Sylvia Panetta’s Tribute to Helen Rucker

On Saturday, April 1, 2017, Sylvia M. Panetta spoke at the NAACP of Monterey County’s 45th annual Freedom Fund Life Membership Banquet where Helen Rucker was recognized with the Medgar Evers Freedom Legacy Award for her work on behalf of civil rights and civic engagement. Below is the full text of Mrs. Panetta’s remarks.

This evening, I have the great honor of recognizing one of the hardest working and most dedicated public servants I have ever known as she receives the recognition of the Medgar Evers Freedom Legacy Award.

Throughout her life, my dear friend Helen Rucker has been a champion for civil rights, equality and civic engagement. She has led her life as an example and has been tenacious in her efforts, ensuring that everyone she meets understands the great responsibility and privilege it is to participate in our democracy.

I have known Helen for almost fifty years. We first met when I was working with Charlie Knight in public education. Later when Leon served in Congress, Helen was a tireless precinct walker and campaign volunteer. More than that, over the years she became my dear friend and sounding board. I can’t count the number of times that I reached out to Helen to discuss the best ways to bring the community together. No matter if the issue was the closure of Fort Ord, water management, transportation, and in the past 20 years the Student program for the Leon Panetta Lecture Series with outreach to underserved high school students who could benefit from this program, Helen is there to help.

Helen is a force and a mobilizer. She is never content to simply rest on past successes, or accept mediocrity as the status-quo. Helen challenges herself and all those she comes in touch with to do more, to work harder, and to be better.

Each June, the Panetta Institute holds a program for student leaders from throughout California. These students spend a week at the Institute hearing from different leaders: elected officials, athletes, military leaders, religious leaders and more. As part of this program, I moderate a panel on grassroots and community organizing and every year among different leaders in the community, I always invite Helen. That is because Helen’s presentation to these youngsters is not just eye-opening, not just inspirational, but for many in the audience her presentation along with the other members is life-changing.

Helen tells these young people about her childhood growing up in segregated Louisiana. She tells them about how a love for reading brought her to teaching and eventually to serve as a school librarian where she was able to share the power of reading with students for generations to come. When she retired she still had more to give and so she tells these young people about her decision to run for local government and about her terms as a Seaside City councilwoman, mayor pro tem and member of the board of trustees for Monterey Peninsula Unified School District. She shares her story with these young men and women and then she challenges them. She tells them to take stock of the opportunities that they have been given and reminds them of those that have fought and have sacrificed so that they can have freedoms that they all too often take for granted. In so doing, she forces everyone in the room to question their apathy and to recommit themselves to fighting for what is right, to becoming involved in a cause they believe, and to making their community and their nation a place in which to be proud. She also reminds everyone about the right and responsibility to vote – her words: “You do not have a right not to vote.”

Helen brings that message to the entire community every day through her work with the Seaside Voter Education/Registration Center, where she promotes the importance of everyone registering to vote in every election.

Before I close, I’d like to share one other story about my work with Helen. For more than twenty years now, Helen has served as a member of the Leon Panetta Lecture Series taskforce. In this role Helen attends meetings on the planning of each event and she volunteers during each lecture. At the start of each meeting, I ask those assembled to introduce themselves and state who they are representing. When we get to Helen, she speaks up loudly and clearly and introduces herself as “Helen Rucker, representing the community.” In so many ways that one phrase is Helen. In her every action Helen is there steadfast in her representation of her community, and without question the community is blessed to have her as its champion.

Creative, dedicated and principled, Helen is the kind of public servant we always hope to inspire our Panetta Institute students to emulate. I am proud to call her my friend and so lucky to have her as my colleague and collaborator.

Leon and I salute you as you receive the Medgar Evers Freedom Legacy Award on this day, Helen. We congratulate you and express our deep gratitude for your tremendous public service.