Remembering Big Ed

Author/illustrator David Weitzman included Ed as an apparent easter egg in his book “Superpower”, and later dedicated “A Subway for New York” to him too.

“Big” Ed Rutsch was a close family friend, an accomplished archaeologist, a storyteller, and a giant in both stature and personality. He died twelve years ago today.

I was in my early twenties, and not mature enough then to fully appreciate the impact Big Ed had on the world, and on all of us around him. It’s so obvious to me now though…I can draw a line from Ed, alongside my parents, to much of what I value in life: friendship; humility (but also pride); craftsmanship; an appreciation for hard work and the people that do it.

When he died, a Yahoo Group was setup for his many friends to share their Big Ed stories. Because everyone has a Big Ed story.

A mutual friend, Bill Sandy, also posted his eulogy there—it captures all the things I loved about Ed. I’m sharing it here to archive it (and am slowly archiving the other group messages as well)—I’d hate for it to disappear someday.

Big Ed Rutsch was the ultimate Jersey Boy. When National Geographic needed a story on New Jersey, writer Jim Hartz started out with Ed: “Ed is a Native of New Jersey, an archaeologist dedicated to preserving the structures that embody the history of the industrial revolution in the state. He is a great bear of a man, 300 pounds and more, streetwise with brass knuckles opinions on everything”.

Ed then talked about an industrial stretch of Turnpike skyline and said “This is the place people love to hate, the part of New Jersey that turns so many people off. But this is where you find the real current and juice of the state. I know all the jokes about New Jersey. This place doesn’t have to apologize. New Jersey produces. It hustles. It’s tough.”.

Ed was the kind of Jersey boy that people loved to love. He was hooked into the current of where ever he was, but especially so on places like Chemical Beach, or the great IA tours. Ed was not everybody’s idea of an archaeologist. But, like the Garden State he loved, he did not have to apologize to anybody. He hustled, he was tough.

Over the last 20 years I got to work with Ed at sites throughout New York and New Jersey. He was my boss, landlord, friend & teacher. On one of our first digs together, I reintroduced him to my old friend Patty. Ed was loyal, honest, and straightforward. Ed and his team at HCI routinely planned to lose money on specific projects in need of detailed historic preservation studies. The projects Ed helped reads like a New Jersey travel brochure: Atsion, Whitesbog, Long Pond, Paterson, Cooper Mill, Metlar House, Delaware and Raritan Canal, Morris Canal and Liberty Park to name a few. He also explored less well known places, like Route 3, Route 21, Route 7, Fish House Road and the Dundee Canal.

The discovery of New York’s incredible African Cemetery was due to Ed’s detailed search plan. He never got credit, and he did not care. Although he stood to profit if the cemetery dig continued, he was an early and strong advocate for ending the dig and preserving the site. The Plymouth Rock for American Blacks is how Ed put it. A place as important as the Statue of Liberty is how the city’s expert described it. During the course of the project, Ed’s idea that archaeologists should be paid a living wage led to increased wages statewide.

Ed became famous in the early 1970s, when he was able to stop an interstate that would have been bad for what is now the Great Falls landmark. In the late 1990’s Ed was able to return to work again in his beloved Great Falls Historic District in Paterson. Ed claimed he had simply outlived his opponents.

Because of Ed, we have a better understanding of who we are and where we come from. This knowledge strengthens our efforts, not just in historic preservation. Ed has taught us to have the courage of our convictions. Ed has outlived his opponents bigtime.

Ed was always looking for a “clubhouse”, some comfortable place where all his friends and family could get together and celebrate. This will do nicely.

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