The Liberty Gazette
January 3, 2017
Ely Air Lines
by Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely
In honor and memory of Benny Rusk, we’d like to reflect on our time with him and his wife, Linda, at their home a little over six years ago. We came to chat about the history of what is now the Liberty Municipal Airport, to learn from the source, the original owner. What we gained in the visit was so much more than we set out to get, which we’re certain is no surprise to those who knew Benny.
One of six children, he started milking cows at age five and farmed till he was 18. Sometimes the farming life was hard, he said. “We never went hungry, but we ate a lot of cornbread.”
Two years working in a shipyard before being drafted probably caused hearing loss that disqualified him from flying for the Navy, which was his first choice. From the Army’s Camp Walters he was shipped off to Europe during WWII 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 told us, “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.’”
Then came his boxing days. He fought Roy Harris of Cut-N-Shoot, which was a big deal around here, and was a heavy weight contender from 1946-1948.
Farmer, war veteran, boxer, then banker, and soon-to-be pilot, Benny Rusk’s arrival in Liberty turned out to be a pivotal time for aviation here. He described that time, the 1950’s, as when rice farming ruled in Liberty County and the City of Liberty had one police officer and no crime. “We had a town where rice and cows put more bricks here than oil ever did.”
Benny’s flying lessons began in 1956 with Earl Atkins in a rented Luscombe, for $3.50 an hour, flying out of Roy House’s airstrip on Highway 90 behind where Terrell’s Auto Parts is now. After four hours of flight training he invested $2,900 in a 1949 Cessna 170. 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 several airplanes, including a Comanche 400, a 215-mph airplane. With that kind of speed, Benny learned what other business people know: “an airplane puts one more day on the week.”
Benny’s daughter, Benetta says, “the friendship of my dad, Earl Atkins, and Chester Holbrook was the source of many tales of adventure. I would get up in the morning and wait by the door,” she recalls of her childhood, “because I didn’t know where Daddy would be going next, but I knew there would always be an adventure.”
Benny knew that aviation was vital to a community’s health and this area needed an airport. Being that he owned 42 acres near Ames, with skillful negotiation and planning and a great passion for aviation that property became today’s Liberty Municipal Airport.
His passion and enthusiasm not only sparked many friends and family members to earn a pilot license, but his land became an integral part of the National Transportation System, a gift to the community that will outlast us all and will keep on giving in immeasurable ways.
We always say we meet the neatest people in aviation, or, as Benny put it, “just a different class of people.”
Our condolences to the Rusk family. Benny lived large, and will be missed.