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Art Gust: Still jazzed over music and people

Still jazzed over music and people by Lara Jo Hightower | April 25, 2021 at 1:00 a.m.

One of life's most existential questions is, "How will we be judged after we're gone?" After all, "success" as an end-of-life metric can be measured in myriad ways: Did you own or support a successful business? Did your presence on Earth make others' lives richer? Did you share your hard-earned wisdom for the benefit of the community? Northwest Arkansas' Art Gust can check the boxes on all three of those qualifiers. Not in a loud, showy way; how boring would it be if that's the way we all left our mark? Instead, he spent three-plus decades managing thousands of employees in a fast-paced industry; took what he learned there into a college classroom, where he guided thousands of others along the path to success; made nearly a half-dozen mission trips with his church; and, on the side, maintained a decades-long hobby of DJing radio programs about jazz, many times as a volunteer.

"He just loves people," says Gust's niece, Sandy Spence, when asked to sum up her uncle. "And they know he loves them. He's just really good with people."

"He wasn't just about, 'Here's your grade, go,'" says Mike Uzoma, who studied under Gust at Lon Morris College in Texas. "He truly cared about his students. He had this thing he did at the end of every school term: He would invite all of the international students to his house. His wife would cook and have snacks and food and drinks for us. We would take pictures, and he would tell us stories. He was an all-around great guy."

"Of course, when you're really passionate about something you want to share it," says Moshe Newmark, who works with Gust at community radio station KPSQ.

School struggles

Born in St. Louis, Gust's family moved out of the city when he was still a toddler to live in the suburb of Afton, Mo. Gust's father worked for the same shoe company for 49 years, while his mother was a homemaker. Gust says he has no memory of music being a particular emphasis in his raising, yet he became infatuated with jazz early on, which became a lifelong passion.

"While all the other kids were into Eddie Fisher and the Hilltoppers, my buddies and I got into jazz, which we thought was pretty cool -- still do," he says. "I love it. When it's slow, it's wonderful. And when it's got a lot of rhythm to it, when it's fast, it's wonderful also. It's just so intricate."

Meanwhile, one of his two sisters -- Gust was the baby of the family -- would become an opera singer.

"Supposedly, the story goes, they were in class, singing in grade school like they do," he remembers. "And then the teacher says, 'No, we have to stop. I hear a little bell.' And she went around until she heard my sister and that sort of got her on her career. She went to Blackburn College and studied voice, got a scholarship to Juilliard, and she got her master's in Italian opera from the St. Louis Institute of Music."

Gust was an obviously bright child, but he struggled in school -- the result, he says, of a bad teacher early on. He might not have made good grades or showed facility at testing, but he clearly demonstrated his intellect in other ways. Because he struggled so much, he was regularly tutored, requiring him, as an elementary school student, to take the bus by himself across town to meet with his tutor. One time, he got sick on that bus, and the driver threw him off. An ill and scared little boy, Gust still found his way home on his own.

"I was all the way across town, and I didn't know anything about the town -- the only thing I knew was the bus route," he says. "I got home, but I had to follow the bus routes all the way there -- it took me a long time to get home, because the bus routes go all around to pick people up. They don't take a direct route."

When he finally got home, hours later, dinner had already been eaten and put away.

"Life was different then," he says with a laugh. "If you were lost, you came home, eventually."

Gust had found his academic footing by high school and was starting to think beyond graduation. A beloved uncle was a chemist, so Gust decided that was the field for him. He was just a high school student when he started working in laboratories during his summer vacations.

"I was washing test tubes and cleaning the equipment, but it was fascinating," he says. "I've always been a pretty inquisitive person, and now I was around all of these chemists all the time, asking them questions. I was making 85 cents an hour in the lab, and my buddy was making a buck forty-five bagging groceries, belonging to a union, and I was really tempted and wanted to change. But my dad convinced me that in the future I would be a lot better off if I stayed. That was a good sales pitch. Eighty-five cents was still quite a bit of money."

Military education

Graduation came in 1955, followed by a couple of years of college. But his difficulties in fitting into a rote academic pattern resurfaced, and he left school, deciding, instead, to start a career.

But he hit a snag in the first job he was offered.

"[The hiring manager said,] 'I'm looking through your records, and I don't see your service,'" says Gust. "I said, 'I don't have any service,' and he said 'Well, I'm sorry, we have rules. Before I can get you as a management trainee, you have to have your military experience, because we can't afford you to leave,' because of the draft, see."

So in 1958, Gust joined the Air Force, where he found a role as a flight control technician on the TM-76A Mace missile. For four of the eight years he served, he was stationed at a missile launch site in Germany, giving him a front-row seat to some tumultuous years in United States' foreign policy.

