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Wednesday, October 24, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Joe Rust put people in touch

Seattle Times staff reporter

Joe Rust was rarely lonely. As a young soldier critically wounded in the Korean War, Mr. Rust always had a steady stream of visitors, both friends and a family that would eventually include eight children, 14 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

But not everyone around him did. Laid up for more than 15 months after being shot in both legs, Mr. Rust, who died last Wednesday (Oct. 17) of lung cancer at 71, saw how other patients had few, if any, visitors. Although he got better, his time in military hospitals affected him deeply.

It would inspire him two decades later to start Friend to Friend, a program that brings visitors into nursing homes and has grown from 10 homes in Des Moines to 250 in the region, plus more in Spokane, Tennessee and Minnesota.

Always a devout Catholic, Mr. Rust was driven to start the program because of what his family described as a second conversion.

"He was working for the Lord," said his daughter Marilyn Soderquist, who lives in Burien.

According to family legend, Mr. Rust got religion in the fourth grade at the hands of Sister Henry Paul. His family had recently moved from its farm in South Dakota to Yakima, forced west by the Depression. When not in school, Mr. Rust and his sister picked fruit, racing to see who was quickest at pulling apples and pears from the trees.

In 1950, he was drafted into the Army, where he was awarded the Purple Heart, Bronze Service Star and United Nations Service Medal. It was also where he received the wounds that would plague him for much of his life.

"He always struggled with it," his son Don Rust of Des Moines said. "But he never dwelled on it. He always kept positive, thinking of others."

Like thousands of others his age, military service led to college and a job at Boeing. With his wife, Marlene, Mr. Rust settled in Des Moines. He worked as an engineer for Boeing until 1971, when a spiraling aerospace economy led to thousands of layoffs.

Soon after, in 1974, Mr. Rust started Man to Man, a program in which he and friends visited the federal penitentiary on McNeil Island and ministered to inmates. Father John McBride, the prison's chaplain, said Man to Man was marked by two things: the inmates' enthusiasm for the program and Mr. Rust's reliability.

"On stormy nights I would go down to the dock to see if they were coming," McBride said. "Rain or shine, they always did."

Mr. Rust launched Friend to Friend, which he directed until 1991. When he retired, Soderquist took over. Mr. Rust went home, where he read books about history, took long walks and played with his grandchildren.

"My dad had so many gifts," Soderquist said. "He had hospitality, he had the gift of inner joy, he had wisdom. And he passed all these on to the people he met."

Other survivors include sons John of Kent, Dale of Seattle, Jim of Seattle and Joey of Des Moines; daughters Diane Minnick of Federal Way and Janet Trout of Tacoma; 14 grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

Memorials may be made to Friend to Friend, P.O. Box 98766, Seattle, WA 98198.

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