formerly "The View From Up Here"

Formerly titled "The View From Up Here" this column began in the Liberty Gazette June 26, 2007.

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October 5, 2010 Liberty Airport's Humble Beginnings: A visit with Benny Rusk Part 1

The Liberty Gazette
October 5, 2010
Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely

Linda: Time spent in the home of Benny and Linda Rusk netted more than a few interesting stories about life in these parts, and about aviation. For more on the history of what is now the Liberty Municipal Airport, we go to the source: its original owner.

Benny Rusk disproves that idea that you have to be at least a third generation family in Liberty. His father worked for Humble Oil Company in Baytown, but missing his home in Nacogdoches and longing for the farming life again, when the price of cotton climbed to 30 cents, Benny’s dad left Humble Oil to farm cotton. “The next year,” Benny says, “the price of cotton dropped to 5 cents. We never went hungry, but we ate a lot of cornbread.”

One of six children, Benny started milking cows at age five and farmed till he was 18. The two years he worked at a shipyard before being drafted probably caused hearing loss that disqualified him from flying for the Navy, his first choice. From the Army’s Camp Walters he was shipped off to Europe during WW II and fought in four major battles including the Battle of the Bulge, finishing his time in Berlin with the 82nd Airborne. Of being at the Bulge, Benny says, “We saw three holes in a Sherman Tank from where the Germans had shot it. It was sitting in a few feet of snow. The men welcomed us, saying, ‘We’re glad you’re here. We just lost 45,000 men.’” After 1 year, 11 months, and 23 days, Benny collected only three paychecks from the Army. “I guess they couldn’t find me, they moved me so much.”

Then came his boxing days. He fought Roy Harris of Cut-N-Shoot and was a heavy weight contender from 1946-1948. A newcomer to Liberty in 1953, he learned quickly that “you have to be careful what you say because everyone here is related.”

Mike: Banker, farmer, boxer, war veteran, and soon-to-be pilot, Benny Rusk’s arrival in Liberty turned out to be a pivotal time for aviation here. His flying lessons started in 1956 with Earl Atkins in a Luscombe rented from Houston TV man Ben Erskine for $3.50 an hour. They flew out of Roy House’s airstrip on Highway 90 behind where Terrell’s Auto Parts is now. After four hours of flight training Benny invested $2,900 in a 1949 Cessna 170 he purchased at Ellington Field’s aero club. A year later he sold it for what he paid for it, never having to put money into it except to buy a new tire. An economics major, he was no slouch on making good deals; over time he owned a Cessna 180, Comanche 250, and a Comanche 400, a 215-mph airplane that carries six hours of fuel. With that kind of speed, Benny learned what other business people know: “an airplane puts one more day on the week.” His last airplanes were a twin-engine Cessna 310 and a single-engine Cessna 210.

He remembers when National Pipe & Tube came to Liberty, the big reception and the politicians taking the executives up and down the river to show them the town. “We had one police officer and no crime,” Benny recalls fondly, “we had a town where rice and cows put more bricks here than oil ever did.” He also knew that aviation was vital to a community’s health and the area needed an airport. Benny owned 42 acres where the Liberty Airport now sits. We’ll pick up next week with how he grew it into what we have today.

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