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Lodi loses Tony Rodriguez

Man known throughout city for supporting youth sports passed away on Tuesday

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Tony Rodriguez

Posted: Thursday, January 24, 2013 12:00 am | Updated: 6:15 am, Thu Jan 24, 2013.

On Monday night, Tony Rodriguez turned off the lights and locked up the Grape Festival Pavilion after a basketball game. For more than a decade, Rodriguez has been the first one to arrive at many youth sporting events in Lodi, and the last one to leave, long after the games are over.

The 81-year-old then took the time to stop by the city's Parks and Recreation Department to leave a note for his boss that he would be late the next day.

The 5-foot, 1-inch man had become a fixture in the Lodi sports community, gaining a reputation as someone who could be counted on to volunteer for any job, handle any disputes and always cheer on and support Lodi's youths.

On Tuesday night, the man who was known by many as only "Papa" died suddenly, about one week shy of his 82nd birthday.

"He was the first guy with his hand up to volunteer for years and years, whether it was working a gate, checking people in or closing up at night. It just didn't matter, Tony was one of those guys who would never tell you no," said John Portscheller, vice president of the Boosters of Boys and Girls Sports.

His family remembers Rodriguez as a dedicated, loving man who came from a poor upbringing and created a life for his wife, five daughters and dozens of grandchildren and great-grandchildren. He was a devoted Catholic who loved his Puerto Rican heritage. He was a man who never missed birthdays, sporting events or a chance to help others.

People between the ages of 10 to 40 who have played, coached or watched youth sports in Lodi have likely met Rodriguez or at least seen him at games, working to make sure everything runs smoothly while drinking cups and cups of decaf coffee.

"He was not the biggest guy in the room, but he certainly had the biggest heart in the place," Portscheller said.

Putting family first

Rodriguez was born on Feb. 1, 1931 in Hayward. He grew up poor as one of 10 siblings raised by a single mom.

His wife of 61 years, Jennie, remembers Rodriguez told her he'd be waiting for her inside a movie theater on their first date. She later realized it was probably because he couldn't afford to pay for her movie too.

"I didn't like him. He was too short," Jennie Rodriguez said. "We were engaged a year later."

Despite his short stature, Rodriguez has always been competitive. He was a competitive boxer and a semi-pro football player.

Rodriguez served as a sergeant in the Army Reserves at Fort Belvoir in Virginia, and recently returned there with his wife to spend time in Washington, D.C. and to visit the base.

Rodriguez spent 30 years working for a warehouse production company in the Bay Area. He served as a union president.

His five daughters remember growing up in Oakland and spending all of their free time going to sporting events, especially Oakland Raiders games.

The family moved to Lodi about 30 years ago, and Rodriguez quickly started volunteering for youth sports. He also owned a Lodi hot dog shop called Tony's Sandwiches for a couple of years.

As the patriarch of the family, Rodriguez dedicated his life to helping his family in any way he could.

He started many family traditions that continue today, his daughter, Carmen Feldstein, said.

Rodriguez believed in saying grace before meals. He always wanted the entire family together, regardless of how difficult it is to squeeze almost 40 people in one house. Every year, he made "Happy Birthday" posters for every single person in the family — spouses included — and left them on the front door in the middle of the night.

He was the type of man who would wake up before anyone else to cook a breakfast of pancakes, waffles, bacon and eggs.

"If anyone needed anything, they never had to ask," granddaughter Marina Pearl said. "He had a servant's heart. He was a simple, humble man so others could live a better life."

His daughters remember him making it to every sporting event, not only their own games but the games of his 11 grandchildren and 17 great-grandkids. For some grandchildren and great-grandchildren, Rodriguez was their father figure.

"Some of us grew up without a dad, and he would take the father role, and go to father-daughter events," granddaughter Marissa Guantone said, getting choked up.

His son-in-law, John Pearl, remembers that even when he was well into his 70s, Rodriguez had more energy to pack a moving truck than anyone else.

"I was honestly pretty intimidated," Pearl said. "He was big and strong, and I couldn't keep up with him."

While Rodriguez could be competitive, his family say he never got angry or harbored grudges.

"He was so forgiving no matter what you did," daughter Vicki Hilinski said. "He gave you the benefit of the doubt. He was the epitome of unconditional love."

If his family was his biggest passion, coaching and helping kids was a close second. Former players often invited him to graduations, he was always stopped in the community and parents adored him, his wife Jennie said.

A family friend whom Rodriguez had coached visited the hospital on Tuesday and mourned with the family.

"All of a sudden she stopped and said, 'I don't even know his name. I only know him as Papa,'" Jennie Rodriguez said.

'He was just something special'

On Tuesday, members of the seventhand eighth-grade basketball teams painted "TR" on their jerseys, and the referees wore black armbands with "TR."

For three decades, Rodriguez coached youth sports, refereed games, volunteered for every possible job through the Lodi Boosters for Boys and Girls Sports, and was hired on part-time to supervise sporting events.

Former recreation supervisor Tom Alexander said he could not remember when he actually hired Rodriguez, because he was always there.

"He had boundless energy, and he'd do anything for the kids," Alexander said. "He was just something special. I've never met anyone quite like him."

During their years spent working together, Steve Brown said he knew he could always talk with Rodriguez about anything. The two went everywhere together, whether it was making deposits at the bank for BOBS or eating at Angelo's every Wednesday.

On furlough Fridays, the two would volunteer their time to replace pads in baseball helmets or count equipment.

"You don't get that from people anymore. If people are not being paid, they don't do it," Brown said.

Several people mentioned that even in the competitive world of sports, Rodriguez had the respect of coaches and players alike. If one coach raised their voice at Rodriguez, two or three other coaches would step in.

"I don't think you can find anyone who can say a bad word about Tony. I can't remember him doing something wrong to anyone," Brown said.

At work, Brown also saw Rodriguez' humble side. Brown organized a party for Rodriguez' 80th birthday at Angelo's. When Rodriguez walked in and everyone yelled, "Surprise!" he immediately turned and ran out the door.

"He never expected that," Brown said. "Tony always deserved every good thing he got, plus some."

Brown and all the members of the recreation department are still in shock that Rodriguez will not be walking into the office at 9 a.m. to hand out coffee and joke with everyone.

"It's the epitome of 'here today, gone tomorrow,'" Brown said. "It shows you how precious life is."

He said people are already saying baseball season this spring at Kofu Park will not be the same without Rodriguez.

"He always would go the extra mile to do whatever he needed to do. He would do that for you. That is the kind-hearted person that he was," Brown said. "We don't have too many people like that in Lodi."

Contact reporter Maggie Creamer at maggiec@lodinews.com.

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1 comment:

  • Julie Edsell posted at 11:25 am on Thu, Jan 24, 2013.

    Julie Edsell Posts: 36

    Thru the many years of my kids playing softball/baseball, Tony was there always saying Hi and being friendly. Always enjoyed my visits with him at the field. My condolences to his family, what a great loss to them and the community

     

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