July 20, 1926 to February 6, 2012
Rod’s journey began in the copper mining town of Morenci, in the mountains of eastern Arizona. When he left Morenci for Los Angeles in November 1942, little did he know how his journey would take him to the point of history on more than one occasion. Anxious to follow his brothers, both in the Navy, into the service during World War II, he enlisted in the Marines, 10 Aug 1943, shortly after his 17th birthday. On Sept. 18 he became a member of the 4th Marine Division, which soon headed directly from the US mainland to Kwajalein, for his first taste of action against the enemy. Subsequently based in Hawaii, he saw more action in Saipan, Tinian and finally Iwo Jima.
On Feb. 19, 1945 as a member of Company C, 1st Battalion, 23rd Regiment, Rod landed in the first wave on Iwo Jima. The next 8 days would define the rest of his life. He experienced the full horror of the battle, how it devolved to fighting for his own life and that of his buddies, the loss of life for some of those buddies, the taking of the lives of others, and finally being wounded, which resulted in his own evacuation on the 27th and return to Pearl Harbor. Once recovered, he rejoined his unit on Maui. Shortly after, while his unit was training for Operation Downfall, the invasion of Japan, the war ended and he returned home.
Using his GI Bill benefits, Rod enrolled in Woodbury College, Los Angeles, and completed a BS in Commercial Art in 1948. After working a stint as an advertising agency staff artist, he enlisted in the Air Force in November, 1948. Following training in Map Reproduction at Ft. Belvoir, VA he was assigned to the 92nd Bomb Group at Spokane (now Fairchild) AFB, WA and then on to Clark AB, in the Philippines by 1951. While assigned to the 548th Reconnaissance Technical Squadron at Yokota AB, Japan, he completed his first two oil paintings which attracted the attention of an Air Force general who selected Rod to be a combat artist. Moving to central Tokyo by the Emperor’s palace, he completed his paintings in the dormitory there.
As a combat artist Rod traveled freely to the Korean peninsula with the status of a foreign correspondent to cover the war. While photographing the battlefield to gather materials for his paintings, he was often fired upon by the enemy, one time being strafed by a MIG while photographing a Soviet tank, and another time shelled by the Chinese while he and a buddy out alone in a jeep stopped to photograph some hills to use as a background to one of his paintings. “They must think we’re MacArthur!” his buddy said as they made a hasty retreat. Once completed, his paintings were shipped to Air Force headquarters to document the war. They can be viewed online today athttp://www.afapo.hq.af.mil/.
Rod returned from Japan on emergency leave in July 1952 to attend the funeral of his grandmother, Victoria Gomez Chapin, who raised him after his mother Mary May Chapin Rodriguez died when he was 2. The next month he separated from the Air Force.
In 1953 Rod started working for his final employer, North American Aviation, later North American Rockwell, Rockwell International and eventually Boeing. As a technical illustrator he completed illustrations in perspective for use in repair and flight manuals, briefing charts and TCTOs for the fighters built by NAA. In October of that year he married Cecilia Louise “Jere” Gosselin.
Advancing in his career at North American, Rod was promoted to Technical Artist in 1958. Meanwhile he became a parent with the birth of daughter Kim. In 1963 he transferred to the Space and Information Systems Division in Downey. There he conceived, planned and developed comprehensive layouts, and produced finished complex drawings used in Apollo technical manuals, handbooks, training aids, reports and proposals.
Divorced from Jere, Rod met his companion of the next 35 years, Lillian Ellen “Nel” Emrich Wildau, on the dance floor at the Hollywood Palladium. A study in contrasts, the man from a small mining town in Arizona and the Manhattan native married in October, 1965. Nel’s job as a reservations agent for TWA opened up the world to the new couple and over the next several years they traveled to all points of the globe.
At North American, Rod worked with engineers redesigning the space capsule following the Apollo 1 disaster, and celebrated Neil Armstrong’s first step on the moon on his 43rd birthday in 1969. The following decade saw Rod move to the Autonetics division in Anaheim, where he worked on engineering drawings for Ralph Deutsch, the inventor of the electronic digital organ.
Following Nel’s retirement from TWA, Rod took early retirement from Rockwell in 1982. They moved from Los Angeles to Cambria, CA, where he hoped to find success showing and selling his seascapes, and fulfilling his lifelong ambition to be a recognized fine artist. It was there that he began his greatest period of artistic creativity. Moving back to Los Angeles in 1986, he began to shift from seascapes to paintings of the Arizona of his youth. In 1989 they moved to Mesa, AZ, where he would have easy access to the mountains he used to call home. Within a few years however Nel began a decline into dementia that forced him to set aside his brush to care for her.
Returning to California in 1998, Rod and Nel moved to the Lake Isabella community of Mountain Mesa to be near her remaining son from her second marriage, Geoffrey Michael “Geoff” Wildau. (Her older son, Gerald Evan “Jerry” Wildau, had died in 1995.) Despite this, Rod soon found himself facing her decline alone. Eventually, when he could no longer bear the burden of her care, he conceded to the need for nursing home care, where he visited her almost daily until her death in October, 2000.
In recovering from his deep loss Rod sought the company of others and began to participate in activities in the Lake Isabella community. In time he found new friends and dancing partners. Soon Betty June Hall became a cherished companion. After a period of great happiness, where he began to paint again, he was forced once more to watch a loved one’s decline. Betty died in January, 2010. After this a series of medical crises made his own mortality clear.
Perhaps recognizing that not much time remained, Rod intensified his efforts to try to find someone to develop his design concept, a hydraulic renewable energy conversion system first conceived by him in 1959 called “Harnessing the Ocean,” which he released to Public Domain in August, 2009. Sadly, despite much approval of the concept no one has tried to carry it through to development. An idea born too soon still waits for its time.
Following a final visit to Cambria over Thanksgiving weekend, 2011, Rod’s last great crisis came in January, 2012. Faced with major surgery which would be difficult to recover from and the likelihood of needing nursing home care, on the 31st he requested hospice instead.
At 7:30 pm, Feb. 6, 2012, Rod slipped into eternity with his daughter at his side.
Rod was preceded in death by his brothers Miguel Wesley, Norberto, and Frank Wesley Rodriguez, and sister Consuelo “Connie” Rodriguez. He is survived by his daughter Kim, brother Ernest Wesley Rodriguez, nieces Victoria “Vicki” Montez Tojos, Diane Rios, and Barbara Rodriguez, half siblings Richard, David and Frances Rodriguez, Rafaela R. Casillas, many great-nephews and nieces, and the United States Marine Corps.
At this time a memorial service is pending. In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the Audubon Kern River Preserve at http://kern.audubon.org/, the Golden State Division of Salvation Army for Kern County, or the Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society at http://www.nmcrs.org/.