Elmer Rusco sought to serve the people of Northern Nevada through both scholarship and community activism. As a scholar, he created a foundational body of work on the historical experience of ethnic minorities in Nevada. As an activist, he devoted himself to a number of social justice causes and organizations, including the Nevada branch of the American Civil Liberties Union, an organization he led through much of the 1970s.
Rusco was born in Haviland, Kansas in 1928, and his early life was shaped by an extended family committed to both education and civic responsibility. Both of his parents were schoolteachers, and several other family members worked in public education. In addition, his uncle modeled civic responsibility for young Rusco by serving on the local school board for forty-five years and in the state legislature for twenty-two years.
Two formative experiences shaped Rusco immediately after high school. First, he was exposed to the broad diversity of humanity while traveling through the Middle East and a devastated postwar Europe. At about the same time, on a bus trip through Virginia, Rusco inadvertently sat next to an African-American passenger. Obeying the segregation customs, the passenger rose and went to stand in the rear section of the bus. This firsthand experience with the demeaning system of racial segregation was, in Rusco's words, "a shock to my system." As a result, he became involved in the local Congress of Racial Equality group (CORE) and participated in several unsuccessful sit-ins at segregated theaters and restaurants in the Lawrence, Kansas area while attending the University of Kansas. This was the first step in a lifelong interest in the causes of civil rights and racial justice.
Rusco's interest in learning and social justice led him to pursue a Ph.D. degree in political science, which he received from the University of California, Berkeley in 1960. After short teaching stints elsewhere, he joined the political science department at the University of Nevada, Reno in 1963, where he worked until 1986. Upon arriving in Nevada, Rusco discovered that little research had been conducted on minority groups in Nevada. In response, he collected, interpreted, and published a brief analysis of the condition of minorities in Nevada entitled Minority Groups in Nevada. Although the findings were not startling—that African-Americans and Native Americans in Nevada had lower per capita incomes, lower educational levels, and poorer health—it collected and made available the evidence that demonstrated these inequalities. Rusco's most important scholarly work, though, remains his pioneering study, Good Time Coming?: Black Nevadans in the Nineteenth Century.
While pursuing the cause of social justice through his scholarship, Rusco simultaneously pursued the same goal through active participation in a number of local, statewide, and national progressive organizations. His most significant work was his leadership of the Nevada branch of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). As leader of the Nevada ACLU for much of the 1970s, Rusco held together a weak and poorly funded organization that was able to organize and provide assistance for a number of unpopular but important causes.
Rusco retired from UNR in 1986, but his scholarship and community activism continued virtually unabated. In an interview in his last year, Rusco commented on his life's philosophy: "When you're committed to a moral code, it's not enough simply to not violate the code and hurt people; you also need to do as much as you can to help people." In 2004, he was diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gehrig's Disease), and he succumbed to the illness six months later. He was seventy-six.