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Rusty Page never met a person — or a microphone — he didn’t like.

It could be a waiter or a Wall Street analyst, a crowded stage or an empty radio booth: Page could turn any stranger into a friend, and any moment into a performance, his friends and family say.

The disc jockey turned bank executive was best known in the business community for his work as head of investor relations at Bank of America predecessors North Carolina National Bank and NationsBank, working side-by-side with then-CEO Hugh McColl. Page was also a born-and-bred Charlottean who loved Carolina barbecue, Carolina beach music and seemed to know everyone in the city.

Russell J. “Rusty” Page was born on Dec. 3, 1942, in Charlotte to Robert C. Page Jr. and Sara Mullis Page. He graduated from Myers Park High School and attended the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. He served in both the Army National Guard and the Air National Guard for over 8 years.

Page passed away last Friday, Sept. 24, from complications related to chronic heart disease. He was 78.

‘In the cockpit of the plane’

Page had a winding path to his role at NationsBank, including gigs as a radio DJ, a sports director at a local television channel and a beach band drummer.

After his military service and broadcast days, he founded Russell Page & Associates, a marketing and advertising firm, in 1968. That led to a job handling advertising and communications at PCA International, and an eventual role at North Carolina National Bank.

He wasn’t a banker by trade and didn’t even have a college degree. But what he lacked in formal training, he made up for in charm and an ability to learn on the fly and — occasionally — make things up as he went along.

“It was a cast of characters (at the bank back then),” said John Cleghorn, who worked on the corporate communications team at the time. “And he was probably the biggest character of them all.”

Aside from McColl, Page was the bank’s chief communicator with Wall Street, Cleghorn said, telling the fast-growing bank’s story as the industry was just beginning to understand what it would become.

“It was a really heavy time. Interstate banking was really just getting going… after that, almost every year we were doubling in size,” he said. “Rusty was in the cockpit of the plane.”

McColl’s vision was always to “build a company that mattered,” Cleghorn said, and he needed people like Page to do it. Page was fiercely loyal to his boss and the bank. He approached his role with “incredible flair” and enjoyed it with gusto, Cleghorn said.

Each holiday season, he’d retreat to his radio roots, passing out cassette tapes filled with a string of his favorite hit songs from the previous year. In between the songs, he’d record his own introductions and commentary.

Those cassettes were “kind of coveted” at the bank, Cleghorn said. “They were hilarious. It was like he was back on the radio.” ”He would give them out to all these sophisticated New York stock analysts,” he said. “I’m sure they had no idea what to do with this guy.”

Good at winging it

Page became an instrumental part of NCNB’s growth, working closely with McColl to communicate with current and potential investors. The two traveled together often.

“We got to where we could pretty much tell what the other was thinking,” McColl told the Observer.

Like any pair working long hours on the road, they sometimes got on each other’s nerves. On one trip, Page and McColl were visiting Japan to raise capital for a new investment.

After one particularly long day, the pair stopped into a karaoke bar for a drink. As they sat, Page started singing along to the music and McColl, tired and nursing a headache, snapped at him to shut up.

Page didn’t speak to him for the rest of the night. The next morning, McColl got up early and tracked down the McDonald’s in downtown Tokyo. He bought double cheeseburgers, apple pies, french fries — “everything you could think of” — and brought it back for breakfast, his own version of an olive branch.

“He forgave me for being rude to him the night before,” McColl said, laughing.

Anderson Page marvels at how his father, with no formal training, ended up working so closely with Charlotte’s leading business titan. They must have been an unusual pair — the white-collar executive and former DJ — but Rusty somehow found a way to keep up.

And when all else failed, Page was “very good at winging it,” McColl said.

He was a great baseball player and an excellent dancer, he added. If anybody had a good time in his life, it was Rusty.

“He lived his life wide open,” he said. “Rusty was a fun person: fun to be around, fun to know. He lived life to the fullest. We will miss him.”

‘Something of a local celebrity’

After his work at the bank, Page worked for Nasdaq as a senior managing director for five years, according to his LinkedIn profile.

He retired to the mountains near Linville in his early 60s, but came back to Charlotte in 2011. “I’m done up here. I want to be among friends,” he told the Charlotte Business Journal about the move.

At age 73, he returned to banking with a role at Paragon Bank, the CBJ reported.

Always eager to employ his radio talents, he was a frequent MC for community events. He also served as a guest conductor for the Charlotte Symphony, and wrote a two-act, one-man play called “Winston” based on British politician Winston Churchill, in which he played the starring role.

He became “something of a local celebrity”, as an Observer reporter put it in 2003. To get lunch with Rusty was to have a constant stream of people come up to the table, said friend and former Observer business editor Ken Gepfert.

Anderson Page remembers even a stop at the gas station could yield a new friend and a 30-minute conversation at the pump while he and his siblings rolled their eyes and waited in the backseat.

He maintained his upbeat attitude even through great personal tragedy. When his oldest son Christopher died in 1993 in an auto accident when he was just 23 years old, it changed Rusty forever, Anderson said.

From that moment on, his dad was more forthright, more thoughtful. He dropped the veil of fatherly stoicism and spoke frankly with his children about his emotions.

As he aged, he struggled with his health and his weight. He discussed it candidly in the pages of the Observer, where he was frequently featured.

In one interview, he told a reporter he was working on a book. The title: “Even a Fat Man Can Get Spread too Thin.”

In the same 2006 article, he talked about having a new lease on life after stomach reduction surgery. He still had a host of other health problems: a bad knee, a ruptured disc, a couple brushes with skin cancer. Page waved it all off.

“If I felt any better, I’d be triplets,” he told the paper.

Whatever Page did, he flung himself at it wholeheartedly, his son said. He was dynamic. Open. Fearless.

“He defined the term larger than life, more than anyone I’ve known,” Gepfert said. “It’s a big, big loss for Charlotte.”

Page’s family has asked that in lieu of flowers, memorials can be made to The Nature Conservancy North Carolina chapter or The Joe Martin ALS Foundation.

©2021 The Charlotte Observer.

Visit charlotteobserver.com.

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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