Student government leader, contemplative and insightful thinker, dedicated and loyal friend — no matter what role he played, Kevin Sutherland left a profound impact on every life he came across.
That’s what the parents of the late Trumbull native have come to learn over the two months that have passed since their 24-year-old son was killed during a mugging in Washington, D.C.
Doug and Theresa Sutherland returned to the nation’s capital, where Kevin attended American University as an undergraduate, last weekend for a memorial service that featured speeches from students and professors who recalled the 2013 graduate as an amazing “friend, mentor, and person.”
“We continue to be amazed about how deeply people felt about Kevin, and the deep impact he made in so many different lives,” Doug told The Times on Tuesday morning, following Sunday afternoon’s ceremony.
“It was the first time we heard from his professors since his death,” he said. “One was crying as much as we were at the service, and that left quite an impact on us — they all said how special a student he was, how much potential and talent he had.”
Pallavi Kumar, who taught Kevin in a public relations class at AU, reflected before the memorial service. She recalled a special thank-you note that the late student sent her after the semester was over.
“I want to thank you for a wonderful semester. My extracurricular activities throughout college have exposed me to public relations, so I was very excited to take this course to gain a formal academic background,” Kumar said, quoting Kevin. “Your class really exceeded my expectations. I always looked forward to coming to class as it was upbeat and fun in addition to being productive. I really got a wider grasp of the field from the current events case studies, guest speakers, and the assignments we completed for class. Again, thank you.”
The communications professor said that hearing a student express such gratitude was somewhat rare, and “spoke exactly to the type of student that Kevin was — to take the time to write such a sincere note.”
She added that he had a lot of integrity, citing the example of a group project he had with five classmates on which he was left to do the bulk of the work. Again, he sent a thoughtful note to his teacher — not to complain or place blame.
“When I asked him if he thought the other classmates deserved lower grades on the project, he demurred saying he didn’t feel that was his decision, which I thought showed maturity beyond his years,” Kumar said.
“I am heartbroken that someone with so much promise, potential and zest for life was taken so soon,” she added.
A wonderful secretary
Terry Flannery, the vice president of communication at AU, spoke about Kevin’s two terms in student government under two different administrations.
“He served as secretary, which put him in a position to lead the communication and public relations functions of the executive branch of student government, and he was therefore the natural and most interested prospect to serve on two important advisory committees, one for the board of trustees and one for the university community, that influence and advise the university’s marketing and communication functions,” Flannery said.
The vice president noted that Kevin’s service came at a particularly important time in the life of the university.
“From 2011 to 2013, he provided valuable counsel as we implemented the university’s first strategic marketing plan and branding campaign,” Flannery said. “Our strategy was bold and our campaign gained a lot of attention in the early going, and as is often the case when something is new and bold, it was not immediately embraced by the entire internal community.
“Kevin was not a member of these advisory groups when we devised our strategy and introduced the campaign,” she added. “He arrived in his role when it was still too early to see any significant results except for whether our efforts were registering, and what the initial reactions were. The heat was on, and he took his advisory roles very seriously.”
In the speech, Flannery noted that Kevin dove into the research that shaped the strategy, “and took the time to understand why we chose the path we took.”
“He was an incredible listener,” Flannery said. “As he took it all in, I learned that underneath his natural quiet, and some would say shy, exterior was a thoughtful, strategic thinker, a natural political analyst, and a source of great humor.
“I realized that if we gave Kevin time and space to speak, great insight would be shared, often served up with and eliciting great laughter.”
Students share memories
Four students spoke during the ceremony Sunday, Aug. 30, at the Kay Spiritual Life Center on AU’s campus.
Elliot Bell-Krasner talked about his time with Kevin on the American University Student Government.
“Kevin’s quiet, yet exceptional, efforts on behalf of the AU community are something that will never be forgotten,” he said. “He was a remarkable individual with many endearing gifts, including his oratory, writing skills, and a New England wit that I always appreciated.”
Current students spoke to the legacy that the 2012 graduate left on the student body.
“As Thomas Campbell said, ‘To live in hearts we leave behind is not to die.’ I wish he could still be here with us, but I also hope that in the coming year the work I do as Kevin’s successor in student government will make him proud,” said Martin Valderruten Perea, the current AU secretary. “I hope wherever he is now, he knows that I’ll never forget the impact he made on my life.
“There’s no justice in his death but I’m thankful for all the days he lived,” he added. “Rest in peace, Kevin Sutherland.The entire SG family misses you so much.”
Patrick Kelly, who served as the AUSG president in 2014, said Kevin was the definition of a selfless servant during his time studying in Washington.
“He believed in the student government and the slow, sometimes painful progress it could create,” he said.
Kelly then surprised the crowd of 200 or so people when he said that the Mary Graydon Center Room — the office where Kevin spent two years as AUSG secretary — had been renamed the Kevin J. Sutherland Executive Office.
Doug was able to hang a plaques — outside the room — that called upon generations of future students to strive to emulate Kevin’s service and selflessness.
Another sign was hung over the door by the current officers with the Latin motto of the State of Connecticut, which Kevin adopted, “Qui transtulit sustinet” — “He who transplanted sustains.”
“The plaque dedication was a surprise to all of us,” Doug said. “We went up to the office after the reception, and it was just very touching.”
Doug said that the entire weekend was very bittersweet for him and Theresa, as they walked around the campus where their son left such a large imprint.
“We couldn’t have found a better school for him — it was the perfect size school for him,” Doug said. “He loved AU and he loved Washington, D.C. — he had six very happy years here, four at school and two working down here.”
The father recalled moving in his son as a freshman.
“It’s bittersweet remembering all the good times and then remembering why we’re down here this week,” Doug said. “But they were very formative years for my son and he grew up a lot down here — he really came into his own, and I don’t regret sending him down here despite what happened.”
The parents’ minds were put at ease Sunday listening to the speeches and shaking the hands of future leaders who were inspired by Kevin’s lead.
“Everyone who spoke said that they were a better person because of him, which is really the greatest compliment one can say about you,” Doug said. “We kept hearing, ‘I hope my work can live up to what Kevin did,’ and that meant a lot to us.”
While memories of Kevin have sent many positive ripples among members in the AU community, his parents still face the ugliness of the long trial that awaits his accused murderer, Jasper Spires, 18, who has been charged with first-degree murder.
Before Sunday’s memorial, Doug and Theresa attended a brief hearing for Spires on Friday, Aug. 28. Police said the 18-year-old stabbed Kevin in the middle of the day on July 4 after trying to steal his cell phone.
“It was very difficult to face our son’s murderer like that,” Doug said. “It was a five-minute hearing because the judge wants him to have another medical exam done, because the results of the first one were inconclusive.”
While they wait for the second exam to be administered, the Sutherlands will come home to Trumbull. Doug said they plan to return for the next hearing on Friday, Oct. 9.
“The prosecutors are dedicated to finding justice to this brutal and senseless crime,” Doug said about the hearing.
“It was good to have the uplifting service Sunday after the court experience,” he added. “It helped balance off the weekend.”
Memorial contributions can be made to The Kevin Joseph Sutherland Memorial Fund and the Kevin Sutherland Internship Fund at www.american.edu/giving/kevin-sutherland.cfm. For questions, please contact Lee Holsopple, the assistant vice president of university programs, at email@example.com.