"In Germany, we faced Kennedy getting killed, the Cuban Missile Crisis," he says. "We had alerts all the time: NATO alerts, base alerts. We had a situation -- I guess guys that have been to Vietnam would laugh at this statement -- but they told us up front that, because a MiG could get from East Germany to our base, our war plan stopped in 15 minutes because they knew we would all be killed. Someone asked me, 'How come you drank so much in Germany?' and I said, 'We only had 15 minutes to live! We never knew what minute that would start, so why shouldn't you go to a club and have a good time?'"

"There were a lot of pretty wild things that went on in Germany," he continues. "It was certainly a better duty than Vietnam, but there's still a lot of mental anguish that can happen to you, if you let it bother you. We got word that Kennedy was shot around 7, 8 o'clock at night in Germany. And we were told that Johnson, Kennedy and Connally had all gotten killed. That was the first word that came out. So we went on full alert. They ran the Germans home, and we took over everything because we thought it might have been a conspiracy. And then Kruschev told us to get out of Berlin one time, and that was really something. We had fighter planes sitting right at the end of the runway with pilots in the cockpit, canopy pulled down, power unit sitting there running, ready for them to leave in seconds. But you know, when you're in the military, those things happen. I think we accepted that."

In his last two years in the service, Gust returned to the base at which he had trained in Orlando, Fla., and taught classes on what he had learned over in Germany. It was his first experience teaching, and he discovered he loved it -- and he was quite good at it. At the same time, he had returned to college, taking classes at Rollins College in Winter Park, Fla., and college hit him differently this time; he excelled. He soon found employment within the orange juice can industry -- it was Orlando, after all -- and began to rise in the ranks of management. He was creative and had a knack for developing new products and methods that increased efficiency and saved money, like developing a new heat seal to seal the cans, inventing a new type of can to hold non-carbonated drinks and conceptualizing a way to use incinerator heat more efficiently. This made him valuable within the industry, and he proved himself invaluable in a number of areas such as research and development, project management and quality assurance. As he moved up the ladder in the industry, he found himself in his old stomping grounds of St. Louis, where he started, teaching night school at St. Louis Community College.

"I taught Business Organization and Management, and my class started at 9 a.m. and went until noon," he says. "I got up and told them everything I knew about management, from all of my years of experience. And I looked at the clock, and I had two hours and 45 minutes to go. I dismissed the class, and I said that I would never go into class until I had at least three hours of material on the top of my head, that I could say without notes -- I would always have something that I could just start talking about. And to tell you the truth, it came in handy a lot of times later on."

After that first disastrous class, he learned fast, and when it came time for his first evaluation, he was surprised when his evaluator stayed for the entire class instead of leaving after 15 minutes, as he was warned he might do.

"I went in to talk to him, and I said, 'I'm getting bad vibes about this thing,'" he remembers. "I said, 'Is there something you don't like about what I do?' and he said, 'No, I've been teaching this for 10 or 20 years, and you were teaching on management by objective. I never did know how that stuff worked. That was interesting.'"

Classroom calling

Teaching was not only something at which Gust was clearly talented, it was also a position that truly seemed to bring him great joy and satisfaction. His "day career" took him from Florida to Missouri to Arkansas to Texas -- and in each of those locations, he found a college that could use a night school teacher with a whole lot of real-world experience.

"We had a lot of international students [at Lon Morris College in Texas]," says Uzoma. "There were a lot of students that came from countries where English is not their first language. He took great care to made sure each and every one of his students understood the concepts, and he made everybody feel welcome. He treated everybody the same, regardless of your creed, regardless of your religion, there was no iota of discrimination in him. He made each and every one of his students feel at home. He was indeed a phenomenal teacher.

"He was one of those teachers that also brought real life experience into the classroom. He would bring into the classroom some scenarios, things he did when he was managing people, to help drive home the point that he was trying to make in a particular lecture."

Uzoma graduated over a decade ago. He's now teaching part time, and he says a lot of what Gust taught him as a teacher ends up in his own classroom. The two talk on a fairly regular basis, even after 10 years, and Uzoma says Gust frequently advises him on his career.

"How many teachers have kept in contact with their students after 10 years?" asks Spence. "He and his students, they become friends. It goes beyond just a student-teacher relationship."

Gust loved teaching so much that, when he was offered a full time job at Lon Morris College, he decided to take it -- despite the steep pay cut it represented.

