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A life of exploring ends close to home

Even as a young man, he looked like an academic, with serious blue eyes and a wooden pipe dangling from his lips.

A graduate of St. Petersburg High School, Dennison "Denny" Rusinow attended Oxford University on a Rhodes Scholarship and became one of the world's experts on Yugoslavia. He was fluent in five languages and interviewed leaders across Eastern Europe before taking a teaching position at the University of Pittsburgh in 1988.

His deep, soothing voice could be heard on National Public Radio's All Things Considered, and a 1977 book he published is still considered a seminal text on Yugoslavia's history.

On Tuesday, Rusinow's life of scholarship, travel and adventure ended as he crossed a St. Petersburg street, heading toward a Publix shopping center.

He was carrying a copy of The Economist, a blue Oxford day planner and a new package of printer paper when he was struck by a white pickup truck on 38th Avenue N. Rusinow, a husband and father of two who lived on Snell Isle, died at 5:33 p.m. at Bayfront Medical Center. He was 73.

"Everybody liked him," said Harold Sims, a retired University of Pittsburgh history professor who lives in North Redington Beach. "He was very knowledgeable, and right up until the day he died was working on various academic projects."

The telephone rang continuously at the Rusinows' home on Wednesday, with calls coming from Japan, Belgrade, Serbia and South Africa.

Tears filled the eyes of his wife, Mary, as she spoke softly to friends and paused to pet their dog, a Sheltie named Angus.

Mary Rusinow spent most of the morning inside the sun room, which was Rusinow's favorite, his pipe sitting in an ashtray beside his favorite chair.

"Academics never retire," Mary Rusinow said. "He was always sitting in here, reading."

Rusinow grew up in St. Petersburg, the son of Mrs. Eulalie Rusinow, a single mother who worked as the executive director of the city's YWCA. He was a journalist from an early age, printing his own newspaper when he was in the sixth grade.

He graduated in 1948 from St. Petersburg High School, where he was editor of the newspaper and salutatorian of his class.

He attended Duke University on scholarship, studied history and philosophy and graduated first in his class in 1952. He was a member of Phi Beta Kappa, acted with the student theater group and edited the school newspaper.

"He was so very intelligent," said his roommate and fraternity brother, retired U.S. Magistrate Judge Paul Game, who lives in Tampa and roomed with Rusinow for two years at Duke. "But he would not make any attempt to impress you with his intelligence."

Rusinow had a remarkable mind, remembering everything he read, said A.C. "Toby" Krayer Jr., a retired St. Petersburg banker who was Rusinow's freshman roommate at Duke.

Krayer recalled sitting down one evening to study for a political science exam, staring at three large books he needed to read.

"I don't know where to start," he told Rusinow.

"When's the exam?" Rusinow replied.

"Tomorrow," Krayer said.

Rusinow took him to a small room, reviewed the books and looked at his roommate. "Now, take some notes," he began.

Krayer was grateful.

"He really liked people, and related well, which I think is unusual for someone with that intellect," Krayer said. "He was extremely interesting to talk to, and could talk about anything."

For fun, friends would take out an encyclopedia of history and ask Rusinow to tell them what had occurred on that date.

"Denny always knew the answer," Game said.

Rusinow's selection as a Rhodes Scholar was the focus of a 1952 Times story:

"Rusinow is a slender youth with sandy hair and blue eyes. His manner is quiet and studious but he has a gift of witty repartee and can more than hold his own in any give-and-take conversation."

He left Oxford and served as an intelligence officer with the Navy, then returned to pursue his doctorate.

At Oxford, he met Mary Worthington, a native of Warwick, England who was working for one of Rusinow's professors. They fell in love and married in 1965 in England. Worthington wore a princess-style dress of gold silk and a short gold net veil, and carried a bouquet of orchids.

The couple lived in Yugoslavia during the 1960s and 1970s, and then in Vienna for 15 years. During that time, Rusinow worked as an associate for the American Universities Field Staff, sending dispatches to scholars detailing what was happening overseas.

His wife, Mary, worked for the United Nations, taught English and collected primitive Yugoslavian paintings.

Rusinow also held several teaching positions, including an adjunct professorship of history at Dartmouth College, and lecturer on Balkan and Italian studies in Rome. His specialty was ethnic nationalism in Yugoslavia, and he was an expert on Marshal Josip Broz Tito's regime. He attended the dictator's funeral in 1980.

Rusinow was an "academic's academic," friends said, serious, well-read and engaging, but never stuffy. At gatherings, he usually asked for a glass of Pinot Grigio, and would venture outside to smoke his pipe.

He smoked the pipe while working on a Royal portable typewriter and later his computer, saying he could not write if his pipe wasn't glowing.

In 1988, Rusinow, author of five books, was asked to teach at the University Center for International Studies at the University of Pittsburgh.

"He was a brilliant researcher and a very compassionate teacher," said his former colleague, Pittsburgh professor Bob Donnorummo. "He was very willing to drop everything to try and solve a student's problem."

Rusinow's book, The Yugoslav Experiment, 1948-1974, was published in 1977 and is still considered a standard text on Yugoslavia's history, Donnorummo said.

His office at the University of Pittsburgh was book-lined, to be sure, but also very human, Donnorummo said, with pictures of European peasants on the walls.

"It made you feel as if he was trying to investigate the deepest meaning of people's lives," Donnorummo said. "There was a sense that here's a man with a lot of books, but also a soul and a heart."

Rusinow retired from the university in 2000. He spent some time with his two daughters, Alison Rusinow, who lives with her husband in Mongolia, and Tamara Rusinow, who lives with her husband in Nigeria.

The Rusinows recently returned from a trip to Wales, where they met their newest grandson and fourth grandchild, who will carry Rusinow's last name.

"That was important to him," said his wife, Mary.

She will miss their mornings together, drinking espresso and eating grapefruit while Rusinow lingered over the newspaper. Rusinow's friends also will miss him.

"His friendship was a rare treasure," Donnorummo said. "I'm just so happy that I had the privilege of knowing him."

Police continue investigating the crash that killed Rusinow. The driver of the pickup truck, 73-year-old Clifton White of St. Petersburg has been questioned. No charges have been filed.

_ Jamie Jones can be reached at (727) 893-8455. Send e-mail to jjonessptimes.com.

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