Obituary: Joseph Rhodes Jr. / Activist lawmaker for state House

Aug. 14, 1947 - Nov. 7, 2013


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Joseph Rhodes Jr., a former state lawmaker, public utility commissioner and member of Richard Nixon's "enemies list," died Thursday. He was 66.

Mr. Rhodes represented an East End legislative district for three terms. The youngest African American in the state House, he sponsored major legislation that made it unlawful to house juvenile offenders in adult jails. He also worked to raise the standards governing elder care in boarding homes. He also was a member of the Governor's Justice Commission and the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency where, among other issues, he asserted his opposition to the death penalty.

He gave up his legislative seat to run for the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate in 1980, losing the primary to the late Pete Flaherty.

The late Gov. Robert P. Casey appointed him deputy secretary of commerce and later named him to the Public Utility Commission, where he earned a reputation as a champion of consumer interests.

"He was a truly remarkable figure in so many ways," said John Hanger, the former state secretary of environmental protection, who worked on Mr. Rhodes' PUC staff and later served with him on the commission.

"He really never forgot his roots in the African-American community in Pittsburgh," he said.

Mr. Rhodes was born in the Lower Hill District, on a street later razed in the development of the Civic Arena site. His family moved to another Hill District home and later to the East End. He graduated from Westinghouse High School as salutatorian of his class. He received a B.S. in history from the California Institute of Technology and then received the prestigious honor of being designated a junior fellow at Harvard University where he studied intellectual history. He subsequently taught at several colleges including the University of Massachusetts and the University of Pittsburgh.

Mr. Rhodes had a significant public profile well before he ventured into elected office.

In 1970, as anti-war protests gripped the country, he was named to the National Commission on Student Unrest, a federal panel formed in the wake of the killings of four undergraduates at Kent State University and two more at Jackson State University in Mississippi. He wrote a minority report dissenting from the group's overall findings. Vice president Spiro Agnew demanded his resignation from the panel after Mr. Rhodes criticized the vice president for having referring to peaceful protestors as "campus bums."

Mr. Rhodes refused to resign. The controversy would earn him a place on President Nixon's notorious "enemies list," a distinction he did not discover until much later and one that he embraced as "an award."

He received many more sincerely intended awards over the years. According to the Pennsylvania Archives, Time Magazine identified him in 1971 as one of 200 new leaders in American. The same year he received the Americans for Democratic Action National Youth Award. The radio station WAMO honored him with its He's a Black Man Award in 1972.

"He was an intellectual," said county Councilman and former state rep. Bill Robinson. "In many respects, he was a little ahead of his time in terms of some of the progressive ideas he had. Her served well in the House at a difficult time, when Homewood-Brushton was going through a difficult transition."

Common Pleas Court Judge Tom Flaherty, who served with Mr. Rhodes, representing an adjoining district in the House, called him "a bright young star," amid the rank and file of Harrisburg lawmakers.

"He was viewed as an intellectual, someone on a fast track," Mr. Flaherty said. "He had a close relationship with [former House Speaker Leroy] Irvis and all of the leadership."

Mr. Rhodes is survived by a son, Matthew Rhodes of Chicago; a daughter, Brennan Rhodes Bratton of New York City; a sister, Ellen Teresita Snyder of Pittsburgh; three brothers, Eduardo Rhodes of Bloomington, Ind., Manuel Rhodes of Pittsburgh, and Ernesto Rhodes of Midland, Texas; and a stepfather, Antonio Tirado.

His former wife is Linda Rhodes, the former state secretary of aging.

A memorial service for Mr. Rhodes will be held from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. on Monday at the Kingsley Association, 6435 Frankstown Ave, in Homewood, part of the district he represented in the Legislature. The family suggests contributions to the Kingsley Association.


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