Raising a young son and desperate for work, 28-year-old Ron Rust quit college and found a job with the then Alexandria Boys Club. He would remain there for years, becoming a neighborhood institution along the way.
More than four decades after starting as the North Payne Street club's social recreation director, he was finally ready to leave. On Friday, relatives, friends, co-workers and a cadre of men he'd help raise to adulthood gathered at the Dunbar Alexandria-Olympic Boys and Girls Club for something more like a family reunion than Rust's retirement party.
For a living legend, Rust had an inauspicious start at the Boys Club. He recalls coming across the job listing in a newspaper. At the time, Rust didn't plan on picking out a career path, but then he had a family to worry about.
I wasnt sure what I wanted to do and I just knew I liked helping people, kids in particular. I went on and took the job, Rust said. I liked working with kids and it seemed like the Boys Club at that time was committed to youth... I just stayed with it.
He began overseeing games and tournaments with the neighborhood kids who called the club a second home. When he was promoted to physical director the work was much the same, though now he was organizing athletic leagues on top of shepherding the children on field trips.
Eventually he would serve as the club's program director, a job that had him mostly scheduling events and programs, but he always found time to play with the kids who frequented the building. A lifelong Alexandrian, Rust soon found he was recognized everywhere.
Being there 41 years, youre dealing with the first set of parents' kids and later on you deal with those kids' kids and so on and so forth, he said. I couldnt walk downtown or go to the mall before somebody was saying 'Hey, Mr. Rust.'
The club and Rust molded the gang of boys who arrived day-in and day-out into men, said Carlos Martin, who started going to the local hangout about the same time Rust was hired. Now a grown man, Martin has helped organize the club's alums into a fundraising group.
This was our only place to go. We were here all day and every activity that went on, [Rust] was in charge of it. He's seen me grow up from five to 45, Martin said. The Boys Club shaped everybody.
There were, of course, tough times. It's to be expected in any life, Rust said. His included seeing some of the kids he welcomed into the club stray from the straight and narrow. Occasionally, he'll run across them, strung out, battling addiction and poverty, but they always straighten up and greet him as 'Mr. Rust.'
Though it's difficult, he tries to appreciate their circumstances.
None of us are perfect; all of us make a mistake in life, Rust said. I cant say I can understand it, because Im not that way, but I try to understand it... I dont totally give up on those kids. They may be adults now, but I dont give up on them.
He also struggled balancing work with his home life. Though his children later joined him at the club, there were years when Rust barely saw them. Working long hours, he returned home well after they had gone to sleep.
His son, Ron Rust Jr., has accepted that absence. There may have been tough times early on, but it all worked out. He's proud of his father's lifelong commitment to the club.
That's life, the younger Rust said. He had a job to do and I have a great work ethic as well. It was all for the best.
And then, again, are the many lives he's touched. Rust is particularly proud of Keith Bogans. Now a veteran guard for the Chicago Bulls, Bogans spent a few years with Rust at the Alexandria Boys Club. The NBA star recently returned and held a basketball clinic for the organization's current crop of budding athletes.
Though Rust maintains it's time to retire and looks forward to spending the days with his grandchildren, don't expect him to stray far from the club. A day after his party, the gentle giant was working a car wash fundraiser with the alumni group. He plans to keep volunteering at the club.
Ive had some health problems and its been coming on the last few years youre not going to be young forever, Rust said. Im trying to make a difference now and take time for myself. Do some things that maybe I didnt get a chance to do, because my commitment was with the kids. It was somewhat more than a full time job, that was my life so to speak.