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The Journal Gazette

  • Photos by Michelle Davies | The Journal Gazette Randy Rusk of Fort Wayne displays a Franklin Mint model of an Airstream Land Yacht , his favorite in a collection of RV models that he has had since he was a child. Some from his collection are now at the RV/MH Hall of Fame and Museum in Elkhart.

  • A Franklin Mint model Airstream is 1:24 scale and one of many camping-themed models Rusk owns.

  • Rusk’s collection includes an RV model made in Portugal by Metosul .

Tuesday, January 22, 2019 1:00 am

Model RVs on move

Fort Wayne man puts collection on display in Elkhart

Janet Patterson | For The Journal Gazette

There comes a moment in a collector's life when the big question appears: Do I own my collection or does my collection own me?

That moment came for Randy Rusk in the middle of a winter rain storm that flooded his basement and threatened to wipe out nearly 50 years of collecting.

“It all started when I was a kid,” Rusk says. “I was always attracted to antique cars.”

So, his mother began buying die-cast Models of Yesteryear cars for him at the Ben Franklin store in Fort Wayne.

“Then anytime I had enough money saved I would buy one. By high school I had a pretty amazing collection,” he says.

But, that was not the end of his collecting. While working at WANE-TV after college, Rusk learned about a toy auction and found there were other Models of Yesteryear collectors. He also discovered that his amazing collection was just a drop in the bucket of models available.

“I began writing letters to other collectors,” Rusk says. “It was the thrill of the hunt, and I started to enjoy the hunt.”

But the variety of model antique cars were not the only thing he discovered.

His family had developed a passion for camping when Rusk was a youngster. “My father was an English teacher at Snider High School, so we traveled the country during his summer vacations,” he says.

“In order to do that on a teacher's salary we camped ... first in tents, and then a pop-up camper and then a Chinook fiberglass body mounted on a Toyota pickup.”

Years later, with the advent of the internet, Rusk, who is communications director for Do it Best Corp., discovered that there were people all over the world collecting models of vehicles and equipment related to camping. There were scale model replicas of Woodie wagons, station wagons, recreational vehicles, motor homes and campers just waiting for collectors like him.

“In Europe, there were little stores and newsstands that sold magazines about a particular model and when you bought the magazine you got the model,” Rusk says. These models began to appear on collector websites. Once again, Rusk was on the hunt; this time for models related to camping.

By this time he was married and had two daughters.

“My wife, Julie, understands the fun and the joy it gives me to find these,” he says.

Part of that fun, he says, has been finding the best models for the lowest price. “My kids knew the difference between their toys and Daddy's toys.”

But the new models were not really toys, he adds. Die-cast models had been replaced with resin models that are less expensive to produce and much more detailed than the metal variety.

Rusk found himself with thousands of models of cars and campers neatly stored in boxes in the basement of his 1928 home in Fort Wayne's Harrison Hill neighborhood. “I knew I would never have any place to properly display them,” he says.

Then came the rains and a re-evaluation. “I was turning 50 and it was a moment to take stock of things,” Rusk says. “My wife and I started talking about downsizing for our eventual retirement.”

So, in addition to moving his massive collection to a climate-controlled, water-safe storage facility, Rusk began selling some of his treasures to other collectors.

Soon after, the couple made a visit to the RV/MH Hall of Fame and Museum in Elkhart, and Rusk had the idea that models might be a nice addition to its collection. “I wrote a letter to Darryl (Seare, the museum's president), telling him that I've got what I think is a sizable collection of models.”

Rusk mailed the letter and had almost forgotten about it when he got a phone call from an unfamiliar phone number. It was Seare with an invitation to bring a few boxes of the items to the museum to talk about the collection.

“So, last summer I went up to Elkhart and met him and his grandson Ryan Szklarek, who is the operations manager,” Rusk says. “They were at an 11 on the excitement scale.”

Since becoming the president of the museum seven years ago, Seare has turned it into a financially stable destination attraction that is expected to be debt-free early this year. The permanence of the museum appealed to Rusk.

Seare made a commitment to Rusk to purchase display cases for the collection. Rusk agreed to donate the collection for permanent display.

In November, Rusk packed the camper collection into his station wagon and spent two days at the museum sorting and creating displays in the new lighted cases. “It was like Christmas morning, opening all the boxes and seeing everything laid out,” he says.

“People who have gone through the museum and seen the collection are amazed,” Seare says. Although the museum previously had a few toys related to camping, they had no models like Rusk's.

The collection, Seare says, “adds to our ability to tell an even richer story about the joys of camping while appealing to visitors young and old.”

But, this isn't the end of the story.

Before Christmas, Rusk says, he found another batch of boxes in his collection containing more models for the museum. “So they are buying a fourth display case and in February I'll take the rest of the models to display,” he says.

He said that when the display is complete it will include about 500 pieces. “I've been told I probably have the largest camper collection in the US ... or maybe the world.”