Story last updated at 3:55 p.m. Thursday, November 21, 2002

Town father Leo Rhode dead at 94

'Life well spent' ends

by Sepp Jannotta
Staff Writer

"Some people have a good day or a good year. Leo Rhode has had a good life."

University of Alaska president Mark Hamilton said this during a speech in 2000 honoring the man who dedicated more than 50 years to his university's board of regents, served years on the boards of the National Bank of Alaska, South Peninsula Hospital and Homer Electric Association, and gave years to the service of his community and state.

And to hear Rhode's friends and colleagues talk, Hamilton's words could not ring more true.

Rhode, a Homer pioneer, a statesman and a giving soul who left an indelible mark on his community, died of natural causes Sunday at the age of 94.

Born in North Dakota and raised in Kansas, Rhode and his brother Cecil set out for Alaska during the height of the Great Depression. The story Leo and Cecil enjoyed telling goes that the brothers rowed a skiff from Ketchikan to Skagway, where they planned to prospect for gold.

During the ensuing years, Rhode worked for the U.S. Forest Service, the U.S. Geological Survey, the Alaska Railroad and the postal service. He was also a watchmaker, fossil collector, university student and grocer. A stint as a wholesale grocery distributor for the Kenai Peninsula first brought Rhode to Kachemak Bay.

A decade after graduating from the University of Alaska Fairbanks, Rhode and his wife, Florence, moved to Homer in 1951. Within a year they had built and moved into a house on a quiet, out-of-the-way piece of backcountry bluff along what is now Kachemak Drive.

Like many of his generation, Rhode was in on the ground floor as frontier Alaska met the modern world.

Soon after arriving in Homer, he began a long involvement with HEA during a time when the cooperative was just beginning to deliver electricity to portions of the lower peninsula. His own neighborhood was connected in 1953.

His job as office manager came about because with a degree in accounting, he was one of the only people in Homer at the time who could wade through the books and keep the co-op flush with federal project money. He worked there for 17 years, and served on the HEA board for far longer.

Later, in his capacity as a public servant, he helped define the shape of the state and its communities.

Locally, he served on Homer's first city council after incorporation in 1964. Following a council run from 1965-68, he served as the city's mayor from 1979-82.

In the broader world of Alaska's young politics, he won election to the second session of the Alaska State House in 1960. Rhodes served again from 1975-1978 at the request of Gov. Jay Hammond.

Hammond, who said he didn't know Rhode well at the time, appointed him to fill a vacancy at the recommendation of others.

"Leo came highly recommended by folks I had high regard for, like (Halibut Cove legislator) Clem Tillion," Hammond said Tuesday evening from his home in Port Alsworth. "But Leo was one of my best appointments. He served splendidly."

Tillion, who was the legislator Hammond needed to replace in 1975, filled in the other half of that story with obvious joy, as it contained a defining moment in his own public life.

In 1960, Tillion had helped Rhode with his campaign and eventual election to the House. As Rhode's two-year term was nearing its end, Tillion said, Rhode made a secret decision not to run for re-election, because his wife had taken ill with cancer (she died in 1971). On the final day to file for the Republican primary, Rhode declared not his own candidacy, but Tillion's.

"He put out a Bush Line and it was -- 'Congratulations, you're running for the house,'" said Tillion, who at the time was earning his keep as a commercial fisherman from Halibut Cove. "So I went choking on over (to Homer), and when I got there, he and (Homer Spit pioneer) Earl Hillstrand were roaring with laughter."

And so began the political career of Clem Tillion. He won the Republican primary (he ran unopposed due to Rhode's popularity) and was elected to the House by a margin of 32 votes.

But Tillion said his suggestion that Hammond appoint Rhode in his place 12 years later was more than just payback, it was sound and heartfelt advice.

"He was a marvelous man," Tillion said. "There was nothing flamboyant about him. He was not a glad-handing politician.

"He just went and talked to people. And he listened a lot."

Hammond described Rhode as someone who could always be counted on, both personally and professionally.

"Leo was someone I could rely on for not only his counsel, but also for passing legislation that I thought was of importance," he said. "He certainly was an outstanding legislator, and he was a good friend, too. He will be sorely missed."

During Leo Rhode's time in the Legislature, some formative Alaska statutes were crafted, including those governing the construction of the Trans-Alaska Oil Pipeline and the Alaska Permanent Fund.

On local politics he made just as strong an impression.

As mayor, Rhode and city manager Larry Farnen oversaw the completion of the new harbor, among other post-Good Friday earthquake reconstruction projects.

"There was a team that just did things for Homer that has never been equaled," Tillion said.

In 1993, Rhode's legacy as a leader in Homer prompted then-Mayor Harry Gregoire to declare "Leo Rhode Day."

"I can't ever remember anybody ever being mad at him," Gregoire said. "Which is a pretty unusual for a mayor.

"He was good man. He was popular with the people."

For Rhode, the feeling was mutual.

"Homer is full of interesting, quirky people, and a mayor just naturally gets acquainted with the town's citizens," he told biographer Sharon Bushell for a recent Anchorage Daily News article. "To me it was a joy to be involved with city politics, and I always marveled at how contrary -- and charitable -- people can be."

While the public side of Leo Rhode was never far from view, those who knew him cherished his other traits as well.

Tillion said Rhode's subtle sense of humor often left him laughing after the fact, once he realized that Rhode had "skewered" him.

Rhode's nephew, Dave Rhode of Cooper Landing, said his uncle was a quiet, easy-going man who, when all his civic duties were squared away, loved nothing more than catching king salmon. Late in his life, he could often be seen joking with his friends while casting for salmon at the Fishing Hole on the Spit.

Rhode's efforts to develop housing options for Homer's seniors paid dividends later in his life, as he eventually became the first official resident of the newly completed Friendship Terrace Assisted Living wing at the Homer Senior Center in 1996. As the facility was still under construction, Rhode was reportedly walking down the halls, shopping for the room he wanted.

"He actually moved in before the official opening," said Shari Daugherty. "He was the first one in the door."

Daugherty, who helped manage some of Rhode's affairs in the final years of his life, said he was a revered friend. She said she'd known him most of her life and had become particularly fond of him through his work on the NBA Homer Advisory Board.

"He just decided early on that a life serving his community would be a life well spent," she said. "I just can't hold up a better example to young people.

"If you could look back at 94 and see all the good you'd done in your life, wouldn't it be swell?"

Sepp Jannotta can be reached at sjannotta@homer news.com.

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