If it’s Sunday afternoon, then you know Rusty Johnson is in one of his favorite places: his own home in Ocoee, near Bluford Avenue and the middle school, surrounded by up to five children, 11 grandchildren and Marilyn, his wife of 41 years. It’s loud, and it’s chaotic, and Rusty says he wouldn’t have it any other way.
With a family that big, there's a birthday party or celebration of some kind practically every weekend, and Marilyn can be counted on to put a delicious meal on the table, usually fried round steak, Rusty's favorite, or pot roast with carrots and potatoes.
“She's the nucleus of everything that goes on around here,” he said.
What many people don't know about Rusty is that he has a soft side.
“I think people think I'm hard core,” he said. “But, we are the close-knit family and I love it because I grew up in a home with five kids. We were close; my mother always wanted us to be close. … So I think people don't know my heart's in the family mode.
“My kids say I have a good heart. I think that comes from them. They make it,” he said. “I think you have to try to do stuff for people. That's what my mother and father instilled in me, that you have to help people. My whole life goes around my family.”
When daughter Michelle moved her family to Merritt Island, Rusty said that was hard to accept, even though it's just an hour away. Her son, now 21 and the first Johnson grandson, is a student at University of Central Florida.
“So he's a little closer,” Rusty said. “He always knows he can come here and eat.”
When the family goes on vacation, all of the Johnsons go, including children and grandchildren.
“We always vacation together, we travel together. We used to spend a week at the Wakulla hotel at the beach. … And now all the kids, they're grown up and they go there and take their kids.
“My whole core of everything is family. There's nothing wrong with that, I guess.”
He frequently cooks ribs when his grands are at the house. He also collects rocks for them, painting them and dating them. He has a hat collection; he plays golf for fun.
He cherishes the hand-written letters he received from his mother and the tapes she made, talking to him about everyday life in West Orange County while he was fighting in a war thousands of miles away.
“Of all the people in the world, my mother had the most faith in me,” Rusty said. “She was a real kind and gentle person.”
After his mother was diagnosed with brain cancer at age 53, Rusty enjoyed long talks with her. After his evening softball practices — with friends like Russell Crouch, G.J. Casteel, Rusty Jenkins, Gary Youngblood, John Rees and Johnny and Joe Whitehead — he would stand outside her window and carry on conversations while she lied in a hospital bed. They shared a kindred spirit, he said.
“And that's where I got all this family stuff,” he said. “Every Sunday she cooked a roast or ham. Every Sunday all of us would be there.”
The best advice he ever received came from his parents.
“My father told me, always be truthful. Never lie. If you lie to people, it's going to come back and get you. My mother always told me to be honest. My mother believed in pretty much everything I did.”
A MOVE TO WEST ORANGE
Rusty Johnson, who turns 70 this year, has spent all but 10 years of his life as an Ocoee resident. He was born in Savannah, Georgia. In 1955, when he was 9, his family moved to Oakland and lived there for about a year.
“The day I moved there I met Ronnie Cothern,” Rusty said. “He rode down to my house and introduced himself. We've been best buddies ever since. He has the best demeanor; he's the best person. I would say there's no other person I'm closer to than Ronnie. When I'm down in the dumps, he's the one I call.”
After attending Tildenville Elementary for one year, the Johnson family moved into a small wooden house on 16th Street in Ocoee. Rusty spent his fifth-grade year at Ocoee Elementary and then became an Ocoee High Cardinal, graduating from the original school in 1964.
His childhood days consisted of hanging out with his pals and going to the movies in Winter Garden.
“My favorite thing as a kid around here was being in the Boy Scouts at the Ocoee Methodist Church,” Rusty said. “The scout leader was Mr. Vandergrift, (former Mayor) Scott's brother. Nicest man you would ever want to meet in your life. Mr. Marsten was the other leader. That was the only thing around here to do. I played Little League in Winter Garden. I would walk the railroad tracks to Winter Garden to practice.”
When he was 14, he took a job as a bagger at the old Winn-Dixie, once located on South Dillard Street in Winter Garden. His co-workers included West Orange residents Richard Hudson and Jerry Baker, both of whom are still in the area.
In the summers, he worked alongside family members in the tobacco fields; some of those relatives are tobacco farmers still today. Some of his best childhood memories are of spending time with his South Carolina cousins — four of whom are within a month in age. Four of the five would end up in Vietnam in the same year, too.
Rusty spent 1969 and ’70 in Chu Lai, a sergeant investigating combat zones with the 23rd Military Police unit during the Vietnam War. He returned to Ocoee and worked as a carpenter's helper in his dad's construction business. That job lasted three years while he was in college.
In 1974, Rusty, a single father of a 5-year-old son, married Marilyn, who was raising a daughter as a single parent.
“Growing up in Ocoee back then, everybody knew everybody,” he said. “But we got to know each other better while we were both attending Valencia. A mutual friend suggested we should start dating.”
A year after the two married and blended their families, Rusty began a 24-year career with the U.S. Postal Service.
“I went to work with the post office to make sure I had a career and could take care of my family,” he said.
He worked in Apopka for seven years before switching to Ocoee to serve his friends and neighbors until his early retirement in 1999.
NO PLACE LIKE HOME
Rusty considers Ocoee his home and loves it like family. He considers it a privilege to have served as commissioner for 27 years.
“This town is my life and soul — and my family’s,” he said.
“It was never a big rush to be mayor,” Rusty said. “I knew what I was doing was just as good as being mayor. We all have the same vote. Someone asked what they should call me. I said, 'I'm just Rusty.' I don't need a fancy title. … I'm not a big speech writer or a debater.
“I believe in doing stuff for people,” he said. “I think dealing with politics you have to be forceful, but ...People think I'm a little hard shell but if you really get to know me. I'm a little more heart. I think they take me as being brash, but I'm not. I want to do things for people. That's all I want.”
Contact Amy Quesinberry Rhode at [email protected].