive in New Jersey.
Rutledge got a music and academic scholarship to Webster University in St. Louis. His strong, lyric tenor made him a natural for opera. On stage, Rutledge felt in control. Audience members may have snickered when, at 400 pounds, he’d slowly make his way to the microphone, but by the time he was done singing, “I had won them over, and they’d be standing to their feet applauding.”