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Retiring Professor Jon Rust Leaves Lasting Legacy Through Students, Research

Photo of Jon Rust in front of a wall of red banners. He wears a black suit, white collared shirt and red tie.

By Sarah Stone 

As a student at Clemson University, Professor Jon Rust certainly didn’t have any dreams of working in academia. In fact, his path to graduate school started at a Clemson landmark, the Esso Club, where he bartended his senior year. 

“One of my regulars there that I would pour beer for was a Clemson professor named Ed Vaughn. And as it turns out, Dr. Vaughn knew that NC State was putting together a textile engineering program and they were asking faculty at other textile institutions for recommendations of students who had both an engineering degree and a textiles degree because they would like for them to be a candidate for this textile engineering program. Knowing that I was graduating with my bachelor’s in mechanical engineering, he said, ‘Why don’t you come get your master’s at our school of textiles, in Clemson?’ I laughed in his face and said, ‘I’ve been to college. I got my degree. I’m never stepping foot in a classroom again,’” he remembers. “I was really serious.”

It was out of necessity that he changed his mind. A bad car accident on his way home from work that day stuck him with a costly medical bill. 

“I couldn’t pay the rent or buy my groceries or anything,” Rust says. “And so I wheeled myself in a wheelchair into his office and I said, ‘Let me get this straight. You’ll pay me to go to graduate school?’”

Six months later, then-College of Textiles Dean Dame Hamby recruited Rust to be a part-time instructor at the college while earning his Ph.D. in Fiber and Polymer Science

“Once I got here, I never looked back,” he says. “Oh, I liked everything about it. It felt right.”

Now, he’s preparing to retire after nearly four decades as a faculty member at the Wilson College of Textiles. 

Rust has left a lasting mark on the Wilson College, and the industry, through research, leadership roles and consulting, but he’ll be remembered most for the impact he has had on his students. 

Prioritizing research with industry applications

Rust believes that his career success can be attributed to knowing how to adapt as opportunities, which may have seemed more like challenges at the time, came along. 

“When opportunities land in front of you, even if it isn’t something that you ever imagined, you have to really seriously consider grabbing it and moving on in a direction that you hadn’t thought about moving in before,” Rust says. “I’ve done that numerous times and it turned out to be the greatest thing in the world for me.”

Photo. Jon Rust stands to the left of an industrial-looking machine in a Wilson College of Textiles lab. To the right of the machine stands Stephen Sharp.
Professor Jon Rust (left) mentors Stephen Sharp (M.S. TE ’14) in a Wilson College of Textiles lab.

He sees his life as a series of serendipitous moments. First – his entrance into academia, and second – his area of research expertise. While completing his Ph.D. in the 1980s Rust became enamored with the newly emerging field of biomedical textiles. 

However, he was advised that pursuing this topic for his dissertation would put him at a disadvantage with applying to textiles faculty positions as this discipline had “no future.” Rust listened to this guidance, choosing spinning as his area of focus. 

“Of course, if I hadn’t listened, I’d be a billionaire by now,” he jokes. 

Rust did manage to wrap his academic research career with biomedical textile engineering. His newest patent is for a new hernia mesh. Most hernia meshes have to be sewn – or sutured – in, which means that the painful surgery is sometimes only a temporary fix. 

“Especially if you put on 20, 30 pounds after getting it sutured in there, those sutures can pull out really easily – and oftentimes they do,” Rust explains. “Then the patient has to have another surgery to get a new suture put in.”

To solve this problem, Rust worked with Duke University Hospital Plastic Surgeon Howard Levinson and Wilson College’s knitting lab to invent a hernia mesh that can be woven into the abdominal wall, making the mesh much more durable. 

When opportunities land in front of you, even if it isn’t something that you ever imagined, you have to really seriously consider grabbing it and moving on in a direction that you hadn’t thought about moving in before.
– Professor Jon Rust

This patent work is a defining part of Rust’s career in research. He prides himself in taking part in industry-funded research projects. 

“The end result of research, if you’re doing meaningful research, is that you’re going to get patents and come up with technology that can be spun off into companies that will employ people and that’s beneficial to the state and the country,” Rust, who has his name on ten patents, says. “Getting a patent tells me that what we did was meaningful because it’s something that no one’s ever done before.”

Providing academic expertise to industry leaders

Rust’s passion for making real impacts on business through academic research is also evident in his consulting career. His extensive experience in this area stretches across the country and includes textile giants such as Burlington Industries, Bob Barker, and Milliken & Company. 

His work with Milliken transformed into a nearly 20-year-long partnership that allowed Rust to pass on his Think and Do mentality to a new generation of engineers. Every year, Rust and a group of TE students from the Wilson College, as well as other engineering students from NC State and other North Carolina universities, spent the summer working at Milliken’s Magnolia finishing location and completing a quality improvement project. 

During its 17-year-long run, hundreds of North Carolina engineering students passed through the Milliken Summer Challenge. It helped launch a number of careers, including that of Zeb Atkinson (B.S. TE ’98). Now the Chief Executive Officer of Reed Manufacturing, Atkinson started his career at Milliken after graduation. He spent two summers overseeing other students at the finishing location as a team facilitator, allowing Rust to go back and forth between Milliken and Centennial Campus. 

