Saluda’s most decorated WWII vet became town’s ‘man for all seasons’

Published 3:55 pm Friday, May 28, 2010

As calmer days returned, a battle-seasoned young man came home to Saluda Mountain from the stormy beaches of Normandy to take aim at rebuilding a life too early ravaged by war.
From the moment he stepped from a Trailways bus onto home-town main street, John Earl Rhodes, the most decorated Saluda veteran of World War II, took firm control of a quiet energy that would reflect itself in dedicated devotion to family, friends and work. Waiting patiently, since her husbands call into the Army in September 1942, was Saluda native Ruth Middleton Rhodes. Her own strong constitution would serve over the years to reinforce Johns spirited enterprise and help him reach meaningful heights of success and universal respect.
John never expected that the adjustment back to civilian life would be easy. His strong work ethic, however, kept him in constant demand in those early years. While some jobs were not personally satisfying, John gave them his best and each served to broaden his experience and enhance a growing reputation for personal character and dependable workmanship.
John Rhodes lasting heritage resulted from the formidable challenges he readily undertook working for the Town of Saluda and the exemplary manner in which he consistently met each with quiet reserve. From his early days under Water Commissioner Bob Savage, having to operate without adequate resources, John quickly mastered the art of coddling a makeshift water and sewer system, a scattering of ancient septic tanks, the constant silting of Kelly Lake Saludas early water reservoir with such success that they continued to meet the needs of the people of Saluda.
The most singular qualification John brought to his work was his remarkable ability to comprehend the ancient infrastructure. In the absence of historical records, he struggled to acquire a working knowledge of the maze of lines installed in earlier years without benefit of engineered, professional construction. Some lines were connected to mains without meters and not a few ran haphazardly across adjoining vacant properties.
John had the uncanny ability to form a mental image of the system, which enabled him to identify and isolate a problem before it erupted into a crisis. He made a creditable attempt to map the complex infrastructure but only recently have funds been available to produce a professional profile.
After retirement John was called in periodically by the Town to locate some forgotten part of the infrastructure. Without arrangements for payment, John nevertheless responded promptly to any requests for assistance. Erny Williams, upon his appointment as the current City Administrator, initiated a policy of compensating John for his special knowledge of the older parts of the system. Mr. Williams remarked to me recently,
“It would have been a hunt-and-pick effort at a cost of untold hundreds of dollars to the Town if it were not for John Rhodes willing and invaluable assistance. I might add,” he continued, “that the favorable relationship John established with the City of Hendersonville during his employment has proved to be a great asset to Saluda down through the years.”
As I began to accumulate the recollections of others in the community, a consistent pattern of Johns positive contributions emerged. Further, in my casual chats with a number of old timers, while visiting in their shops, having a cup of coffee in Wards Grill, or frequently joining them on the old wooden benches in front of Thompsons Store, I came to the pleasant realization that John had become a legendary figure.
This perception may well have been due, in particular, to Johns mastery over the beleaguered water and sewer system and the extraordinary efforts he made to keep it functioning.
Former Mayor Cater Leland credits Johns ingenuity and perseverance as the single most critical force in the Towns struggle to provide public facilities in those early years.
“John was a lifesaver when I served on the Board and later as Mayor,” Leland offered. “He just took charge as if the Towns problems were his own and besides working long days and many nights he seemed to have a special knack for getting things done quickly and on the cheap. John could do anything. He was a master plumber, electrician, welder, capable carpenter, and was particularly expert at using discarded parts to make repairs. You could just count on John Rhodes,” Leland added.
After a moment Leland continued, “Heres just one example of his quick thinking and determination to get the job done: We had a hard freeze one night and water lines froze solid. Well, John was already out with his welding equipment before dawn that morning when I caught up with him digging ice off a water meter. He always worked quietly and I just followed his lead. After he attached one electrode to the water meter he sent me inside the house to attach the other to a faucet. When John cranked up his welding machine, in no time atall the line came free of ice. We struck out from there to clear the house lines of the sick and older people first. I stayed with him as long as I could stand it but he continued all day and into the night until the most-needy had water.”
My first encounter with John came in 1981 after only recently moving to Saluda. I had just discovered that a sewer line ran across a lot directly beneath a house I was preparing to build. Coming from a big city I was upset that something this archaic could happen in todays world of excessive regulation. I accosted Mr. Rhodes late that afternoon in front of Town Hall and, without doubt, I was overbearing and fully deserved his much delayed and patient response.
After I had demanded that the line be removed, John slid slowly from his dusty old Water Department truck, squared his sweat-soaked shoulders, leveled on me a pair of disarmingly blue eyes, and in a quiet soft voice said, “Why dont you go back to Baltimore where you come from.”
It was years before I fully appreciated the tremendous stress John endured those days in almost single-handedly assuming the yeoman tasks of maintaining systems, repairing roads, removing storm damage, and the like, without also having to field the unwarranted complaints of uninformed newcomers like myself.
During earlier years, maintenance suffered from inefficient organization and the lack of Town funds. As a result, Purchase Orders for supplies and tools usually required prior approval by the Town Council. In the interim, John would use his own tools to avoid being delayed in critical repair work. Similarly, the lack of funds to maintain vehicles, particularly during the last five years of Johns service, made it necessary that he use his own truck for Town business.
Summing up the views of many of Johns peers, Dr. Morris Russell, who himself stands as a stalwart member of the Saluda Community, told me that there were few things that could draw John from the Towns work, although he readily accepted requests to perform community service. John not only volunteered his work to help others but was the first to use his own money to buy material for the job to be done.
“He enjoyed people and just had a beautiful attitude about life,” Russell added.
Reluctant to talk about his war experiences until I persisted, John quietly dismissed his being wounded at the Normandy landing saying only that, “A corpsman patched me up, patted me on the back, and sent me on.”
For the next five weeks John fought with the Second Division through St. Lo, St. George, and followed Pattons muddy tanks in the mop-up of Brest-Subman, France. His critical wounds came the night before the Battle of the Bulge which sent him to the hospital in Lierge, Belgium, then to a hospital in Paris, and finally to hospital in London, remaining there for three months.
When Morris Russell conducted the dedication of Veterans Park in 2001 he selected John Rhodes to raise the Ceremonial Flag. Over the years, on the death of a Saluda war veteran, it has become tradition that John perform the duty of raising a ceremonial flag to cover the veterans casket.
Today, Johns broad shoulders are a little drawn, and that proud youthful stature slightly bowed. Perhaps a few more deep lines have etched his still calm, thoughtful face, mellowed now, the color of burnt clay.
But as the warm intelligence of clear blue eyes quietly reach out to search your own inquisitive face, the unconquered spirit of that young man who stepped from the bus that long-ago day in November 1945 still shines with monumental brightness.

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