In the Spirit of Alex
On May 28, 2013, Joe Rust got a phone call that would change the course of his entire life. He just didn’t realize it at the time.
Joe is the youngest of 13 – but from two “litters,” as he likes to say. His father had seven children with his first wife, and then six with his mother. Joe was in that second litter of six. So was his older brother, Alex.
When their father passed away, Joe was in seventh grade. He had just lost his first mentor in life, and so that role naturally transferred to Alex – who was seven years older than Joe.
“Alex was the one who encouraged me to run for student body president when I was a sophomore in college,” Joe says. “Everyone knows you don’t run as a sophomore – you run as a junior when you know more people. But Alex said, ‘That doesn’t matter. You know people on campus, and I’ll help you. Just do it.’”
Joe ran for student body president at Purdue University as a sophomore, and he won. “We all just need a push sometimes,” he says.
But the best lessons Joe learned from Alex didn’t come from his words of wisdom or his pep talks. They came from the example that he set – the example that he is – for other people by the way he lived. Alex was the kind of person who would quit his job and take a sailboat around the world just because he knew there was so much more to see in this life than the four walls of an office space.
So he did. He quit his trading job in Chicago, bought a sailboat (with zero sailing experience), named it Bubbles, picked up a copy of Sailing for Dummies and successfully sailed around the world in three years. From 2009 to 2012, Alex saw and experienced more than the majority of the human population does in an entire lifetime. He sailed from island to island, creating friendships with the natives and picking up new crew members along the way. He invited people into his journey – including Joe, for a couple months of his trip – so he could take them with him and boldly lead them to the next step.
After accomplishing the seemingly impossible, he returned to the reality he had left behind and quickly remembered why he left it in the first place. He knew he wanted something more out of life than a comfortable 9-5 job, and he had a taste of what that could be during those three years spent sailing around the world and connecting with new people. Not long after returning back home after his voyage, Alex decided he was going to India.
“Alex’s friend is the one who suggested he go to India – they said that if he was trying to find his next mission in life, he might find joy in helping kids,” Joe says. “And Alex thought he would, too.”
Coming from a big family, Alex wanted a lot of kids himself. But at this point in his life, it wasn’t an option quite yet. “Alex thought, ‘If I can’t have my own kids right now, maybe I’ll just help kids that don’t have anyone else.’ Then they’d be his kids, in a way,” Joe says.
So Alex dove headfirst into his next adventure to India. He embraced the life he was given like he was trying to squeeze every experience out of it that he possibly could before it was gone.
And then suddenly, it was gone. On May 28, 2013, Joe got the phone call that Alex had passed away while traveling in India – before he had a chance to live out his next mission. But the way he lived up until his death – so fully and vibrantly – inspired so many others to do the same.
Then came the release of Chasing Bubbles, a documentary that tells the story of Alex’s journey around the world on his sailboat (named Bubbles) and the lives he touched along the way. For many, it was a wakeup call.
“I have a buddy in Savannah, Georgia who bought a sailboat and is teaching himself how to sail because he watched [Chasing Bubbles]. I got an email from a guy on the west coast who said he’s quitting his job and is excited to live on a boat for a while,” Joe says.
“Not that you have to go live on a boat and sail around the world, but it’s about your own thing.”
That “thing” being your personal mission – your purpose for living that transcends the mundanity of everyday life. Alex’s life pushed people to make the jump to find that thing. But Joe, who spent most of his life looking to Alex as his mentor, was still unsure about what that meant for him.
“For the four years after Alex passed, I kept hearing stories about people who were inspired by him. But I kept thinking, ‘What am I doing to change my life? What am I doing to be more adventurous or more bold?’” Joe recalls. “Honestly, I wasn’t doing anything about it. My own brother wasn’t inspiring me to change. When is the time ever going to be right, you know? I kept making excuses. It took me four years to take my brother’s example seriously, and it wasn’t until Randy called me out on it.”
Randy Reichmann is Joe’s EDGE mentor of about three years now.
“The reason I joined EDGE was because my dad was a big advocate for mentorship. He invested a lot of time in mentoring others, and I think that was changing my life even back then,” Joe says. “When he passed, one of my dad’s mentees stepped into my life, but he unfortunately passed away while I was at Purdue. And then there was my brother, who was also a mentor to me, but he passed away around the same time. Joining EDGE was filling this gap in my life."
Joe first heard about EDGE while he was still in college through one of the first EDGE mentees, Beau Williamson (who is still a mentee today). “When I was at EDGE|X last year, I ran into Beau and he asked me, ‘So what’s Joe Rust going to do next?’ I said, ‘I don’t know – keep working at a consulting company?’ And Beau said, ‘I don’t like that answer – that’s not good enough!’ And then he told me to call him in two weeks.”
Two weeks later, Joe was on the phone with Beau and during their conversation, he received an email with an attachment. “Beau sent me a life plan document that asked questions like ‘What do you value?’ and ‘What’s the vision you have for your life?’ I spent probably 10 hours on it,” Joe says. “Beau’s the first one who got me to write down what I really wanted to do in life. I wanted to travel to India and retrace Alex’s steps.”
Joe sent his life plan document to Randy for feedback, they met to talk it over one morning at an Einstein Bagels. Randy and the rest of the EDGE group knew about Alex’s story, too. “After watching Chasing Bubbles, I had told Joe that Alex struck me as a restless soul,” Randy says. “That morning at Einstein Bagels, I sensed that Joe was a restless soul, too.”
