Ron Rust

After 41 years, it’s hard for the Boys and Girls Club to say farewell to its employee, role model and genuine father figure, Ron Rust. But even as Rust adjusts to life in retirement, his influence and “life lessons” endure at the club and within its members.

“For many years he was like the backbone of that boys club,” Frank Tolson said about his friend Rust.

More than 30 years ago the two men first met, except, at the time, Tolson was just a small 9 year old. Reminiscing about his friend on Thursday, Tolson admitted he was a little intimidated at first by the over-six-foot-tall Rust who sported a huge Afro and a butterfly-collared shirt with bellbottoms to match. Growing up at the boy’s club, Tolson said Rust’s booming voice as a coach stood out, but also his low-key approach to leadership.

“He’s a man of few words until you get to know him,” Tolson said. “He’s very stoic. He’s not the kind of person to show a lot of emotion.”

And such was the case at Rust’s retirement party on June 3.

“After 41 years he has some mixed emotions,” Tolson said.

Alexandria-Dunbar Boys and Girls Club on Payne Street held a surprise retirement party for Rust to commemorate his many years of dedicated employment. The event gave alumni the chance to reminisce about Rust and all he did for them over the years.

Lloyd Moss remembered the day Rust walked into the boy’s club. Moss said he and his friends were playing basketball and the young Rust asked to join.

“We really hadn’t had a manager that would run with us,” Moss explained. “And not only did he play with us, the man was great! He had a jumper that did, not, miss.”

Many of the boys from the then-Alexandria Boys Club came from single-family homes, Tolson explained, and they looked to Rust as a role model.

“For a father figure, we were getting it at the boys club,” Tolson said.

Growing up in Old Town Alexandria and being bused to a school in the West End, the boys Tolson grew up with sought refuge in the boy’s club and guidance from Rust on a daily basis.

“If you did something wrong you’d get that lecture from Ron,” Tolson said. “But it was always to encourage and never to discourage.”

As a kid, Moss said being “put out the boys club” didn’t make a whole lot of sense and the boys would always try and sneak back in during their suspension. But Rust was right there to stop them, saying, “you know you’re not supposed to be here, let’s go.”

“And we had to pay the piper,” Moss remembered.

As the boys grew up, Rust still remained an important role model.

Moss said it was “easy to get caught up” in drugs and crime in the neighborhood where there was “a lot of idle time.” As teenagers, Moss said Rust knew there was little he could do to keep them from making the wrong decision.

“The only thing he could do was to give you the positive outlook he always gave you and hope that one day you’d come back to reality,” Moss said. “He never turned his back on you.”

For Tolson, things started to “click” for him during high school where he began delving into his studies, made the honor roll and later went on to college. And he’d still visit the club, and Rust, even after he went off to school.

“When I got my degree, the first place I went to show it off was that boys club,” Tolson remembered. “My mother didn’t even see it.”

But besides making strides in academia, Tolson said Rust and the boys club also taught him valuable life lessons. Laughing, Tolson recalled the time he passed by the club to get some input on a present he had bought for his then-girlfriend. Tolson was laughed at when he told his buddies he had bought her the anti-theft device The Club, and Rust advised him to stick with more traditional items like jewelry or perfume.

While important, other lessons were more poignant than the no-club rule. A notable one for Tolson actually came years after he left the facility, when he began holding fundraisers for the club. Getting frustrated that he couldn’t help everyone looking to get club membership, Tolson said he remembered Rust told him “Franklin, you can’t save everybody. Try and save at least one.”

Asked if Rust had “saved” any of the boys from Tolson’s generation, he pointed to himself.

“You’re lookin’ at him,” he said. “A lot of me comes from that boy’s club. My work ethic, knowing how to interact with people. A lot of that came from Mr. Rust.”

A year ago Tolson began an Alumni Group to continue to raise funds for the Boys and Girls Club, and of course, Rust has joined that crew and continues to impart his words of wisdom.

“It’s never about us, it’s about giving back and helping the kids,” Rust told Tolson.

With Rust helping out the Alumni Group, Tolson said he sees that same “spark” in Rust when he continues to help the community he devoted his life to. While his life within the club wraps up, Tolson assured his friend at last week’s retirement party, “You’re not retiring yet, you still have another chapter in your life.”

“He’ll still be at that boy’s club, because that’s all he knows,” Moss said. “That’s all he knows how to do is mentor kids.”

June 12, 2011