Life administers its pass-fail tests -- when you least expect it.
So David Rutter found himself in a Vietnam jungle, running radar installations guiding American jets on bombing runs in a secret war of agonizing futility.
His attempts to do the right thing there shaped the arch of his life thereafter.
And so did that moment some years later, when the auditors showed up to ask some questions about bonds sold to finance the Florida retirement community and nursing home he managed for a fast-growing company. Rutter answered honestly, which promptly got him fired. Only later did he learn that the company directors were running an elaborate pyramid scheme with shuffling of borrowed money.
A buttoned-down, crew-cut of a man with a crisp sense of ethics and a slow smile, Rutter's career offered hard lessons, triumphs, derailings and responsibilities that culminated in a supposedly peaceful retirement in Payson. However, his restless energy, sense of duty and competitive streak have interrupted that peace with a council race in a flurry of controversy.
Running on a slate endorsed by Mayor Bob Edwards, Rutter now finds himself ringing 1,500 doorbells, pushing for a businesslike approach to town affairs and sorting through the fierce politics From page 8A
politics of a town where everyone knows everyone -- friend and foe alike.
"The challenge is trying to figure out what's the right thing at the right time," he said.
"And sometimes, you can't do the right thing at the right time all the time. But democracy is one step forward and two steps back -- it's a process, and sometimes a lot harder to figure out than a dictatorship."
He insists he'll make his own judgments, but for now largely agrees with Edwards on key issues facing the town -- including support for continuation of annual restrictions on new building permits.
Rutter's introduction to hard choices and flawed government came amidst the great disillusionment of his service in Vietnam, where he was an Air Force radar operator involved in the secret U.S. expansion of the war into Laos and Cambodia.
"It was a stupid war at a stupid time led by stupid people," says the bright, plainspoken Rutter.
"I'm still a patriot, but I'm just not proud of that time -- it was a miserable three-and-a-half years during which time our orders were to charge the hill, but never take it."
He returned home to Nebraska as soon as he could and took up selling pharmaceutical drugs to doctors and hospitals. When the traveling demands of that job path threatened to unravel his marriage, he quit on the spot -- trusting to luck and hard work to turn up something else.
A chance encounter yielded an offer to run a nursing home, which deflected his life into a new path.
He rose from nursing home to retirement community, at one point serving as the chief administrator for a 3,000-resident community, complete with several nursing homes.
After fraud landed the owners of that corporation in jail, Rutter's career swerved again and he began a long stint as a hospital administrator. He loved that work.
"Being a hospital administrator is kind of like having Alzheimer's," he joked, "it's a new day every day. I love the variety and the constant change," and the work with people.
A driven, competitive man, his addiction to escalating challenges contributed to the ultimate unraveling of two marriages, which for a stretch of his life left him juggling his consuming career and the demands of single fatherhood.
Then in 1998, a mild stroke served as a rude wakeup call.
He heeded the doctor's warning and retired early. He played golf for a year, pondered his future, hiked and ran to keep in shape and in 2004 began to cast about for a new place to live out his retirement.
He and his third wife, also a hospital administrator, considered St. George, Utah, Silver City, N.M., before settling on Payson for the climate and the small town feel.
But the activist habits of a lifelong workaholic die hard, so after a year of hiking and playing golf, Rutter enrolled in the Payson Leadership Academy in 2006. That got him interested enough to volunteer service on the Parks and Recreation Board.
Then last summer, Mayor Bob Edwards talked him into running for the town council.
"Bob and I are not joined at the hip," says Rutter. "I told Bob I'll go to the dance, but I'm not going to dance every dance with him. I'm aggressive, but not in the same way as him," said Rutter, in reference to Edwards' very public battles on a variety of issues.
"If I want to accomplish something, I'm going to look at all the assets I have and see what I have to overcome. I think Bob sometimes pulls out what he has in his pocket and goes.
"I think it's easier to get across the street holding hands than dodging traffic," Rutter added.
However, at this point Rutter's positions mirror Edwards' on most issues. He rates obtaining water from the Blue Ridge Reservoir as a top priority, supports the smart growth plan, is skeptical of a proposed partnership with the YMCA and hopes to accelerate street construction. However, he figures the extension of Mud Springs is a "done deal," and notes "it sounds like it should have happened a long time ago."
He insists that he'll bring a lifetime of business management skills to bear on behalf of the town, applying the lessons of a long and complicated life with an independent mind.
"I don't lay my head down on my pillow wondering what Bob Edwards wants, I'm thinking about what those 50 people whose doors I just knocked on had to say," says Rutter.