"[The president of Lon Morris College] told me what they paid, and I told him what I made; we had a good laugh," remembers Gust. "And I went home and told my wife, after a couple of days, 'You know, I like teaching. No one's ever going to do this again, come and say, "Hey, we'd like you to take over our business department."' And so we took a chance, and I accepted the job. And then I went out to my other job to quit. And they said, 'Where are you going? DuPont? Fuji?' and I said, 'No, I'm going down to Lon Morris College to teach.' They said, 'That couldn't take more than 15 hours a week . We're not going to let you quit.' Before I left, they had hired me back as a consultant. I ended up doing that for about seven more years. It turned out to be a good deal for both of us. I always thought working made me a better teacher, and teaching made me a better worker."

Lon Morris College would be his last teaching position: The school, the oldest two-year college in Texas, went bankrupt in 2012, so Gust retired. Eventually, he and wife Barbara -- Gust's first wife, Pam, died of COPD -- moved to Fayetteville, because their children, six grandchildren and three great-grandchildren lived in the area. Retirement did not mean that he let go of his love for jazz and his joy in sharing it: Until the pandemic broke out, Gust had a jazz-themed radio show called "Jazz with Gusto" at KPSQ, Northwest Arkansas' community radio station -- which was in addition to the jazz-themed show he does for Butterfield Trail Village's YouTube channel.

All about jazz

"He is a treasure," says Newmark. "He is such a great personality. He's got a lot of wonderful air presence. And he is an encyclopedia about big band and jazz, from the '40s and '50s. I mean, that's really his specialty. A lot of what he puts on the air is stuff that he actually recorded, he was actually at these venues, just happened with his eight millimeter camera actually, which recorded the audio, and amazingly enough, it is really good quality for what it was. He was very excited when he found out about community radio because he was looking for a place where he could share all of his talent. And he actually donated, I think, over 1,000 recorded tracks of old radio dramas that he purchased from someone who had this amazing collection of radio shows."

Gust's radio shows can be found in the archives of KPSQ. They last just around two hours, and Gust's warm, raspy voice is a joy to listen to. His preternatural recall of arcane facts is on full display as he effortlessly whips out stories about the music and musicians he's playing.

"He is so personable," says Newmark. "It's like you're having a conversation with a really good friend, who, by the way, is also very knowledgeable. For a radio host, he has a wonderful radio presence that makes you feel very comfortable, and you just want to keep listening."

Gust has had to curtail his DJing for now, due to the pandemic, but hopes to get back to it soon. Meanwhile, he and his wife are enjoying life at Butterfield Trail Village, as well as the proximity to family. And when Gust looks back on his life -- with many years yet to go -- he should be able to see that it has been successful on any count, according to those who know him.

"He has added a lot of value to my life, because I do value friendship," says Newmark. "When you get older in life, you don't make many friends -- you usually make friends when you're younger. And hopefully, those friends stick with you, or you stay in touch with them. I value his friendship a lot. "

Art Gust is a veteran of the armed services, a long-time jazz DJ and was CEO of a manufacturing company with 2,000 employees.  (NWA Democrat-Gazette/J.T. Wampler)
Art Gust is a veteran of the armed services, a long-time jazz DJ and was CEO of a manufacturing company with 2,000 employees. (NWA Democrat-Gazette/J.T. Wampler)
Art Gust is a veteran of the armed services, a long-time jazz DJ and was CEO of a manufacturing company with 2,000 employees.  (NWA Democrat-Gazette/J.T. Wampler)
Art Gust is a veteran of the armed services, a long-time jazz DJ and was CEO of a manufacturing company with 2,000 employees. (NWA Democrat-Gazette/J.T. Wampler)
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Self Portrait

Art Gust

My favorite jazz performers are Eddie Condon, Benny Goodman, Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald and Count Basie.

My favorite era of jazz music is the swing era, 1935-1948.

When jazz novices ask me for advice on what to listen to in order to get to know the genre, I usually recommend KPSQ 97.3 FM “Jazz With Gusto” — my show has a lot of interesting jazz music.

I know I’ve helped someone when I receive a laugh or a smile.

Few people know I have collected jazz records since I was 14.

If I’ve learned one thing in life, it’s eat whatever you want for breakfast.

The modern convenience I could do without is a 8-track player.

Take anything, but don’t take my love of humor.

The person who had the most impact on my life was my sociology professor, Dr. Esther Strong, Rollins College.

My most humbling experience was getting on an elevator with the University of North Carolina basketball team.

At any given time I would rather be having a great conversation with someone.

My greatest strength is in every situation I try to say “please Lord, make me truly thankful.”

A really good piece of advice I received was watching Art Linkletter’s show “Kids Say The Darndest Thing” and seeing, when given a choice, the child take a shiny dime over a wrinkled up dollar bill.


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