When you meet a creative person who uses the right side of their brain, chances are they have lived an interesting life. Rusty Criminger is no exception. To say that he is a “jack of all trades and master of none” - would not be fitting. Anything Rusty put his mind to doing, he did well.
Russell and Martha Criminger brought their son Rusty and his three younger siblings to Chattanooga when he was a young boy. Baseball was a favorite pastime of Rusty’s and he had visions of being a professional ball player, admiring the likes of Mickey Mantle and Ted Williams.
“It wasn’t the organized baseball that we have now - we had Joe Engel’s ‘Knot-hole Gang’, so we played knot-hole baseball. We didn’t have uniforms, but we had a cap,” Rusty says.
“Joe Engel was an early owner of the Chattanooga Lookouts. He was hugely known in minor league baseball. Joe was one of the founders of the Southern Association and decided to create a boys organization called Joe Engel’s Knot-hole Gang,” Rusty conveys.
It was tradition in baseball cities for boys to look through a knot-hole in a fence to watch a game if they couldn’t get in. Joe Engel wanted boys to be able to come to the baseball games.
“I went to several games as a kid; it was a big part of growing up. I will never forgive my mother for somehow losing my autographed picture of Harmon Killebrew as a Lookout!” Rusty laughs. “He was a Hall of fame baseball player who played major league for the Twins, but he started out on the Lookouts.”
While attending college at UC (now UTC) Rusty took a part time job with WTCI News Channel 9 answering the phones. Channel 9’s offices were in the old Patten Hotel in downtown Chattanooga and the studio and transmitter was on Signal Mountain. "We had the Bob Brandy show, so moms and their kids would show up to be on the show,” Rusty explains.
“I had to keep order when the kids went into the studio and I made sure to give the moms Cokes,” Rusty remembers. “I did that for six months and there was an opportunity to be a cameraman. I started working the camera on the Bob Brandy show and the six o’ clock news and, on Saturday mornings we had The Mull Singing Convention. I did that all through school.”
After college, Rusty married Sherry. He eventually started directing and producing the shows and was offered a job with WSM in Nashville.
“In those days, WSM was a very important station in America. They were owned by National Life Insurance Company, who owned the Grand Ole Opry. People all over the world could listen,” Rusty says.
On the Monday he had started work at WSM as a director, a tragedy had taken place over the weekend when a plane crashed and killed a country star.
“I walked in there and the place was just in shock. The whole country music business was in shock. I didn’t think I liked country music back then, because I liked folk music, such as Joan Baez, Peter Paul & Mary… and I had learned how to play folk music on my $10 guitar,” Rusty admits.
With a wide range of interest in music, art and anything creative, nothing stopped Rusty from trying his hand at something that he thought he could do.
“Here I was right in the middle of the country music business during what I consider the classic years of country music. In those days, Johnny Cash was just getting started. The stars were the Opry stars, like Marty Robbins, Roy Acuff and Ernest Tubb. We did two country music shows live out of the studio – one was the Ralph Emery Show and the other was the Bobby Lord Show. Ralph Emery did an all-night radio show and his partner was Tex Ritter known as ‘America’s favorite cowboy’,” Rusty recalls.
“Ralph and Tex did the all-night radio show and then Ralph would come down in the mornings and do the television morning show. He had several guest and, you wouldn’t believe the number of stars who made their real first appearance on those shows. One afternoon during the Bobby Lord show… we had one guest who - everybody thought was a good guitar picker, but would never make it as a singer… it was Glenn Campbell. Kris Kristofferson used to come around to hang around the studio, hoping that one of the scheduled guests wouldn’t show up and he would get to play,” Rusty marvels.
“One morning on Ralph’s show… there was a singer (who had maybe one hit) named Bill Phillips. He had a great song – ‘put it off until tomorrow… you’ve hurt me enough today…’” Rusty sings with a smooth voice. “He had a female partner come in and sing with him …her name was Dolly Parton - no one had ever seen her before. That one appearance turned country music upside down!” Rusty professes.
“And Porter Wagoner …they all had their ‘girl singer’ and Porter’s girl singer was pretty Ms. Norma Jean… until Ms. Dolly showed up! The Wilburn Brothers’ girl singer was Loretta Lynn. We shot those shows every week,” Rusty states.
