In Memory of My Dad, Bob Rodale

Sunday, September 20 was the 19th anniversary of my father’s death. He was killed when he was only 60 years old, in a car accident in Russia. In retrospect, almost 20 years later, the situation seems ridiculous. Russia was still the communist Soviet Union, and the people there were going hungry from the inefficient and, frankly, stupid methods being used to grow food. So my father decided to start a Russian version of Organic Gardening magazine to help people relearn how to grow their own food. Back then, you couldn’t just start a business over there; you had to get tons of permits, bribe officials, and find communist partners, and raise the money from within the country. I don’t remember the details, except for some reason it required him to build a sausage factory!

Anyway, he was on his way to the airport to come home, and a bus veered into oncoming traffic and hit his van head-on. He was thrown 65 feet from the van and landed in a grassy meadow filled with white birch trees. All the passengers of the van were killed instantly. He was sent home in a wooden coffin with pale blue fabric and lace covering the top. The undertaker said his broken body was still covered in shards of glass.

It is a moment I relived in my head, over and over again, for years.

A lot of people loved and respected my father, and even romanticized his reign as leader of Rodale Press and chief spokesman for the organic movement around the world. But I knew him first and foremost as a father, and an eccentric one at that. He would often go out for a Sunday bike ride and come home with ANOTHER vintage Volkswagen beetle…and not because he didn’t feel like riding home. He was always running off on some adventure, leaving without saying goodbye and not sure when he would come back (and yet on EVERY family vacation, he insisted on coming home early). Sometimes, when I get lost in reading something, and my kids are running around trying to get my attention and I’m so deep in thought I can’t pull myself out for them, I realize that I have taken on some of the traits I sure didn’t like in my father when I was a kid. But he always had a drawer filled with crisp white typewriter paper for drawing and writing stories, and unlike my mother, he enjoyed watching goofy shows on TV, like Laugh-In and The Carol Burnett Show.

The other day my daughters and I were searching for funny videos on Youtube, and just out of curiosity I searched his name and found some old oral history videos of him, recorded by the USDA. It was the first time my two youngest children had ever seen or heard him speak. I get a little angry at him when I think about what we have all missed out on because of his crazy mission-driven adventures. He never got to walk me down the aisle, or hold my two youngest babies, or eat my delicious food, now that I’ve finally learned to cook.

But I also know that each life has its own arc, and he was on a journey of his own that we couldn’t join him on. I am a firm believer that everything happens for a reason, even if it’s sometimes hard to swallow.

Along with the coffin, they sent home his suitcase. It contained three Russian fur hats for me and my sisters, and a reporter’s notebook filled with his notes from the trip. The night before he died, he was clearly getting drunker and drunker as they were doing shots of Jack Daniels and vodka—his handwriting is a testament to his inebriation. But it’s the last page of his journal that brings me to my knees every time I think about it… All it says is this:

“May this not be the last toast of our lives.”

And…so it was.

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23 Responses to In Memory of My Dad, Bob Rodale

  1. Sharon McCarthy September 21, 2009 at 9:55 am #

    Maria – Heart-wrenching and beautiful. His spirit will forever live on in your daughters. Peace, Sharon

  2. Vern Walther September 21, 2009 at 10:35 am #

    Maria,
    Thank you for sharing your thoughts on your dad. I always admired his sense of humor. He could tell a good joke, but never at anyone else’s expense. I joined Rodale in 1985 and remember a meeting when Rodale bought The Runner and the discussion about merging it with Runner’s World revolved around whether to keep “The Runner” as the new name. Very heated discussion as there had been an intense rivalry between the two titles. After an hour or so of listening, Bob finally stood up and said something to the effect of, “I don’t know about which name it should be, but I think it should be about community. Bringing the running community together and serving runners as community.” All the animosity between the two “camps” evaporated instantly.
    Best regards and good luck with your continued success leading Rodale forward. – Vern

  3. Jenn September 21, 2009 at 11:15 am #

    Very moving!

  4. Laura K. September 21, 2009 at 12:10 pm #

    I can’t believe it’s already been 20 years.

    This post is amazing. Sharp and bittersweet.

    I always wondered about the sausage factory, too.

