- by Anna Hirshfield
One of the first female Army colonels in the United States, Jo Rusin embraces every day knowing that she can handle what ever life may throw her way.
Born in Pascagoula, Mississippi in 1947, Jo was raised to believe that she could do anything her male counterparts could, in great thanks to her mother and father. While her mother was a school nurse for most of Jo’s childhood, her father was a renaissance man- a marine surveyor, an attorney, and eventually the founder of a local bank.
When Jo was just a young girl attending Beach Elementary School, touring artists stopped by and spoke about their craft. Jo and one of her close friends at the time were captivated by a talented potter, who reminded them that some of the best clay in the country comes from the beaches of the Mississippi Gulf Coast.
Jo attended college at the University of Kentucky, earning her degree in physical education. While she was in school, she was able to participate in student teaching. Although she enjoyed the teaching aspect of her job, Jo decided to stay alert for other job opportunities that might be more adventurous.
When a friend suggested joining the Army, she considered the two-year obligation carefully. However, there were many benefits, such as equal pay for both men and women, and the opportunity to grow in a team-oriented setting.
Jo enrolled in the Army, and after graduating college in 1969, she was immediately commissioned to Second Lieutenant and sent to Aniston, Alabama. She was promoted to First Lieutenant after a year.
Jo met her husband, Johnny Rusin, her first year in Ft. Benning while he was a captain and she was a lieutenant. He was assigned to be her sponsor, introducing her to the military community and helping her adjust. Jo and Johnny tied the knot in 1970, six months after meeting.
By this time, units were gender-integrated and Jo became one of the first women to command a mixed-gender company in the Army, as well as the first female commander of a battalion at Ft. Benning.
The couple then moved to the nation’s capital for other job opportunities.
While working as a captain in D.C., Jo was given a job offer as a company commander for the Women’s Army Corps (WAC), working at the Walter Reed Medical Center. She assumed the command at the age of 27.
In 1993, Jo retired after serving 24 years in the United States Military. She and Johnny made the decision to retire in the same year while working at headquarters in Atlanta.
They remained in Atlanta after their retirement, where they both developed their interests in furniture repair, with Jo focusing on chair caning and seat weaving (click here for her weaving/caning website).
“I love finding somebody else’s junk and fixing it up,” she says, laughing.
She eventually became so skillful at the highly-specialized craft that she was asked to teach at the legendary John C. Campbell Folk School in North Carolina. Jo traveled there periodically for the next 21 years to teach caning.
Her love of teaching others, from students, soldiers, to people who want to learn the craft of caning and seat-weaving, has only grown throughout the years.
“If you can help people develop their skills, that’s a gift,” she says. “People have passed theirs on to me, and I want to pass mine on to others.”
In Hancock County alone, Jo has taught 115 people how to weave chairs.
Her first book, Volunteers Wanted: A Practical Guide to Finding and Keeping Good Volunteers, is a pragmatic guide with advice on how to successfully run a volunteer organization. It is used in programs across the country as well as a university textbook.
Jo has also written an effective and highly popular manual for women focused on advancing in their careers. Move to the Front: The Classical Guide for Military Women was created in part to stamp out the stigma that women are less capable than men in their professional careers. It was an obstacle that she became familiar with over the course of her career and the retired colonel wants to help other women who may be encountering this issue now.
During the 46 years that they have been together, Jo and Johnny have developed a deep love for golden and labrador retrievers. In 1995, while the Rusins were still living in Atlanta, their neighbors volunteered them to work at the local rescue as a foster family. They were hooked.
More recently the couple has been working with dogs who have behavioral issues. Consequently the dogs tend to stay with the Rusins’ for a lengthier period of time since they usually take longer to train. The dogs they end up keeping as their own are usually the ones who were not able to be adopted out.
“People always ask us how we can foster animals since it seems so heart-breaking to let them go,” she adds, “I cannot describe how wonderful it is to see the family meet the dog when they come to take them home-you can’t be anything but happy.”
Jo says they still receive emails and holiday cards from the families. Since 1994 the couple have fostered 390 golden retrievers and labs.
“Can you believe how much dog hair that is?” Jo asks, laughing.
“Not Pascagoula, honey, I’m not a welder,” was his short reply.
The couple began visiting the coast in 2003 and settled down in Waveland in 2005. The Rusins had been living in Waveland 82 days before Katrina hit.
Fortunately, they had not sold their home in Atlanta yet so were able to retreat there immediately after the storm. Deciding to rebuild in Waveland, the couple purchased another home in Lumberton, Mississippi so that they could be closer during the construction of their new house.
The Rusins officially moved back to Waveland in March of 2008.
Part of their desire to move back to the coast was the pet-friendly atmosphere and down-to-earth neighbors.
“Mostly I like the people and being close to the water,” she says of Waveland. “It’s low-key and easy-going. Best of all, you can walk on the beach with your dogs.”