Sunday, February 8, 2009

Joe Rodgers fought for what's right, friends say

Many may remember Joe M. Rodgers, the Nashville business and civic leader who died at the age of 75 last week, as a builder, fundraiser and former U.S. ambassador to France.

But he also leaves a legacy as an activist who fought for values he believed in, whether it was opposition to the Tennessee lottery or fighting to rid Nashville of pornography, friends and supporters say.

Along the way, Rodgers also had a hand in Nashville's earliest efforts to land a professional football team, was on the board of American Airlines' parent company when it made Nashville a hub city, and forged political ties that played a role in Nashville's landing the debate among the U.S. presidential candidates that took place at Belmont University last year.

"Joe was always doing something for somebody else," recalled former Tennessee Gov. and current U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn. "He was generous, patriotic, civic-minded. I was never a favorite for any of the offices I ran for, and he always supported me."

Alexander said Rodgers was one of a handful of Nashvillians who signed a $25,000 note in 1974 to help Alexander run for governor at the time, albeit unsuccessfully that year.

Alexander would take office four years later, and he remembers Rodgers as someone always willing to take a risk on the underdog.

Rodgers, who died of cancer on Monday, had been home near the end, and Alexander said he had paid the ailing Rodgers a recent visit.

"Obviously he was in some pain, but didn't mention it. We had a good conversation about what was happening in Washington. He was interested, opinionated and in as good a humor as anyone could be," Alexander said. "He'd already been told he didn't have long to live. But I had a good visit with him."

Rodgers made his business mark in construction and investments.

His early construction work got a big boost through a business relationship with the then-fledgling hospital chain now known as HCA Inc.

Starting with HCA's first hospital in Erin, Tenn., Rodgers' companies went on to build dozens of hospitals for the chain, including overseas in Europe and Saudi Arabia.

"He always produced a quality product, delivered it on time and under budget," recalled Dr. Thomas F. Frist Jr., a co-founder of HCA. "Over the years, we came to appreciate not only his great integrity, but the integrity of the entire organization."

Family takes priority

A turning point in Rodgers' life came when he suffered a mild heart attack in his 40s while on a commercial flight from Athens, Greece. His daughter, Jan Rodgers Dale, then 16, recalls receiving an apology from her dad for not being the father he should have been.

"At that point it was not about doing it for (himself) and glory anymore, but what (he) should be doing is for the Lord's glory," she recalled of her father, adding that Rodgers became more of a family man, including making more time to watch his children play sports, as a result.

After that experience, Rodgers took a break from business and started focusing more on political and Christian causes.

Political highlights included leading fundraising for the national Republican Party and playing a key role in actor-turned-president Ronald Reagan's career.

In his memoirs, former Reagan press secretary and political adviser Lyn Nofziger named Rodgers among three men whose support proved critical to keeping Reagan's unsuccessful 1976 campaign alive, allowing him to build momentum for the Republican Party nomination and the presidency in 1980.

That early campaign and the impression that Reagan made on voters gave him national credibility for the eventual winning run four years later, said Nofziger, who died in 2006.

Rodgers would go on to serve in the Reagan administration, including four years as the U.S. ambassador to France. He made strides in strengthening U.S. ties to that country, recalled John Crawford, a lawyer in the Paris office of a U.S.-based law firm who at the time was president of the American Chamber of Commerce there.

Upon arrival, Rodgers asked members of the U.S. business community to list their concerns and quickly addressed them.

Among his achievements, Rodgers was instrumental in eliminating double taxation of U.S. businesses and residents in France. When the French feared they would lose the bid to replace a battlefield radio communication system for the U.S. Army to the United Kingdom, Rodgers traveled to Washington to win assurances that the decision, which the French later won, would be made on merit.

Focus turns to Nashville

After returning to Nashville, Rodgers became involved in causes that included heading a coalition that aimed to stop illegal pornography in Nashville. He also led a steering committee that brought many Nashville-area churches together to support a crusade by evangelist Billy Graham.

And he led a coalition to block creation of a lottery in Tennessee.

Steve Brumfield, a Nashville public relations executive and longtime friend, recalls how Rodgers poured more than $200,000 into the anti-lottery effort and an additional $60,000 later toward advertising because he believed a lottery would hurt the poor.

Brumfield recalled how once, when Rodgers' construction firm was caught in an earlier economic downturn, Rodgers vowed to continue giving $250,000 to charity each year even as budgets were trimmed elsewhere. Giving was one thing he wouldn't cut.

Beneficiaries of his generosity included Chris Vance, the son of a former employee, who recalled getting a $1,000 check to help him as a young missionary in inner-city Houston two decades ago. Rodgers helped others start companies, including local businessman Stephen Bolt, who launched Shepherd Financial, a financial advisory firm that aligns people's investments with their values.

Lee Jennings, executive vice president of American Constructors Inc., another Nashville-based construction company that Rodgers helped start, said Rodgers strongly believed that business owners should stay involved in the political process.

"One of his favorite sayings was 'Either get into politics or get out of business,' " Jennings recalled.

The Rev. Charles McCowan, who runs the Operation Andrew Group that emerged from the Billy Graham crusade here in 2000, said Rodgers would be long remembered as a man of integrity.

"Everything that Joe Rodgers got involved in over the last 15 years of his life was motivated by either love for country, or love for God and community," McCowan said.

"He loved Nashville and was motivated out of a real honest and sincere desire to make our community, state and nation a better place."

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