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City Folk

Wrangling Fighting Butterflies

Fred Rutledge looks back on the history of the Baltimore Experimental High School

Photo: J.M. Giordano, License: N/A

J.M. Giordano


For kids too young or naive or perhaps too dim to know how careful one should be about what they wish for, it was a dream come true: No rules.

Not at home, where retired Unitarian minister Frederick Alvah Rutledge Sr., now 82, and his late wife, Ann, raised four children in a fanciful, anything-goes home at 1208 Argonne Drive.

And pretty much no rules at school, the gone-but-not-forgotten Baltimore Experimental High School, where Fred taught history and home- and building renovation, and the ultimate frisbee team was known as the Fighting Butterflies.

“There is no check out procedure for [borrowing library] books at BEHS,” states one of the school’s mimeographed handouts from 1977. “You don’t have to sign a little slip or tell anyone. No one’s going to jump on you for an overdue book . . . ”

Over the years, students who fell through the cracks at the BEHS often came to live with the Rutledge family on Argonne, several of them for years at a time.

One student in particular, Greg Wilson, came from a well-to-do family in Houston that somehow thought BEHS was a boarding school. The kid showed up in Baltimore with nowhere to stay and wound up living with the Rutledge family for two years.

Said Rutledge: “They threw him on a plane for a boarding school that didn’t exist.”

A native of San Antonio, Texas, Rutledge has taken on something of a long-haired Burl Ives look in his eighth decade. Back in the day, he resembled a Cambridge theology don, complete with pipe. After almost 40 years on Argonne Drive (1971 to 2009), he now lives just east of Towson with his daughter Cynthia Lee Rutledge.

His daughter Nina Amaya, a BEHS graduate and a professional belly dancer who performs with and directs the troupe Aubergine, takes him shopping every Tuesday. The third Rutledge daughter is Anita, known as Tita.

A son, Frederick Jr., died at age 37 in 1996 from depression-induced complications of drug and alcohol abuse. Ric graduated from the Experimental High School in 1977.

On a sunny afternoon not long ago, Fred sat at a card table beneath a tree in the front yard of Cynthia’s house, eating curried goat meat for lunch and remembering the old days as Nina looked through photographs and journals from her high school.

The Experimental High School was at 504 Cathedral St. near Hamilton (and down the street from the First Unitarian Church, where Rutledge served as associate pastor) and operated from the 1970-71 school year through the late 1980s.

It is known for turning out some of the most creative, some of the most successful, and some of the most dysfunctional high school graduates in Baltimore. Against that standard, how is it any different from Gilman School or Patterson or Mercy High School?

Well, the word on the street—particularly if you went to school with someone who all of a sudden disappeared from class and turned up at BEHS—was that it was weird.

“It was a school of kids who didn’t work out in private high schools or public high school,” says Rutledge. “We saw a need for these students, that if the schools we had were not working for them, then let’s make one that does.

“My feeling was that it was a place to learn responsibility,” says Rutledge, who marched with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma. “The whole thing was on the student’s shoulders. You had to be responsible” or you weren’t going to accomplish much.

The way it worked, says Rutledge, was that the students selected which teachers they wanted to work with. Together, those teachers could propose courses based on what the particular group of students who had chosen them wanted to study.

Asked if the parents of his students were especially “open-minded” to approve of so liberal an approach to education, Rutledge answered: “Or desperate.”

And in many cases, that was the silver lining of the BEHS. Separate from the free-thinking families for whom it was a good fit for their ambitious, free-thinking children, BEHS was a safety net for parents at their wits’ end: those who didn’t know quite what to do with their kids or were too involved with their own lives to care.

Over the years, both when the school was in operation and long since, Rutledge has performed wedding ceremonies for many of his students (and his children).

“He introduced me to the term eschatology,” says Yvonne Dale Ashford, who did an independent study with Rutledge on the subject.

“He turned me on to Be Here Now by Ram Dass,” says Lynda Marie Kelly. “I still have that book.”

“He was the first one to teach me computer programming and that’s what I do for a living ,” says Daniel Davis, who remembers the Argonne Drive house as “filled with all kinds of historical bric-a-brac” and Rutledge as “Walt Whitman.”

“Fred didn’t suffer fools but if he liked you he would take you under his wing, which for a year he did with me.”

Nibbling his stewed goat and potatoes, Rutledge looks back on his life—“I don’t know what it’s like to be 81 because I’ve never been 81 before”—and adds he is still interested in the questions that led him to become a cleric.

“Where did we come from? Where are we going?” he says. “I’ve pondered it most of my life and I still don’t have an answer.”

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