Talk about living up to your name.
Floyd Ruttagah did just that last Saturday at the Dayton City League Track and Field Championships at Welcome Stadium.
The Meadowdale High freshman came to this country just 22 months ago from Tanzania and only began competing in outdoor track this spring.
Before Saturday, he had never run a 3,200-meter race, but for the championships he was asked to do that, along with run the 1,600-meter and 800-meter races, all in less than two hours on what would become a warm, sunny day.
Making the best of a tough assignment, Ruttagah turned in a Herculean performance.
He won the 1,600 meters and the 800, too. He finished third in the 3,200, pressing eventual winner Amose Yeriya of Dunbar through much of the last lap.
Some 48 years ago, Dr. Floyd Thomas made the best of a tough assignment, as well.
One moment he was studying political science and psychology at the University of Kansas and the next, because of a low number in the military draft lottery — “It’s the only lottery I’ve ever won,” he said with a half laugh — he was in the U.S. Navy and headed to Vietnam, assigned to the oldest destroyer in the War.
When that ship was eventually decommissioned, Thomas asked to be assigned to a smaller ship.
Instead, he was put on the massive aircraft carrier, the USS Kitty Hawk. When he pressed for a transfer, he was sent back to Vietnam, while the Kitty Hawk went to Hawaii.
“They (Navy brass) thought they were getting the last laugh, but it turned out to be the greatest thing for me,” he said. “I was on the USS Durham and we went off the coast of North Vietnam and evacuated over 2,000 Vietnamese who would have been slaughtered.
“And we were there at the very end in Saigon. You’ve probably seen the films of helicopters leaving the embassy with the last people. Four ships had been designated to take the evacuees and we were one of them.
“We were part of an effort that saved a lot of people there at the end.”
When Thomas returned to Kansas — he had grown up in Topeka — he no longer wanted to be a lawyer as he had before.
“In the Navy I’d served with all kinds of people from all different backgrounds, well except for the wealthy,” he said. “There weren’t any wealthy people among us enlisted men. But I got to know and respect people from so many cultural backgrounds.
“When I went back to grad school at Kansas, I focused on African-American and African studies.
Thomas eventually worked at the Kansas Museum of History and in 1987 he took a job at the National Afro-American Museum and Cultural Center in Wilberforce, where, for over 25 years, he would serve as everything from the curator to the interim director.
Credit: Floyd Thomas Jr
Credit: Floyd Thomas Jr
Opening his home
George Washington Ruttagah, who was born in Tanzania, was named after the first United States president and dreamed of one day coming to America.
In 1992, he moved to the Washington, D.C. area where his father, once a pilot in the Tanzania Air Command, lived and worked for British Airways.
Ruttagah graduated from Paul Laurence Dunbar High in D.C. and enrolled a Wilberforce University. On a partial athletic scholarship, he was a two-time MVP of the Bulldogs track team, became president of an international students’ group and earned a political science degree.
He met Thomas at the Xenia YMCA in 1996 and the two became friends when his students organization began taking part in programs at the nearby Afro-American Museum.
“He became a mentor to me,” Ruttagah said.
With a recommendation from Thomas, Ruttagah went to grad school at Wright State and later transferred to Norwich University, where he got a degree in diplomacy and international terrorism. He lived in Thomas’s home near Harvard and Salem in Northwest Dayton for seven years while he worked for the Montgomery County Juvenile Courts and as an area translator.
After Ruttagah married and moved out, Thomas began his continuing tradition of offering African immigrants who came to Dayton a place to stay until they got established.
It was a kindness George Ruttagah would never forget.
Some 16 years ago he returned to Tanzania for a year. Over the years — even now as he works a factory job here — he has run various projects back in his homeland to help people in need.
He started an NGO to provide educational opportunities for kids and he also founded Wilberforce Farms, which now encompass some 300 acres where corn, cassava, coconuts, pineapple, papaya, watermelon and other crops are grown and where they raise cows, goats, donkeys, turkeys and chicken.
On Dec. 30, 2006, Esther Beatus Nangale gave birth to their son in Mwanza, Tanzania.
Before the boy was born, Ruttagah contacted Floyd Thomas back here in Dayton and told him he was going to name the child after him.
“I don’t have any kids of my own, so to have someone bear my name is really something special for me,” Thomas said. “I take great pride in that and even more so now as I see the kind of young man Floyd is growing into.”
Credit: Floyd Thomas Jr
Credit: Floyd Thomas Jr
Winning the day
Esther and George eventually split, and young Floyd stayed with his mother in Tanzania.
George moved back to Ohio, got married and started a blended family that includes daughters Sabrina and Tassy and sons Tristan and Sabit, who runs track for Stivers.
In video calls back to Tanzania, George introduced Floyd to the man from whom he got his first name — Dr. Floyd Thomas — and the two built a long distance relationship.
Thomas laughed the other day when asked what his 16-year-old namesake thinks of him now:
“Now? Well, he’s a teenager and I’m 73. To him, I’m probably just this old guy.”
Young Floyd said that’s not the case: “He’s my dad’s friend. My dad gave me his name and it’s a good name. He’s a nice guy who helps people. One day I hope I can help people, too.”
Floyd grew up speaking Swahili, so he had to learn much of his English when he came here by himself in the summer of 2021.
After completing eighth grade at the Pathway School of Discovery, he entered Meadowdale this school year.
It seems George Ruttagah is using some of the lessons of his own childhood on Floyd.
“I was raised mostly by my auntie and grandmother,” he said. “They were strict.”
And so is his dad, young Floyd said: “He doesn’t want me to have social media yet and he said this summer I need to have a job. He’s not going to buy everything for me. He said when he was 15, he already was living on his own.”
Meadowdale coach Michael Beatty said he knew little about Floyd when he first came out for track:
“I wasn’t sure about him because he’d never run track before. But he was doing things naturally and I soon realized I could train him harder and harder and he’d respond. He’s a nice kid who does what you ask him to do…And he doesn’t like to lose.”
Floyd shrugged when asked about his lack of experience: “Africans, we’ve got stamina for distance. That’s why we can run long distances.”
Last Saturday though, he was challenged like never before.
His family was in the stands and his dad whooped out cheers as he ran past.
Floyd Thomas, an amateur photographer of note in his retirement, was on the inside of the track taking pictures.
Young Floyd’s first event was the 1,600 meters, and he bided his time for the first three laps. Then on the first turn of the bell lap, he roared past Ponitz sophomore Yafet Mahari and Belmont sophomore Lunga Lukozi and was in the lead. He accelerated down the final stretch and won in in 4 minutes, 58.82 seconds, almost 4.5 seconds ahead of Mahari.
Some 90 minutes later — in the 800 meters — he took the lead immediately and never relinquished it, winning in 2:09.81. Lukozi was second at 2:11.41.
As Floyd lined-up for the 3,200 meters after only a 34-miunute break, Beatty said quietly: “He’s beat!”
Although exhausted, Floyd battled through the eight laps around the Welcome Stadium. On the third lap he drifted back into sixth place, but soon was back up, just a stride behind the leaders.
Coming down the final stretch, he couldn’t summon up a closing kick and finished third — at 11:40.17, about 2.5 seconds behind the winner.
After crossing the finish line, he veered toward the Welcome Stadium end zone and melted to the turf at the goalpost.
“He’ll sleep good tonight,” Beatty said as he made his way to him. “That was a gutty performance.
“This kid is a gem. What he did out here today was special.”
Floyd Ruttagah had done more than win two big races and gut out a strong finish in a third.
He had made the best of a tough assignment.
And he had lived up to his name.
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