Jefferson Awards: A Director With Direction

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For him, it's always been about way more than the music.

Since 1999, Rusty Ruggles has grown the high school band program in Mercer County from a few dozen to more than a hundred.

"I have a picture at home," he explained. "I had 46 kids. We have 140 this year, which is a ton."

Rusty met most of them in 6th grade, then taught them from 9th grade through 12th grade as the Band Director for Mercer County High School.

"He took all these students who may have never seen music before and taught them these new skills," said Senior, Katie Hanson.

"When we start in 6th grade, the kids might have absolutely no knowledge of music or how to read it or play it and we all start at the same level," added Senior, Austin Lindell. "We have a book and we learn it and we learn how to play out instruments and he teaches us all about that."

Hanson and Lindell said Rusty also teaches them that it's okay to make mistakes.

"It's just a really fun experience to be in band," said Senior, Jenna Speer.

"It's very friend-like," added Senior, Lucas Mohror. "It doesn't feel like he's your teacher. He can joke with you and laugh about things and he doesn't take things so seriously, so it makes for an easy environment."

That's what makes Rusty a role model for his kids.

"The teaching of the music is sometimes not as big as some of the other things you do," said Rusty. "You go to their activities and you support them and you let them know that you're there for them."

However, Rusty is also there for his community. About 10 years ago, Rusty spearheaded an effort to build the band shell in Aledo's Central Park. It hosts events throughout most of the year, including concerts, movie nights, family activities, and festivals - including Rhubarb Fest.

Soon, that successful project jump-started another one.

"When the band shell was done, our old football coach looked at me and said - 'When are we getting a new track?'" Rusty said.

A few years later, Rusty got back to work with friends, community members, and generous donors.

"$1.1 million was raised privately and the band shell was about $275,000, so we were able to raise $1.4 million between those two projects to do some really great things," explained Rusty.

That effort resonated with Rusty's students.

"The track is one example of something that isn't involved in music at all and he took that under his wing and decided to help out with that," said Katie. "He just shows the community how much he really cares and I think that he should get shown why the community cares about him."

"He really is an unsung hero," explained Jenna. "He cares about all of us and with the track came new bleachers and new lights around the football field and he did the band shell and he does the sound system at every event there."

"He deserves to be paid back for all the things that he's done," added Austin.

It's why Lucas, Katie, Austin, and Jenna are nominating Rusty for the Jefferson Award, on behalf of WQAD and Genesis Health System.

"It's truly an honor to be a part of this," responded Rusty.

Students say they will remember Rusty not just for these projects or his passion for music, but for the lessons he's taught them outside of the band room - to always be early, be responsible, and be kind.

"He's shown me how to just be a kind, compassionate person and how to show people you care," said Katie.

"He's taught us to have fun and just to be good people in the world," added Jenna.

WQAD will be introducing you to a new Jefferson Award Nominee every month. In Spring 2016, we will announce who is going to represent our area at the National Jefferson Awards Ceremony in Washington, D.C.

The Jefferson Awards are the country’s longest standing and most prestigious celebration of public service. Past winners include Chad Pregracke, Walter Cronkite, Steve Jobs, Paul Newman, and Michael Bloomberg.

To nominate an “unsung hero” for the Jefferson Award, click here.