Boesch, a former Navy Seal, was one of the first contestants to ever appear on the long-running reality show, finishing the inaugural season in third place — and quickly becoming a fan favorite due to his lovably cantankerous persona.
“It didn’t take long for Rudy to become my favorite human, not only in the game of Survivor but also in life,” Kelly Wiglesworth tells PEOPLE. Wiglesworth was the runner-up of the first season, and was in an alliance with Boesch.
“We started to get to know each other on that island and with each day, I liked him more, we liked each other more. We would pass each other in the early dawn light every morning, both of us running laps to keep our physicality up,” she says. “He would talk, lovingly about [his wife] Marge and their daughters and how he was doing this for them and that at 72, he wasn’t in this game for himself and that he had nothing to prove.”
Wiglesworth adds, “In a game (and world) where everyone is trying to be something or someone else to get ahead, Rudy wasn’t trying to be anything he wasn’t. He knew who he was and he knew what his strengths and weakness were but he did his best and he was honest. … Having Rudy’s respect means so much to me and I consider it one of the greatest honors of my life. I know him in a way that so few do and I am lucky to have spent that time and gone through that experience with him. I love Rudy like he is my own blood and I’d like to think he feels the same. His memory may be fading but Rudy will NEVER be forgotten!”
Meanwhile, Richard Hatch, the winner of Survivor season 1, tweeted: “Ours was an interesting bond, Dear Rudy! You and I helped open minds and undermine predjudces [sic]. While your time here has passed, you will remain loved and iconic, dear friend!”
Ours was an interesting bond, Dear Rudy! You and I helped open minds and undermine predjudces. While your time here has passed, you will remain loved and iconic, dear friend!— Richard Hatch (@HatchRichard) November 2, 2019
“We lost an original OG @survivorcbs legend,” added Rob Mariano, better known to fans as Boston Rob, who shared that he felt “fortunate to have known him” and played alongside him in Survivor: All Stars.
“Rudy was always very nice to me,” he continued. “Our Sincere condolences to his Family. Rest In Peace Rudy.”
We lost an original OG @survivorcbs legend... Rudy was always very nice to me. I feel fortunate to have known him and played the game of with him #SurvivorAllStars Our Sincere condolences to his Family. Rest In Peace Rudy😢— Boston Rob (@BostonRob) November 2, 2019
I heard the news today about my old roommate RUDY BOESCH passing away. While I'm incredibly sad for the Boesch family, I'm so happy for the time that he and I shared and the many, many laughs we had on our adventure. RIP Rudy pic.twitter.com/XnQpr73uqx— Rob Cesternino 🛎 (@robcesternino) November 2, 2019
Posting a photograph from their time together, Survivor: All Stars contestant Rob Cesternino, who spent weeks with Boesch after they were voted out of the competition, reflected on the “many, many laughs” they shared.
“I heard the news today about my old roommate RUDY BOESCH passing away. While I’m incredibly sad for the Boesch family, I’m so happy for the time that he and I shared and the many, many laughs we had on our adventure. RIP Rudy,” he wrote.
Although Boesch was initially in danger of being voted off the island in 2000, he joined the show’s first alliance and lasted 38 days on the beaches of Borneo, forming an especially close bond with Hatch, who is openly gay.
“Rudy Boesch and I both served our country in the military: he in the Navy, and I in the Army,” Hatch told PEOPLE. “But Rudy also served our country as an example of honesty and open-mindedness by respectfully engaging and aligning with me, an openly homosexual man, to play Survivor on the world stage.”
“I grew to love that cantankerous man and his family,” Hatch continued. “We are better people for having known him, and he will be sorely missed. I wish his family peace in their grieving his loss.”
Due to his popularity, Boesch got a chance to return for the show’s eighth season, Survivor: All Stars, where he became the second contestant to be voted off the island.
Cesternino has also praised Boesch for his “brutal honesty” and “razor-sharp wit.”
“Rudy was my roommate for weeks on our trip to Argentina,” Cesternino told PEOPLE. “I would hang on his every word because he was would tell and re-tell all these amazing stories with his unique combination of brutal honesty and a razor-sharp wit. I’ve never met anybody who could ever make me laugh as much as Rudy.”
Survivor: Australia winner Tina Wesson was also on a tribe with Boesch on Survivor: All Stars — and was amazed at the then-75-year-old’s stamina.
“What you saw on TV is exactly the man he was,” Wesson told PEOPLE. “He was tough as nails suffering from a bad case of gout on Survivor All-Stars but never really complaining about it, though his foot looked like it may fall off!”
“He has always had the respect of every young whippersnapper who came out to play Survivor. Because none of us could do what he did at his age!” Wesson added.
Boesch enlisted in the United States Navy at the end of World War II in 1945. He was chosen as one of the first Navy SEALS in 1962. He completed two combat deployments during the Vietnam War, earning the Bronze Star for heroic action. He retired from the Navy in 1990 after 45 years of continuous service.
Boesch married Marjorie Thomas in 1955, and they had three children. They remained married for 53 years, until her death in 2008. Funeral arrangements for Boesch have not yet been announced.