The same time many of her teacher friends were taking early retirement, Patricia Rusk was beginning her tenure at The Chicago Academy for the Arts.
Rusk started at the North Side school in 1996 and has never left – earning status as one of The Academy’s “most beloved figures” since, according to Head of School Jason Patera.
“Why would I want to retire?” said Rusk, who became the Musical Theatre Chair Emeritus in 2011 after 15 years of heading the department. “I love what I’m doing. This is a place where I walk in every morning and have a smile on my face.”
Rusk, who started playing piano for friends as a 4-year-old when she lived in South Bend, Indiana – “I was the kid who, where anybody would come to the front door, and I’d play the piano for them,” she said – has been performing her whole life. She’s been a musical director, pianist, arranger, and coach for both musical theatre and cabaret. Rusk, who graduated from South Bend Adams High School, Eastman School of Music with a Bachelor's Degree with Distinction and Northwestern University with a Master’s Degree, has been a professional performer since she was 13 years old and started teaching as a 16-year-old.
Rusk will be honored during The Academy’s Feb. 15 Showcase event with the Faculty Legacy Award, which includes a cash bonus and two scholarships (funded by alumni) in her honor.
“Pat Rusk is one of the true heroes of The Academy’s history, and she embodies everything that is central to our identity. She's a legendary pianist, world-class teacher, and has boundless love for her students,” Patera said. “Her decades of experience as an in-demand pianist gives our students access to a first-rate professional; her ability to connect with students on a deep human level allows her to transform their lives.”
Rusk said she’s “sort of like that second mom” to Academy students, both current and graduates. Noteworthy alumni she taught include Hamilton star Jose Ramos, Broadway actors Adina Verson and Kelcy Griffin, restaurant owner Lanie Bayless and Golden Globe- and Grammy-nominated songwriter Justin Tranter.
Actor Alex Aguilar said he's "living my dream performing in Miss Saigon on Broadway" in part from Rusk's guidance.
"Pat continues to be one of my biggest supporters," said Aguilar, 30. "To say that she changed my life is an understatement, and without her I may have never reached my goal. I cannot thank her enough for everything she gave me, and everything she continues to give me and the rest of the current students and alumni at The Academy."
In 1997, Tranter – then an Academy junior – approached Rusk with an idea of starting student-run variety show that would help raise awareness and advocacy for HIV/AIDS. He needed a faculty advisor to approve the project and he chose Rusk.
“When I had the crazy idea of starting the AIDS Benefit in 1997, [former President] Pamela Jordan immediately said yes, but told me I needed to find a faculty advisor ASAP if I wanted it to actually happen,” Tranter said. “Pat was my first choice for obvious musical and emotional reasons. When I asked her she said yes to a 17-year-old openly queer kid trying to help their community before I could even finish the sentence. In that moment her legend status was immediately confirmed.”
The event has taken place every year since, raising tens of thousands of dollars for AIDS research, support, care and organizations.
Of Rusk, Tranter said: “Pat is a gentle force of nature. She has a magical way of giving you the toughest musical love all while giving the biggest metaphorical hug.”
Rusk, of Andersonville, said that’s been her teaching philosophy her whole life.
“I believe you can get a lot more out of someone with a carrot than a stick,” she said. “I believe in being kind, and you have to give the students the freedom to be vulnerable. You can’t act and be vulnerable if someone’s beating up on you.”
Rusk has no plans to retire. She wishes a school like The Academy had been available when she was a high school student but feels fortunate now to teach the current crop of emerging artists in the Chicago area.
“Being here, it’s the best of all possible worlds,” she said.
For more information on The Academy’s Showcase event, visit https://www.chicagoacademyforthearts.org/academy-events/2017/7/24/showcase
Photos by Thomas Mohr Photography