The community remembers Jerome Rodio
● By Steven Hoffman
The Oxford community, saddened and still stunned by Jerome Rodio’s death, came together to share memories and to celebrate his life at a memorial prayer service at the St. Christopher’s Episcopal Church on July 14.
Rodio, a business owner and chamber of commerce president, was remembered at the service for his boundless kindness and generosity, and for being an inspiration to others.
He had passed away only hours earlier from complications related to a flesh-eating bacterial infection he picked up while on a fishing trip in the Chesapeake Bay. He sustained a scratch on the arm while helping someone with crabbing traps, and that allowed the rare infection to enter his body. Rev. Dr. Mary Ann Mertz, the pastor of the St. Christopher Church who led the prayer service, said that she was with Rodio when he passed away at the University of Maryland Hospital surrounded by family and friends.
His extended family in Oxford was grief-stricken.
“My hero,” said one mourner, “is gone.”
“This has put a hole in the heart of Oxford,” said Betsy Brantner, a friend of Rodio’s. “It’s a tremendous loss. We all loved him and he loved everyone else.”
Peggy Ann Russell noted that in his death, Rodio united the community in the same way that he united it when he was alive.
He was praised for his warm, cheerful, and caring personality, and for being supportive of others—especially those in need. He was a supporter and volunteer for the Oxford SILO (Serving Inspiring Loving Others) and the Lighthouse Youth Center. He helped the homeless in the Elkton area. Several people who spoke at the prayer service pointed out that no one knew exactly how much Rodio did for the Oxford community because he often did the work without fanfare.
“He would help so many people,” said Brantner. “I never met anyone like him, and I never will someone like him again. He was an amazing person.”
“He had involved himself with virtually every group that is out there in this community helping people,” said Russell.
Initially, the time at the St. Christopher’s Episcopal Church had been planned as a prayer service, an opportunity for family members and friends to gather to pray for his return to good health. But Rodio’s condition worsened throughout the day on Tuesday and he suffered further setbacks on Wednesday. When news about his passing began to spread on Thursday, those who knew him best were left to reflect on the tremendous impact that he had on the Oxford community.
“Jerome was many, many things to this community but what sticks with me the most is that he was a positive force,” said Sue Cole, the interim executive director of Oxford Area Chamber of Commerce. “You could feel his constant presence of keeping people on point, bringing light to those things that needed light to be brought to them—all while being respectful and keeping compassion for community members at the forefront.”
Cole added, “Every time you had an interaction with him, he had a knack of finding the good in everything, and he left you with an uplifted feeling as the conversation concluded.”
Indeed, many people who knew him well spoke about Rodio’s rare ability to make others feel happy.
A native of New Jersey, Rodio’s life was shaped by his service in the U.S. Navy and his time spent as a police officer in Philadelphia. He started selling furniture, antiques, and collectibles in a store that he owned in New Jersey before opening J & K Slightly Touched in 2009. His store had a comfortable, old-fashioned vibe where visitors could feel instantly at home. He immediately became a part of the Oxford community, joining economic development committees and volunteering to lend a hand at various community events. He was a tireless advocate for Oxford, recruiting new businesses to town. He would regularly attend borough council meetings and offer suggestions on how to help residents or improve the town in small ways. He would offer suggestions on how to increase activities for Oxford’s teens and reminders for residents to help elderly neighbors who needed assistance after a snowstorm. Whenever a new business opened, he would be sure to welcome the new merchant and offer support and advice. He was very active with the Oxford Area Chamber of Commerce and Oxford Mainstreet, Inc. In recent years, J & K Slightly Touched Furniture had become the epicenter of the Oxford business community. During First Friday events, his store would be filled with artists and writers and jewelry-makers, and other interesting people.
Rodio placed charity over business, and he would regularly discount the prices on items in his store if he knew that someone needed the break.
“I think it was more of a mission than a business,” explained Brantner. “His job there was to bring people together. I think he probably gave away more than what he sold at the store. When no one was watching, he was doing good.”
“He turned every single thing into a gift,” added Russell. “He was always there to assist the vulnerable, and that included the homeless, or those in need of friendship.”
Russell recalled the time that Rodio found out about a woman in Philadelphia who was struggling with various health issues that she and her husband were facing. The couple needed a new mattress, and several people in Oxford who knew about their difficult circumstances wanted to put some money together to help them. Not only did Rodio offer the mattress at a discounted price, he loaded it up on his own truck, delivered it to the woman’s home in Philadelphia, and set it up for her.
According to Grace Gutzler, that kind of generosity was typical for Rodio. She saw his good deeds all the time.
“He was always a great friend,” said Gutzler, who worked at the store one day a week to help him organize the eclectic items that he sold. “He just wanted to help people. He was always willing to help someone. He was always thinking about others.”
Russell explained that Rodio donated display space in the store so that jewelry and other gifts could be sold specifically to raise money for Dawn’s Place, a non-profit organization that assists women who have been exploited.
Rodio was not a tall person, but he was extremely large in stature when it came to the impact that he had on those around him—a fact that numerous people shared when remembering his life.
Rodio was 75, but looked and acted like he was much younger. In addition to spending time with his two sons and his grandchildren, Rodio loved music and played guitar. He also liked biking and hiking, and as an avid runner, he was thinking about entering a distance race with family members later this year. Brantner pointed out that he showed no signs of slowing down.
“Age did not mean anything to him,” she explained. “Nothing stopped him, and I think that’s part of the reason why we’re all so stunned by this today.”
Donna Hosler, the executive director of Oxford Mainstreet, Inc., talked about the limitless energy that Rodio approached each project with, and about how he was a person who could be counted on to get work done.
“He was very involved,” Hosler said. “He didn’t just show up, he did the work that was needed to get things done. He did it all and he never slowed down. He was everything that you could want in a good citizen. And his love of Oxford was great.”
Several people talked about how the only way to move forward after such a tremendous loss is to continue the work and volunteer efforts that were so important to Rodio—the best way to celebrate his memory is to follow the example that he set during his life.
“I’ve been thinking about this, about how to honor him, and I think we all need to follow his example and volunteer,” said Hosler.
“He committed himself to Oxford, and we all felt it,” said Cole. “He still had much, much more to do here, and now it’s up to our community to pull together and make strides to finish the things he started. The void of not having him here in town with us will be felt for a very long time.”
“What he created,” observed Brantner, “will never go away. He left a legacy.”
“Everyone just loved Jerome,” Gutzler said. “He was always doing something for others. He enjoyed life. Oxford is not going to be the same without him."