Back in the early days of The Athens Observer weekly newspaper, we had an old, red Ford Econoline van. We drove the van down to Crawford every Wednesday night and loaded it up with freshly printed newspapers. But before we could do that, we had to assemble the various sections, inserting them into each other. For that job, we took a crew of “inserters,” who rode with us in the back of the van. One night there was a kid who introduced himself as Rich Rusk. He was down from Alaska visiting his parents, and he said he had his own newspaper in Nome, The Bering Straits, and he just wanted to tag along and see how we did ours. We quickly realized that Rich was the son of law professor and former U.S. Secretary of State Dean Rusk. Behind the headlines, Dean Rusk was an intelligent, sophisticated former Rhodes Scholar still in touch with his northwest Georgia roots. He was the best kind of father a young man could have, but also the worst in one important respect: He was the living symbol of governmental fidelity to a disastrously wrongheaded, murderously wasteful war passionately opposed by a large percentage of the American people, including his son.
Rich then and for the rest of his life hated what his country had done in Vietnam, and because of his father felt a deep personal responsibility for the damage we inflicted on the Vietnamese people. He was planning a trip to Vietnam next month but recently backed out, perhaps already realizing that his life would end before that trip took off.
Not too many years after we met Rich in the back of the Econoline, he moved his young family to Athens and succeeded in reconciling with his father. Rich became a familiar figure to journalists because he felt deeply about injustices and, unlike most of us, did what he could to right wrongs. Being a former journalist himself, he knew how to contact us and urge us to shed light on pressing causes that might have gone unremarked had not Rich been on the phone. He personified the kind of concerned citizen who makes things happen and causes principle to push the press. He made our job harder, but he made us more effective as advocates for a better community.
Here’s part of what Rich’s son Andy wrote in his father’s obituary.
“While working for the [Oconee] Arrow, Rich first learned of the mass lynching at Moore’s Ford Bridge and, inspired by the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, launched a movement to investigate the crime, commemorate the victims, and bring healing to the community. The Moore’s Ford Memorial Committee would attract national attention to this forgotten atrocity, re-open the GBI case, and establish a scholarship fund for children in Clarke, Oconee, and Walton counties…
“Rich became active with the Oconee River Chapter of Trout Unlimited and the Georgia Climate Change Coalition. He survived a near-fatal staph infection. He stalked bonefish and tarpon in Belize with his brother-in-law Bill. He rebuilt churches in Louisiana after Katrina with his friend Waymond Mundy. He fished the great rivers of Montana with son Andy and old pal Phil Dunne. He hiked long sections of the Appalachian trail, solo. He marched on Washington and the State Capitol for environmental action and civil rights. He devoured books. He was always good for a hot meal or a tank of gas. He fished with a veracity that belied his catch-and-release philosophy. He was kind. He preferred Labrador retrievers, Estwing hammers, and Mitchell model 300 spinning reels. He was generous to a fault, patient, and stubborn. He stood up for others. He got involved. He carried burdens for people that he never met. He lived exactly the sort of life that is impossible to summarize in these few short paragraphs, and he leaves this world a better place than he found it.”
Rich died during a week that also cost us, among others, the tough law professor Peter Appel, who lovingly hectored his students to become better environmental lawyers, and the deeply respected journalism prof Barry Hollander, who, characteristically, wrote his own obituary, which concluded: “Send flowers if you like, as Edith loves them, but in my memory raise a good glass of bourbon or single-malt whisky. In my memory, tell stories about me, especially the ones that make me sound like an idiot. In my memory, buy a young person a subscription to a good news source like The New York Times. And in my memory, watch out for Edith, the love of my life. I never deserved someone as good as her, and she doesn’t deserve this.”
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