By Denise Dunbar | [email protected]
Alexandria native Ron Rust Sr., who was a fixture at the Alexandria Boys and Girls Club for more than four decades and mentored several generations of Alexandria children, died on Jan. 23 of cardiac arrest resulting from several chronic health conditions. He was 75.
When Rust went to work at the then Alexandria Boys Club in 1970, he was a 24-year-old father with a young son and needed a job. He came across a job listing for the club in a newspaper. At the time he wasn’t looking for a career, just a way to pay the bills.
Rust would spend the next 41 years, most of them as the club’s program director, serving as a role model to hundreds if not thousands of Alexandria children. Upon his retirement in 2011, Rust told the Alexandria Times:
“I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, and I just knew I liked helping people, kids in particular. I went on and took the job. I liked working with kids and it seemed like the Boys Club at that time was committed to youth. … I just stayed with it.”
Carlos Martin told the Times in 2011 that he started attending the club as a child about the same time Rust was hired, and that Rust played a significant role as Martin was growing up.
“This was our only place to go,” Martin said. “We were here all day and every activity that went on, [Rust] was in charge of it. He’s seen me grow up from 5 to 45. The Boys Club shaped everybody.”
Boys and Girls Club employees Patrice Hall, Alston Waller and Jim Almond have fond memories of their former colleague, including several of his “signature” sayings.
Waller, who attended the Alexandria club from the age of 5 and now serves as its branch director, remembered Rust’s trusty basketball hook shot from the three-point line, taken prior to each game Rust refereed.
“He would come into the gym, and he would at least get off two shots. A hook shot. And if he would make it, he would go, ‘Aoooww!’” Waller said. “There’s going to be a thousand kids that know about his hook shot at the Boys and Girls Club.”
Hall recalled that at the end of each day, Rust would say, “Hey yo, it’s time to go home!”
Rust was known to be easygoing with the children, but he could also be a disciplinarian. Jim Almond, current senior vice president of operations for the Boys and Girls Clubs of Greater Washington, met Rust in 2001 when Almond was hired as Alexandria’s branch director.
“He would say to a kid, ‘I think you need a day home.’ Or, ‘I think you need a couple days home.’ He never said, ‘You are suspended for one or two days.’ Whenever I heard that I just kept on walking and said, ‘You got it!’” Almond said.
Rust was also instrumental in helping fully integrate the then boys clubs in Alexandria. For decades there had been one club for white boys and another for Black boys. While the clubs officially integrated in the early 1960s around the same time as schools, the two clubs didn’t officially merge until 1973, three years after Rust’s arrival.
“Ron Rust was there for that merger. He was the staff member there when that happened,” Almond said. “You have to imagine how difficult that must have been. He was unfazed by it.”
Rust was already familiar with integration, having been the first Black student to play athletics at what was at the time Frances C. Hammond High School when he made the varsity basketball team in the early 1960s. Jim Worden, who would go on to coach basketball at T.C. Williams High School, remembered Rust from that time.
“I was at St. Stephen’s and we played with each other in the summer leagues and on the playgrounds. … He was soft spoken, he was tall and slender, and he was a real competitor on the court,” Worden said.
Rust’s daughter, Leslie Lewis, said her father inspired her “to volunteer, mentor and even pursue a profession that involved nurturing and teaching kids.
“I was amazed at how many young men who grew up in the Boys and Girls Club would tell me how much he was a mentor to them and even a father figure,” Lewis said. “Some of the toughest guys in the community had great respect for my dad.”
However, Rust’s devotion to the Boys and Girls Club came with a price, according to Rust’s son Ron Rust Jr.
“When I was a child, [I] obviously didn’t understand it. … People would say, ‘Oh, your dad is a legend.’ Sure, I probably heard that over 2,000 times in my life. Sometimes when it came up it would make me harbor some old feelings,” Rust Jr. said. “Now, at 51 years old, it all makes sense now. My father sacrificed his family and everything for that … club. And I don’t think anybody will ever understand how much he loved the club, loved making a difference in those kids’ lives.”
Hall said people still come into the club, more than 10 years after Rust’s retirement, looking for him.
“He was well loved by the kids. I still have people that walk into the club and I’m looking at them and asking them what is their business and who do they want to see and they all say, ‘I just wanted to come back and see the club. And where’s Mr. Rust?’ Everybody asks me about Mr. Rust,” Hall said.
“Being there 41 years, you’re dealing with the first set of parents’ kids and later on you deal with those kids’ kids and so on and so forth,” Rust Sr. told the Times in 2011. “I couldn’t walk downtown or go to the mall before somebody was saying, ‘Hey, Mr. Rust.’”
For a couple of years after his retirement in 2011, Rust would often still come to the club and sit at the front desk with Hall.
“He would just sit there and take it all in,” Almond said.
Ronald Wayne Rust Sr. was born on May 29, 1946 in Alexandria to the late Vivian Wanzer and William Miles. He was the eldest of his mother’s seven children. He was known as Ronnie to most and enjoyed growing up in the tight-knit Seminary community.
After graduating from Francis C. Hammond High School in 1966, Rust attended Bethel College in McKenzie, Tennessee. He was an active member of Alexandria’s Oakland Baptist Church for 68 years.
When Rust retired, then Mayor Bill Euille issued a proclamation that said in part, “Whereas, Mr. Russ has literally touched the lives of thousands of young people over the past 41 years and Club alumni return to the facility on a regular basis to ‘check in’ and let him know what’s been going on in their lives … ”
After Rust’s retirement, the Alexandria Boys and Girls Club renamed its game room in his honor.
Rust is survived by his son Ron Rust Jr.; daughter Leslie Lewis (Calvin); grandsons Calvin Elijah Lewis and Micah Lewis; sisters Gale Simmons, Andrea Jackson, Sheila Richardson and Vivian Wanzer-Davis. He was predeceased by his brothers Melvin Wanzer Jr. and Ralph Wanzer.
A viewing and funeral service for Rust was held on Saturday at Oakland Baptist Church in Alexandria.