AU College Democrats remember Kevin Sutherland's commitment, influence
Kevin Sutherland’s impact on American University will live on forever.
The school made sure of that last summer when his name was unveiled on a plaque that hangs outside the door of its student government office — now officially renamed the Kevin J. Sutherland Executive Office — and the university’s College Democrats Club backed up that action on Dec. 1 when they named their annual banquet after him.
Kevin’s parents, Doug and Theresa Sutherland, were in attendance, as was U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy, along with dozens of friends who recalled what the fallen peer meant to them individually and how he helped shaped American University going forward in the 21st Century.
“It was hard for us to find stuff to do because he had already done everything — he set the bar that high,” said Kathryn Tinker, who served under Sutherland when he was AU College Democrats Club’s communication director before eventually taking over his post when he left to become the secretary of American University Student Government (AUSG).
“He overhauled the communication on campus — he made it professional and organized. He designed our club’s logo, he created a new website, he made posters, he started our first-ever newsletter,” she added.
“And when I say he made posters, he printed them and he put them up. We’d offer to put them up and he wouldn’t even let us freshman minions do that. …
“He was the reason why people showed up to our events.”
The 24-year-old Trumbull native was killed during an apparent robbery on July 4 in Washington, D.C. He graduated from AU in 2013, working as an intern for U.S. Rep. Jim Himes in his senior year.
His parents said they continue to be amazed and comforted by the outpouring of love and affection being shown to Kevin by his American University friends and colleagues.
After the memorial service at the Kay Spiritual Life Center on the AU campus in August, which came during the same weekend as the student government office dedication, the school printed new letterhead that honors the former student government secretary who served two terms under two different administrations.
“AU is a very special place, and it is a great honor for Kevin and his family that the AU College Democrats Club where Kevin got his start in college politics has chosen to honor him in this way,” Doug Sutherland told The Times. “We are also very grateful for the kind words that Sen. Chris Murphy spoke at the banquet.
“In honoring Kevin’s memory, he reminded all of these young people that they can make a difference in this world — if they will simply push, doors will open and their voices will be heard,” he said. “Kevin’s life demonstrated that well.”
While Murphy was busy influencing future generations of AU Democrats during his speech at the banquet, the senator looked to the late student’s career and saw it as a personal reminder for what one can do when properly motivated.
“He was a grassroots organizer in his heart and he was constantly showing his commitment toward advocacy,” Murphy said in an interview with The Times in January. “He wanted to make his community better, and he did that by knocking on doors and getting support.
“He was a kid who simply wasn’t going to wait until he was 30 or 40 years old to make a difference, and I think we can all learn from that example,” he said.
Murphy said he continues to keep in touch with the Sutherland family as they await the trial of Kevin’s accused murderer this year.
“I’m watching the developments of the case like everyone else,” he said. “As it unfolds, it will help us understand what needs to be done to make sure this doesn’t happen again.”
“This is another example of an individual slipping through the cracks and doing something drastic,” he added.
Despite the looming trial, the senator said December’s banquet was celebratory and touching.
“It was very meaningful that AU carved out a place for Kevin’s memory and legacy in their student government and now at the dinner for the school’s College Democrats Club,” he told The Times. “It’s a fitting tribute to have the office and the banquet named after Kevin, and I know how much it means to his parents — it means a lot to them to have AU go out of their way and have these small reminders of the mark he made on that campus.”
The next generation
Nick Guthman, an AU student who serves as the club’s president this year, didn’t personally know Sutherland but played an integral role in getting the banquet to be renamed after the former member and communications director.
“We brought it to the executive board this fall and got it approved, and then it got passed on to previous AU Dems and Kevin’s family and they accepted it,” said Guthman, who’s currently in the middle of a three-year communication, legal institutions, economics, and government (CLEG) program. “As a current student, we kept hearing about his legacy and we thought it was the least we could do to keep him alive on campus.”
Besides the banquet, Guthman said, the approximately 75 current club members are engaged in various other activities to keep Sutherland’s work and spirit alive on campus and in the neighboring Washington, D.C., community.
He said in the 2016 fall semester, members will go knocking on doors for the campaign of the Democratic presidential candidate — a process that will be aided by setting up new software that will create an updated database.
“Kevin was very into technology — he was very knowledgable when it came to social networking as well as software — and we’re gearing our work toward this,” said Guthman, who’s been involved in the club since freshman year. “We want to engage not only the AU community but other schools in the D.C. area.”
Timing is everything
Of course, there is work to be done outside of politics and the presidential race.
“We’re trying to create a week of action that will focus on gun violence and prevention,” Guthman said, targeting the first week of April as a possible time frame.
“We need to create our position and lobby to both students on campus and those who work in this city,” he said. “It’s definitely the right thing to do and it’s a pivotal time to make it happen.”
That can also be said about AU College Democrats Club’s decision to honor their fallen peer at this year’s banquet, and make sure his name is attached to it forever.
“Perhaps next year’s officers wouldn’t have had the foresight to change the name — maybe too much time would have passed,” Guthman said.
“The outpouring of support from former alumni was incredible,” he added. “It was more populated this year than in previous years and it was tremendous to have the support of the Sutherland family as well as the alumni who had the privilege of knowing Kevin.”
Setting the bar
Like Sutherland, who got involved with the AU College Democrats Club as a freshman in the fall of 2009, Tinker committed to the group as a newcomer to AU and was immediately transfixed by the communication director’s work ethic.
As Doug noted, the club was one of the largest clubs on campus but was “kind of in a rebuilding phase” when Kevin first got involved.
Tinker would never see anything but a well-oiled machine when she signed up in the fall of 2010 — thanks in large part to Sutherland’s unique skill set that included social media, graphics and Web design.
“He set the bar for what it means to be an AU College Democrat,” she said of her late colleague and peer, who served as the club’s social media and web director in his freshman year.
During those first two semester at AU, he completely rebranded the club with a new logo, a new website and blog.
If that wasn’t enough, the Trumbull native designed new membership cards and set up a new list server to communicate with members.
He also used his photographic and videography skills to chronicle club activities before becoming the club’s communications director — a role Tinker would come to inherit.
“He set himself apart from the crowd,” she recalled. “He was really excited to share things he was interested in and teach others, and I think I benefited from that the most.”
She added that Sutherland’s interests ranged beyond the limitations of politics.
“What I think he will be remembered for by all of us is his commitment to local communities in college,” Tinker said. “We will all remember his legacy in different ways, but I think we can all agree he showcased what a student at AU should strive to be.”