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'I love to go back'

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YEARS PAST:Tom Rusk served as ringmaster of the Peru Amateur Circus from 1972 to 1980. He returns this year as grand marshal of the Circus City Festival parade and to show off his replica of Andy Griffith Show’s Mayberry squad car.
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‘PRIDE AND JOY’:Tom Rusk poses with his 1961 Ford Fairlane replica of the Mayberry squad car from the Andy Griffith Show.

BY JARED KEEVER - jkeever@perutribune.com

One of Peru’s long serving ringmasters is returning for this year’s Circus City Festival not only to show off one of his prized possessions, but also, it turns out, to be honored in the parade on the festival’s final day.

“She called me about, maybe, three weeks ago,” Tom Rusk said of the phone call he got recently, asking him to serve as the July 20 parade’s grand marshal.

In a phone interview on Tuesday, Rusk, who lives in South Carolina these days, said he was already planning to visit Peru this year to be part of the festivities surrounding the 60th anniversary of the amateur circus.

Part of that plan, he said, was to bring up his 1961 Ford Fairlane replica of the Mayberry squad car from the Andy Griffith Show so it could be part of the parade.

“The wholesomeness of the circus likens itself well to the wholesomeness of the Andy Griffith show,” Rusk said, explaining his motivation to make the journey, towing the car with him.

And the timing seemed about right.

“To return to Peru for the 60th anniversary is certainly a special treat and to bring my squad car is the icing on the cake,” he said in a news release about the trip that he put out earlier this year. “The Andy Griffith Show will be celebrating 59 years on television this October and like the circus, it’s an American icon.”

When Brande Brehmer, who is helping organize this year’s parade, heard that Rusk was coming and started to learn from others what his involvement with the circus had been decades back, she made that call asking him if he would accept the honored position in the parade.

“I just thought, wow, that would be a great opportunity to use him as a parade marshal also,” she said.

Rusk said he first got involved with the circus in 1969 as a clown.

The next year he became a rigger.

“They made me head rigger, and I knew nothing,” he said, laughing at the memory.

He did that for two years until he stepped to the center ring as the ringmaster. He held that position – and positions on the circus board, including president – until 1980.

That’s when he and his wife, Kathy, moved to Florida.

Rusk said he eventually hired on at Walt Disney World and then later retired to South Carolina in 2006.

That’s where he and Kathy built a retirement home that he describes in the release as “filled with Mayberry memorabilia.”

In 2009, he bought the car that he calls his “pride and joy.”

Since moving away, Rusk said he has returned to Peru for the circus on a pretty consistent schedule of about every two years.

“It’s been three years (this time) because we’ve been waiting for the 60th,” he said. “I love to go back.”

But this is the first time for the car.

And even though Rusk will now have ceremonial responsibilities, riding as the parade’s marshal, the car will still make the procession.

Brehmer said that after he rides as marshal in a convertible, there will be a golf cart waiting for Rusk at the route’s end to take him back to the beginning so he can hop in the squad car and drive with his long time friend Tom Gustin.

Rusk said he was already excited to be making the trip and said it felt “great to be recognized” and know that so many people still remember him from decades back.

He said he didn’t know if he was going to be invited to do any announcing at the circus performance he plans to attend during festival week, but said it won’t matter either way.

Although serving as ringmaster was always fun, Rusk said it never really was about him in the first place.

“We are there to draw attention to those kids and what they do,” he said.