In the four years after Alex passed away, Joe kept telling people – and himself – that he wasn’t quite ready to go to India yet. Even after putting it on paper as one of his goals in life, he still didn’t feel ready. But by the end of his hour-long conversation with Randy that morning in May 2017, he was reminded of a simple truth: if we keep waiting until we feel ready to make the jump, we’ll never actually make the jump.
“Joe was that guy who wanted to go skydiving. He was on the plane at 10,000 feet in the air, hanging halfway out of the door, and he just needed somebody to push him,” Randy says. “I think he had already made up his mind that he was going to India. He was ready to go – he just needed somebody to give him a push.”
Less than two weeks later, Joe was ready to leave the country. “I went back to Randy and told him I had my ticket to India, but my company wanted me to stay a little longer. I think Randy realized he needed to reel me back in a little bit,” Joe says. “He said, ‘I know you have this itch that you need to scratch. But if you rush it, you’re going to come back unsatisfied.’”
“My fear was that he would just go to say he was going and not really accomplish what needed to be accomplished,” Randy adds. “There were emotions that needed to be addressed. He needed to go see where his brother passed away. And he needed time for himself before and after that.”
Joe ended up spending two months in India, armed with the clarity of mind he needed to process his brother’s death. “If I would have jumped without going back to Randy, it would have been a pretty big mistake. I wouldn’t have had a clear purpose for going over there,” Joe says.
Joe planned his trip with the intention of retracing all of Alex’s steps as closely as he could, through Mumbai, Rajasthan, Delhi, Punjab, Himachal Pradesh and, finally, Varanasi – where Alex passed away.
“I had said that I was going to Varanasi to be at peace with what happened, but I never really believed I would find it there,” Joe admits. “I got to Varanasi and, even though I had made it this far in the trip, I was still afraid to take that last step and go to the guest house where Alex died. So I spent a couple of days doing touristy things and finally, on the third day, I walked up to the guest house, talked to the hotel manager and went up to the room. I was nervous and shaking. But then it was like a threshold. Once I crossed into that room, God told me ‘It’s going to be okay. Not only is it going to be okay, I’m going to do some good things through you because of this.’”
Varanasi is known as a holy city in India. According to the Hindu religion, if you die in Varanasi, you don’t have to go through reincarnation – it’s the ultimate way to get to heaven. “When you’re there, you’re surrounded by death. People want to die there,” Joe says. “It made it ironic, in a way, for Alex to be there and then for me to be there.”
The irony lied in the very room where Alex passed away in Varanasi. It was in that room where Joe awakened to the life he knew wanted to live.
Rather than feeling sad like he was expecting, he was overwhelmed with gratitude. “I was extremely thankful that Alex lived, and that he lived a life that was an example for so many people. But it was finally time for me to start living that kind of life myself. I thought, ‘How am I going to live now for Alex rather than be in mourning for Alex? How can I live my life in a way that his spirit lives through me?’ At the time, I had no idea what that would look like.”
Joe’s next stop after Varanasi was northeast India to visit the schools and boarding houses. “Alex had mentioned before he left for India that he might start an orphanage while traveling. He always wanted to have tons of kids but never had the chance. So I’m picking up where he left off,” Joe says. “I visited with missionaries and got to meet these fantastic kids who were filled with joy and happiness, even though they have nothing over there. They’re always tugging on your arm and wanting to play games and practice their English with you.”
In Alex’s memory, Joe’s family had agreed to support an orphanage in India that was run by a group of Jesuits. After returning from his trip to India, Joe had a clear idea of what “living in the spirit of Alex” would look like.
“I remember coming back and thinking we should be doing more with the orphanage. Instead of just giving money, we need to be intimately involved and we need to go where the greatest need is, not where the easiest need is. That wasn’t like Alex to go where things were easy.” Joe says. “I also knew I needed to figure out a new job that was going to be fulfilling. And the more I thought and prayed about it, the more I realized that those two things were the same. I had found something that would not only help me further the spirit of Alex, but would also fan the flame of my passion for making this world a better place.”
Joe doesn’t have a clear picture of what his life’s work will look like now, but Randy is confident in his ability to figure it out along the way – just like Alex did.
“Joe’s a leader, first and foremost, so it was easy for me to picture Joe doing great things. I might have had him scripted in the corporate world, but I think what he’s doing is much bigger than that,” Randy says. “Chasing Bubbles even convicted me in a way that made me look at my life and how I might have played it too cautiously. I wrestle today with whatever time I have left to make it better, and I would say it’s because of Alex and his story.”
As of this week, Joe is returning to India to pursue the next steps of his mission: to establish a new boarding house in an under-supported area in India in honor of Alex. As for his greater purpose, he knows exactly what that is now: to honor the lives of his father, David W. Rust Sr. and his brother, "Captain" Alex Rust, "by promoting the values of dreaming, traveling and believing through serving children of third world countries."
“I don’t know how long it would have taken me to figure it out by myself. It could have been 5 years before I made this jump on my own,” Joe says. “There’s so much significance in having someone in your life to give you that push. How long are we all going to be at the edge of the plane, knowing we need to jump, but never do? We all need someone to give us that push, and that’s what mentors are for. That’s what Randy did for me.”