December 5, 2021

Family, friends mourn former professor

Robert Rhodes leans in to chat with Dr. Edward Cummins during a 2008 protest against the conflict in Iraq in front of the post office in Cortland. Rhodes died Saturday at 89.

Joe McIntyre/staff photographer

Robert Rhodes leans in to chat with Dr. Edward Cummins during a 2008 protest against the conflict in Iraq in front of the post office in Cortland. Rhodes died Saturday at 89.

Every time Robert Rhodes drove by the house he grew up in on Wadsworth Street in Cortland, he would stop in front of it and enjoy the memories of his time there.

“He took great pleasure in remembering his roots,” Rhodes’ wife, Norma Rhodes said Thursday.

Rhodes, 89, died Saturday after a long battle with heart disease. But his stories of his roots continue with his family, friends and colleagues.

Calling hours for Rhodes are from 4 to 7 p.m. today at Riccardi Funeral Home Chapel, at 69 N. Main St. Then at 1:30 p.m. Saturday, a celebration of Rhodes’ life will be held at Port Watson Mini Conference Center at 131 Port Watson St.

He was a professor at SUNY Cortland, teaching English from 1958 to 1988, retiring as professor emeritus of Anglo-Irish literature.

Retirement did not keep him away from the school, though. He kept an office on campus and would teach a class every so often, or give a guest lecture.

“He was in that office every day,” said Karla Alwes, acolleague of Rhodes and distinguished professor in the English department. “It is strange not seeing him in the hallway because he was always there.”

Alwes began working at SUNY Cortland in 1988, after just finishing graduate school, and Rhodes became her mentor.

“He was kind and gentle,” she said. “He was very gracious. Always gracious to his students. They were his friends. You can’t fake that.”

No matter the class, or topic, students listened to him because he was so knowledgeable. They would “be wrapped in to listening to him,” Alwes said.

Rhodes’ dedication to teaching earned him the SUNY Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Teaching designation as a SUNY Faculty Exchange Scholar and as a SUNY Cortland Distinguished Alumnus. His friends and former students also endowed the annual Robert Rhodes ’53 Scholarship, which provides a junior or senior English major $1,000 over two semesters.

No matter what Rhodes was working on, or a part of, hetook it seriously, Alwes said. Every year he would research the most popular and unique local baby name and write a story about it for the Cortland Standard, which Alwes said she will miss reading.

He was also passionate about protesting war and advocating for peace. Alwes said he would stand at Main and Tompkins streets every Saturday with a group of people, holding protest signs.

In 1945, when Rhodes was 17, he persuaded a draft board in Tucson, Arizona — where he traveled after growing up in Cortland –– to allow him to join the draft and requested immediate induction. He served in the Philippines, before an honorable discharge in 1946.

Afterward, he traveled the country, eventually entering SUNY Cortland as a freshman in 1950.

After graduating, he married Norma Rhodes. During their 63 years of marriage, Norma Rhodes said the two did a lot of traveling — often to Ireland — which she said were among her favorite memories, as was time with their daughters and family.

“He was caring and devoted to his family and community,” Norma Rhodes said.

Robert Rhodes had previously worked many entry-level jobs before becoming a professor, which helped him respect work and the people who work hard every day, no matter their position, his wife said.

“He was very clear that the people who do work every day are the ones who make life work,” said Rhodes’ daughter, Nancy Rhodes.

Norma Rhodes said his advice to his daughters was to work every day and respect all workers.

“Everyone counts. He never looked down on anyone,” she said.

Since Robert Rhodes’ death, there have been many kind words and stories, which Norma Rhodes said she has appreciated. It is a good chance for all ofhis friends, family and colleagues to pause and remember his roots.