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In Memory of Elizabeth Rusk, 1907-1998
By Hugh Palmerston
A memorial service attended by close to a hundred people was held at the Noe Valley Ministry on Feb. 18 for Elizabeth Rusk, who died at St. Luke's Hospital on Valentine's Day at the age of 90.
Rusk, a Bay Area native, was a Noe Valley resident for 38 years until moving two years ago to the University Mound Ladies Home. A much-loved member of the Ministry's Presbyterian congregation, she was active in both her church and the community.
As family and friends shared their recollections about Rusk, a portrait began to take shape of a woman who had been a trusted confidante, always ready to listen, without judgment, to the troubles of friends -- from those going through the heartache of divorce to those struggling to stay clean and sober.
She was also a devoted church member and deacon for life, giving generously of her time and continuing to make phone calls in support of the monthly bake sale as late as November of last year. Over the years, she taught Sunday School, helped in the church office, and served many terms on the Ministry's governing board.
Ministry Pastor Joan Huff also recalled Rusk's love of Noe Valley, especially 24th Street.
"Elizabeth was a shopper," Huff said. "The hardest part of leaving her apartment on 23rd Street [to move to the home] was giving up the daily trips down the hill to check out 24th, to keep tabs on the merchants and the local gossip. To live as one member of this vital neighborhood was meat and drink to Elizabeth."
To Barry Green, "Elizabeth was for six years a close friend and neighbor who reminded me of my saintly grandmother. We often had tea together and many long conversations. She had a phenomenal sense of recall. Once when we somehow got to talking about gas stations, she remembered just how many there were in the neighborhood 20 years before, and where each one was located, including one on the corner of 24th and Castro, which is now a branch of Bank of America."
Rusk, who never married, was already retired when she came to Noe Valley. A private person, she rarely referred to her personal past. But in a series of short talks she gave at the Ministry a few years ago, she reminisced about moving to Noe Valley:
"One day in August 1958," Rusk recalled, "I was driving down Castro Street after having spent hours hunting for an apartment, when I spotted a For Rent sign. That sign changed the direction of my life. After inspecting the flat, I rented it. I fell in love with Noe Valley. It was uniquely old-fashioned. Most of the businesses were small, but there was greater variety than today. One could purchase almost anything on 24th Street."
One friend who came to pay tribute to Rusk was Rev. David Cross, the last pastor of the Lebanon Presbyterian Church (which closed its doors in 1977 due to a dwindling congregation, then later reopened as the Noe Valley Ministry). Cross remembered the Elizabeth Rusk of those days, and in his remarks, which echoed those of many others, one word seemed to stand out: "indomitable."
Although Rusk was conservatively raised, she respected Cross's attempts to encourage more tolerance among the church members during the radical social climate of the early '70s. Rusk described what it was like in another of her talks:
"Social problems were developing all around, and his [Rev. Cross's] ideas were not always in tune with those of the congregation," she said. "It was a rough time in Noe Valley, with competing gangs vying with each other. It was a time of social change across the land, with freedom marches in the South and support marches on Market Street. Some of us marched, singing 'We Shall Overcome.' Cesar Chavez was organizing the farm workers in the valley, and some of us attended rallies in support of his cause."
When the old Lebanon Church closed, most of its members joined other congregations. But Rusk and one other person stayed on to become charter members of the new Noe Valley Ministry. The Ministry, led by Rev. Carl Smith, opened its doors to many groups and activities -- now ranging from a nursery school and a senior center to a belly dance troupe and tai chi classes -- and began a new era of community outreach and involvement. Rusk embraced the changes.
When the final brush strokes were added to the portrait of Elizabeth Rusk, she emerged as a woman of remarkable resilience and flexibility, able to bend with the times yet hold strong to lifelong beliefs.
"I never regretted my decision to stay," she once said of her choice to remain with the church at 1021 Sanchez St.
"In fact, I feel that my life has been greatly enriched. People ask me if it was a difficult adjustment. Well, I've gulped a few times, but frankly, I'm a bit of a pioneer, and I was probably ready for a change."