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Robert E. Rodgers

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Robert E. Rodgers

 

SHEFFIELD — Bob Rodgers loved his family and he loved his country. The 87-year-old fighter pilot, farmer, father and friend died Friday after a lifetime of devotion to those two things he cherished most.

Robert E. Rodgers was born April 18, 1922, and passed away peacefully on Friday, Aug. 7, 2009. The son of Virgil and Lilla (Nelson) Rodgers, Bob graduated from Mineral High School in 1940 and proudly served his country in the U.S. Air Corps from 1942 to 1945, earning the Purple Heart and other decorations. The Aug. 9 visitation held for Bob at Vandemore Funeral Home occurred 65 years, to the day, after the first in a series of events that provide tremendous insight into the character of this great American.

On Aug. 9, 1944, the 22-year-old Sheffield native was flying his 18th mission out of England to provide air support for the Allied advancement in western Europe. Shortly after making a strafing attack on a German truck, the P-47 Thurnderbolt Bob piloted was shot down in eastern Belgium. With his legs shredded by shrapnel from the 20 millimeter canon that brought down his plane, Bob was captured by German soldiers and taken to a German hospital.

After numerous relocations Bob ended up at a hospital in Ahlem, Germany. During his months recuperating in Ahlem, Bob struck up an unlikely friendship with Joseph Winkleman, a German soldier who had been captured by the U.S. troops earlier in the war and then repatriated to Germany to work in the hospital.

Although neither Bob nor Joseph spoke each other’s language very well, Bob’s inherent kindness and warmth were evident to Joseph, as was Joseph’s compassion to the wounded American. Joseph would sneak cooked rabbit and apples to Bob, and Bob would convey stories of life on an American farm to Joseph.

Once Bob had recovered from his wounds sufficiently, the friendship abruptly ended when the Germans transferred Bob to Stalag Luft III, the prison immortalized in “The Great Escape.” Bob was eventually moved to a prison near Munich, where he and the other POWs were liberated by General Patton’s troops in April 1945.

Three months later and back in Sheffield, Bob married his sweetheart, Marjorie E. Abbott, and began his career as a grain and livestock farmer. Joseph Winkleman and his fellow countrymen, meanwhile, set off on the difficult task of rebuilding their war-ravaged country.

By 1952 Bob and Marge’s family had grown to include two sons, Jerry and Denny. Amid all the hard work of running a farm, Bob always found time to enjoy his family’s company. Whether driving across the country on summer vacations, cheering on the boys at ball games, or sitting at the dinner table, Bob and Marge always found the greatest contentment in the presence of their family.

Growing up, the boys knew bits and pieces about their dad’s war-time experiences, but it wasn’t until Bob reached his 50s that he started to readily share his memories of being a fighter pilot and prisoner of war. As time passed Bob became more and more comfortable revisiting those experiences, and he would go to his grandchildren’s fifth-grade classrooms to help teach the class about World War II.

Jerry and his wife Linda’s children (Jay, Jon, and Lindsay) and Denny and his wife Marie’s children (Zach and Jenny) were another source of tremendous joy for Bob and Marge — and later, Marian Leonard, who Bob married in 1995. Bob and Marian loved traveling together and went to Europe three times. They had many close friends in the area. Bob lit up with happiness just being around his grandchildren and great-grandchildren — whether on the farm, at his winter residence in Florida or at his favorite getaway spot, Lake Mills.

Jerry and Linda organized a Liberation Party in April 1995 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Bob’s being rescued by Patton’s troops. Bob was thrilled with the opportunity to visit with the nearly 100 friends, family, and fellow veterans gathered for the party. But the highlight of the evening came when Jerry and Linda told Bob that they, through the help of a German-speaking friend, had been able to track down Bob’s dear friend from five decades ago, Joseph Winkleman.

Soon thereafter Joseph traveled to Geneseo to be reunited with Bob, getting to see firsthand the rich farmland of the prairie. Bob and Marian later traveled to Berlin to visit Joseph, who Bob described as “like a brother.” Even for a man blessed with so many wonderful relationships with his children and grandchildren, Bob’s reunion with his unlikely brother surely added a new source of joy to an already remarkable life.

Bob Rodgers served his country courageously and his family lovingly. We miss you and thank God for all the time we had with you.

Bob Rodgers was a member of Sheffield United Church of Christ and attended First United Methodist Church, Geneseo. He was a life member of the Sheffield American Legion. In addition to serving on the Western School District School Board, Bob also belonged to the Henry County Farm Bureau and the POW Chapter.

Survivors include his wife Marian; two sons, Jerry and Linda Rodgers of Geneseo and Dennis and Marie Rodgers, Valrico, Fla.; five grandchildren, Jay (Jodie) Rodgers, Jon (fiancée Kelly O’Connell) Rodgers, Lindsay Rodgers, Zachary Rodgers and Jenny Rodgers; and three great-grandchildren, Andrew, Jack and Ava Rodgers; one stepson, Garry and Nancy Leonard of Madison, Conn.; one stepdaughter, Gay and Tom Ware of Livonia, Mich.; four stepgrandchildren, Martha Ware, Douglas (Melissa) Ware, Evan (Joy) Leonard and Emma Leonard; two stepgreat-grandchildren, Brenden and Kelsey Ware; one sister, Virginia Hadley of Okeechobee, Fla.; and one brother, Donald Rodgers of New Jersey.

He was preceded in death by his parents and one brother, James.

Funeral services celebrating his life were held at 10 a.m. Monday at the First United Methodist Church, Geneseo, with the Rev. Dr. Christopher M. Ritter and Rev. Jane Courtwright officiating. Burial was in the Sheffield Cemetery, where military honors were accorded by Sheffield American Legion Post. Family and friends of Robert called on Sunday at the Vandemore Funeral Home, Geneseo.

Memorials may be left to the Robert Rodgers Memorial Fund.