“Jon was just a great teacher and a great mentor in a lot of ways, and really took the time to take me under his wing and teach me the things that were important for a professional career,” Atkinson says. “He taught me how to talk and interact with all people. You know, as a Summer Challenge student, you think you know everything because you’re in college. You’re trying to learn and interact with people who may or may not have any kind of college education, but certainly are the experts in their field and have done their job for 30, 40 years. They may not see it your way, so you have to really understand their point of view.”

Mentorship that changes lives and lasts a lifetime 

That mentorship didn’t stop when Atkinson graduated at NC State. In his new position at Milliken, he says he was constantly calling Rust and asking for advice. 

“He really taught me the value of speaking up and taking action,” he says. “Another thing I learned from Jon is how to ‘think like a fiber.’ When he was teaching some of these yarn spinning techniques, he always used to teach us to insert yourself into the problem and really understand what’s going on in there so that you can get a good idea of what you need to do to fix it.”

Over time, the mentorship transformed into a friendship. Atkinson even attended his former professor’s wedding in Wales. 

A scanned film photo from 1998. Jon Rust (left) stands with his arm around the shoulders Zeb Atkinson (right) who wears commencement regalia. The photo was taking shortly after the college's commencement ceremony.
Jon Rust (left) and Zeb Atkinson after his commencement ceremony in 1998.

Another one of Rust’s former students and lifelong mentees, Devon Person (B.S. TE ’10), credits Rust with success both inside and outside of his career. 

“I tell people all the time that if there was one person who changed the trajectory of my life, my kid’s life, it’s Dr. Rust.” 

During his first year at NC State, Person faced a number of unique obstacles. Not only was he navigating college as a first-generation student, he also dealt with financial difficulties and challenges in his personal life that made it nearly impossible for him to focus completely on his studies. 

“I was actually working at the Burger King down the street about 40 to 50 hours a week,” he says. “My grades were all over the place. I was doing really well with some classes, but I was also failing a couple courses.” 

When his advisor, Professor Jeff Joines, learned more about what Person was going through he stepped in to help. First, he set Person up with an undergraduate research assistantship that would allow him to quit his current job and work fewer hours while still being able to afford his tuition. Next, he set him up for bi-weekly meetings with Jon Rust. 

I tell people all the time that if there was one person who changed the trajectory of my life, my kid’s life, it’s Dr. Rust.
– Devon Person (B.S. TE ’10)

“We started that my first year, and we kept that going for literally the entire time that I went through college. He never missed one of our sessions. Rust made that investment in me.” Person says. “If it wasn’t for him, honestly, there was no way that I would have made it past my first year of college. I definitely would have had to drop out.” 

He credits Rust with giving him the confidence to believe he could succeed at a time where he doubted himself most. Throughout his career, from his first job at GE to his current position as a vice president at Hanesbrands, Person says he has continued to consult Rust for almost every major decision. 

A reputation for leadership and crisis management 

Throughout his nearly four decades at the Wilson College, Rust became known as a go-to faculty member to provide leadership in difficult situations where leadership was needed most. 

Over the course of his career, he’s served in three interim leadership positions at the college and university level. He also headed up the Department of Textile Engineering, Chemistry and Science during the Great Recession. Dean David Hinks, then an associate professor, says he learned a lot about leadership from Rust’s time as department head. 

“He was able to think in terms of the big picture, but also able to get into the weeds and not many people can do both,” Hinks says. “He was always very supportive of me in the things that I wanted to do either as a faculty member, or as a program director or as the director of graduate programs. He always gave me the bandwidth, the freedom, and I think that’s a mark of a great leader is that you don’t micromanage but you are also there to support them at the same time.”

He was able to think in terms of the big picture, but also able to get into the weeds and not many people can do both.
-Dean David Hinks

Rust also made a giant impact as Associate Dean for Academic Programs, where he started the Center for Academic, Career and Student Services. As Interim Associate Dean for Academic Programs at NC State, he implemented a new general education program across all of the university’s academic departments. And he used his business-minded approach to lead the Zeis Textiles Extension (ZTE) into a more financially stable position. 

“He really looked at how we could revitalize the textile training program and grow that to be more competitive and a better service tool for the industry,” Melissa Sharp, who served as a business development coordinator for ZTE at the time, says. “He empowered our lab managers to be able to pursue projects and expand their suite of services and revitalize our equipment for our fabrication and testing offerings for our clients.”

Now ZTE’s associate director, Sharp says she still draws on lessons she learned from Rust during his time at ZTE. 

“I took away the importance of really seeking out the potential in each individual and trying to find creative ways to embrace that potential,” she says. “I learned the importance of not being afraid to take on grand challenges and risk failure.”

What’s next? 

These sorts of impacts and lessons are the career accomplishment Rust says he’s most proud of. 

“The thing that I enjoy most now is running into students that I had, people that were students of mine who demonstrate to me that they don’t just remember me, but they remember fondly the time that we spent together,” Rust says. “Don’t get me wrong. I’ve done a lot in my life I’m not proud of. But it’s so wonderful to get those messages and to sort of tell myself that the net impact was a good one and a positive one.”

He plans to continue his consulting work in retirement, but also will travel more with his newfound free time.