He stayed with WSM for about six years. Rusty was only on the production side for about two years when the general manager went to a National Association of Broadcasters meeting in Los Angeles and came back with an offer.
His boss had spent time with the people of KABC and had discussed a concept they came up with.
In the 60s, television was still a young industry. The car dealers, grocery stores, and furniture stores did not advertise on television. They told Rusty that they wanted to have ‘creative services’ for advertisers and they wanted him to do it.
“They said, ‘We know you are creative … but can you write?’ I said yes, and they asked, ‘Do you own a suit?’ I told them yes. They said, ‘Wear it Monday morning and report here for your new job,’ and I was director of creative services,” Rusty says.
He seemed to meet any challenge that came his way as long as he found it interesting. There was not a lot that Rusty didn’t find interesting.
After the six years with WSM, Rusty was offered a job with Erskin Bonds Advertising as a creative director. “I had always been able to draw or do anything creative. It was a perfect fit for me to do the things I loved to do,” Rusty says.
A few years ago, he ran into Leon Webb, who was the former operations manager at Channel 9.
“He had given me my first job and I had told him when I ran into him, ‘You know, that insignificant thing you did back in 1962 had set the course for my entire life.’ He was the most influential person in my life. I knew instantly that I liked him,” Rusty noted.
Years in marketing, advertising and consulting and also starting successful new companies was something Rusty enjoyed as he helped (or outrivaled) struggling companies throughout the years.
“My wife had been yearning to raise our two-year-old son around family, so we moved back to Chattanooga. Fred Gault and I started Criminger and Gault Public Relations. Then we decided to go our own ways – our interests went in different directions."
Rusty then spent more marketing time in real estate. He developed all the marketing for Heritage Landing in the 80s. “I ran the marketing for them for the next 15 years,” Rusty says.
In the mid-80s he had formed his own company Criminger & Company which he still has.
After a high school friend had approached Rusty for help with a non-profit organization needing to raise money for Hamilton County Schools, Rusty came up with a program called, “Kids First” and created coupon books.
“In a three-week campaign that first year, we raised $400,000. Our total cost was a dollar per book and they sold for ten, so they took in nine dollars for Hamilton County Schools. I took the same concept and sold it to several other school systems and then I called a guy in Nashville who I had worked with at Channel 9 and I told him we needed to get together,” Rusty says.
They met for lunch and Rusty pitched an idea telling his friend that he would put a similar program together for his television station where they would offer the coupon books to all the school districts using the television staff to solicit funds from businesses and retailers.
“We raised 375,000.00 and I syndicated that same concept in other markets around the country such as Baltimore, Philly, Miami, Houston, El Paso, Santa Barbara, Portland …you name it - 34 markets,” Rusty maintains.
A talented artist, Rusty had tried to sell some of his work in Decatur at a 4th of July show. “It was so boring just sitting there and no one really paid any attention. So I decided to do caricatures. We had been to Gatlinburg and I had seen caricature artists and I said, ‘I can do this…’ so I bought a little board, a pad of papers, pastels, charcoal and set up down there. Here comes this lady with a six-year-old boy. I thought I would be drawing mostly men and women and she wants a six-year-old kid,” Rusty laughs.
“So I did a sketch and within 30 minutes, I had moms and kids lined up as far as you could see. For the next two summers every weekend, we would be at an outdoor show and I would do it. I made more money selling that than I ever did art,” Rusty says.
As he continued with his business endeavors, Rusty was the go-to man for marketing real estate. He had built a reputation for himself and was successful and had made other business owners successful.
At 68 years old and with no plans to retire soon, Rusty is now working on an adult community rental project.
“People 65 and over see their 401k go down the drain… they have a need to have smaller more manageable-sized home with amenities. It’s a condo lifestyle, but with a 12-month lease. It will be a wellness-based community with a fitness center – not just a room with a treadmill. It will have personal trainers, an on-site nurse practitioner, wellness coach, and educational programs such as learning healthier cooking,” Rusty affirms.
“The biggest obstacle that keeps people from living a healthy lifestyle is that it is inconvenient, but this will be a whole community of support. With a healthier lifestyle you will live longer and I want to live my life until it’s done – just to know that I have made a difference,” Rusty says. “For everything there is a season.”