Virginia C. “Gina” Rusch (September 15, 1938 – May 23, 2022) spent her career in service to others and most of that career in East Harlem. After graduating from Smith College in the early 1960s, she served in the Peace Corps in the Philippines, then returned to New York to work for United Neighborhood Houses, where she was assigned to work with various settlement houses, including Union Settlement, on programs for disconnected youth. She then pursued a graduate degree at Teachers College, Columbia University, and worked several jobs before being called back to Union Settlement in 1968 to head up its new college readiness program.
She inspired many young people to seek college degrees, among them Hiram Maristany, who predeceased her in March.
The renowned photographer of East Harlem life for more than 50 years credited Gina with helping him believe that he could succeed in college. Almost to the end, Gina was in touch with several of her other mentees.
In 1980, after a dozen years in the college readiness program, Gina was promoted to Associate Executive Director of Union Settlement. She was serving in this capacity when I met and got to know her as I worked with the organization on a 100th anniversary exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York.
An outgrowth of the work on that exhibition was the formation, at Union Settlement, of the East Harlem Historical Organization (EHHO), of which Gina became president. It produced two editions of an illustrated map of East Harlem in 1997 and 1999 as well as numerous public programs, all hosted at the Museum of the City of New York, on Vito Marcantonio, the Young Lords, Pleasant Village, and East Harlem writers.
Gina retired from Union Settlement in 2000, though she remained on the board of the Union Settlement credit union as well as on the board of the citywide Head Start program. The EHHO having ceased operations, in 2005, Marina Ortiz, a member of the EHHO, formed East Harlem Preservation (EHP). Gina and I were founding members. Also in 2005, Gina was named to the board of Union Settlement Association. And in 2009 she joined the East Harlem Holiday Tree Committee.
In 2008 Gina and I became neighbors when I moved one block away from her on the Upper West Side. We usually took the bus together or shared a cab to and from EHP and EHHTC meetings. She invited me to join the book club that met monthly in her building. Occasionally we went to lunch in the neighborhood, and at one point during the pandemic we went to Riverside Park and 106th Street on a Sunday afternoon to hear a jazz band that played there regularly.
The pandemic kept everyone apart from one another for far too long. Gina was not big on Zoom meetings, though she did manage to tune in to the EHP quarterly and annual meetings. We occasionally did outdoor things, and during a lull in Covid cases a couple of months back, she took me to lunch in our neighborhood.
Probably one of the last times she was in East Harlem was for the lighting of the 18th annual East Harlem Holiday Tree on December 3, 2021.
Due to a resurgence of Covid 19 cases, there was no community gathering, but the tree committee did gather to count down to the official lighting. Gina cabbed over from the West Side to join us, and we were all delighted to see her. Gina had many friends in East Harlem. She will be sorely missed.
Kathleen Benson Haskins
Secretary, East Harlem Preservation