Fred Rusteberg wasn’t interested in the limelight, but he was always there to help the people of Brownsville, his beloved hometown, and he left an indelible mark in the process.
Frederick William Rusteberg, who retired in 2016 after 32 years as founding president and CEO of IBC Bank in Brownsville, died on July 19 at the age of 74.
The U.S. Army veteran, who flew helicopters and commanded an airfield while stationed in South Korea during the 1970s, was especially interested in creating educational opportunities. Juliet V. Garcia, who served as president of the University of Texas at Brownsville and Texas Southmost College from 1991 to 2014 and worked with Rusteberg on a number of community engagement and planning initiatives over the decades, said he was particularly proud of his family’s role in education.
“His mother had driven the school bus — he loved telling that story — during the tough days when the school district needed help,” Garcia said. “His father had been on the (Texas Southmost College) Board of Trustees during its initial forming. He’d always talk about that and how important education had been to him and to his family.”
Rusteberg helped raise millions of dollars for education, serving as chairman for many successful school-bond issues. He chaired the strategic planning team for the Brownsville Independent School District in 1997 and 2006, served two terms as chairman of the UTB Development Board, and sat on the Chancellor’s Advisory Council at UT Austin. Rusteberg’s family established the first scholarship endowment at UTB, later the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley.
“He never assumed that it was going to be easy for anybody,” Garcia said. “He never assumed that people had money, or that they had the smarts. He always assumed the opposite, that they needed help, and so he was willing to encourage them or help them with scholarship money or with a job while they were in school.”
The two spent many an hour at the board table resolving issues, and worked together on tough bond-issue campaigns, said Garcia, who’s now a professor in the UTRGV Department of Communication. Rusteberg could always be relied upon to take the lead when necessary — and not just on the easy stuff, she said.
“He never turned me down,” Garcia said.
Rusteberg did whatever he had to in order to get things done, she said, recalling an episode from 2006.
“David McCullough, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author, was coming to our campus for a distinguished lecture series and got stuck in Houston because of torrential rains,” she said. “I was going to have 400 people show up that night, big donors ready to hear David McCullough, and I didn’t have a speaker, so I called up Fred and said I need your help.”
Rusteberg got on the phone and wrangled a company plane. One or two other logistical snags were dispensed with and McCullough was on the ground in Brownsville.
“My point is Fred would do whatever it took to help you,” Garcia said, describing his death as a “huge loss” for Brownsville.
“The community doesn’t replace someone like that easily,” she said.
Irv Downing, who spent 22 years with Chase Bank before joining UTB-TSC as associate vice president of economic development and is now retired, worked with Rusteberg on a variety of community engagement projects over four decades starting around 1980. The initiatives focused on areas such as economic development, infrastructure, health, education and the environment, with the ultimate goal of developing “actionable strategies to make the community better,” Downing said.
“Fred was the driving force behind a lot of this, but he had a team of people between us and the consultant,” he said. “What Fred did, he was a convener. Fred was an amazing person to bring people into the discussion so they’d be engaged. … That doesn’t mean that they had to agree with a particular course or an approach, but he wanted them at the table.”
Rusteberg last year was honored with a proclamation read into the Congressional Record by U.S. Rep. Filemon Vela, who said in a statement after Rusteberg’s death that the Rio Grande Valley region had “lost a titan.”
“Fred’s accomplishments and contributions to South Texas are far too many to count,” Vela said. “Though I am saddened at the news of the loss of a friend, I know his character, hard work and legacy will always be remembered in Brownsville.”
Al Villarreal, who worked with Rusteberg for more than two decades before succeeding him as IBC Brownsville’s president and CEO, said his former boss was “such a big part of IBC.”
“He recruited me, he hired and he mentored me for 23 years,” Villarreal said. “I really feel just blessed to have had the experience to work for such a dynamic leader like Fred Rusteberg.
“The thing about Fred, he had a remarkable ability to put great teams together. He could identify the strengths and the weaknesses of anybody and then inspire them to do their best and to work hard, and then to provide the support and mentorship to make sure that those goals were realized. I think that’s what he took the most enjoyment out of, was seeing that happen. He really understood that the value of any organization was the people. He always put people first, and that was one of the great leadership qualities that Mr. Rusteberg had.”
Just as he worked to empower the community through economic development and education, Rusteberg empowered his employees through encouragement and support, Villarreal said.
“He never really put us in a situation where we couldn’t succeed,” he said. “What we were concerned about was letting him down. That is representative of what a great leader he was, when you don’t want to let the mission down, when you don’t want to let your boss down, then you know that that leader has done their job in getting you to believe in the mission … and to do your best. That’s the quality that he had.”
While Rusteberg’s death is a loss, Brownsville is fortunate to have had him as part of the community for so many years, Villarreal said.
“It’s very sad that he’s not here anymore, but it would have been a lot sadder if he would have never been part of our lives,” he said.