  5. William E. Fasteen September 21, 2009 at 12:15 pm #

    MEMORY OF BOB:
    Our memory started about 1958. We were interested in Organic growing and did not know how to get started. I call Organic Gardening for the cost of a subscription and some person answered the phone, his name was Bob. This person started to tell me about what organic could do for our family of 5 children. He did send me a free subscription and he said if I had any questions call him. In 1959 my partner in life developed cancer in stage 4. Organic gardnering became a way of life for us. In 1962 our soil was certified organic by the North Dakota State University. I did call this person called Bob from time to time and I do remember asking him what I coud do to repay the time and expence he spent with me. I will never forget what he said to me. He said I have 3 words, PASS IT ALONG. From that time on I have promoted organic soil and organic gardens which includes seminars,helping young people get started and just talking organic. Thanking you for BOB
    Bill Fasteen 812 9th St NE Waseca MN 56093 [egyusa_2@yahoo.com]

  6. Renee September 21, 2009 at 12:20 pm #

    Hi Maria – I have a few specific memories of your dad to share.
    One – that he would just as often as not plop down at a table in the cafeteria and share his lunchtime with his colleagues at Rodale. When that happened, I found myself unexpectedly sharing lunch with the guy at the top of the company’s org chart.
    Two – on one such occasion, he was remarking about a recent trip to the Soviet Union, and the kind of time warp he found there. He said something like, “There are more lights on in downtown Emmaus at night than there are in Moscow.”
    Three – he talked as well about how terrible the drivers are in the Soviet Union. It’s hard to forget that comment.
    He was approachable, sincere and unapologetically ahead of his time.
    Hard to believe it’s been 19 years; I’m sure you’ll think of him everyday, even for just a minute or two.
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts today.

  7. Lori September 21, 2009 at 1:42 pm #

    What great memories you have of your Dad. Thanks for sharing them!

  8. Nancy September 21, 2009 at 2:16 pm #

    My most vivid memory of Bob Rodale happened in the late 1980s, after a torrential downpour. I was an entry-level employee at Rodale, and he and I happened to be walking out to the parking lot together (Rodale has no designated VIP parking). At the time, Rodale didn’t pave its parking lots, believing that it was preferable to let the rainwater percolate back down into the water table instead of running off macadam into storm drains. That day’s rainfall had made the gravel parking lot a virtual lake. Bob smiled at me as I tiptoed out to my car with my pant legs held high above my ankles, and we made a joke about the depth of the water. He, of course, was wearing sensible duck boots, so he wasn’t affected. Nevertheless, less than two weeks later, the parking lot received a nice thick new layer of gravel. I’m sure that it was my welfare, and not his own, that Bob had in mind when he made that happen.

    I think I cried almost as hard at Bob’s funeral as I did at my own parents’ funerals. (I lost my mother 6 weeks after Bob died.) The funeral hymn that put me over the edge was “For the Beauty of the Earth.”

  9. Heather Rodale September 21, 2009 at 2:46 pm #

    Thank you dear sister for celebrating the day with your message. This weekend I saw the movie Julie & Julia. I reminisced about our parents cooking. It was our dad who watched Julia Child’s cooking shows. He made the healthy gourmet and while our mother chose the quick cook recipes. As we continue to share meals, we will toast “To Life,” both those who are at the table and those who gave us ours.

  10. Wendy Steager September 21, 2009 at 4:58 pm #

    Maria, I am so enjoying your writings and am so glad to have you bringing me home to Emmaus each time I read what you’ve written. Somehow it helps me feel connected from my home in northern Vermont. Thanks for sharing your thoughts about your Dad and painting a new story to replace the old sterile one I’d seen in the newspapers at the time. And even though I never knew either of them, I often think about both him and David and the risks they took to live their lives passionately in the face of all sorts of unfamiliar obstacles. It’s great to see you continuing the legacy and living out loud for the rest of us to see. Best to you!

  11. Dana B September 21, 2009 at 6:50 pm #

    Thank you for sharing these memories of your dad, Maria. Beautifuly written!

  12. Lynn September 21, 2009 at 10:49 pm #

    Hi Maria,
    Thank you for sharing your memories. Two of my many memories are 1)how your Dad would come down to the library and say “I have a big idea”… and they were fruitful — The Cornucopia Project and Regeneration, and many others come to mind…2) He had a great memory for the color and sizes of books… maybe not the title, but when he asked for the red book with gold lettering about 2-1/2 inches thick, it was somewhere on the shelf!

  13. Donna in Delaware September 22, 2009 at 6:48 am #

    That was beautiful. I know that you get angry, and I realise that it may not be much comfort, but try to remember why he was the way that he was and that what he was doing was not particularly for himself, but for all mankind. Think about the impact that it is having on us and the world-at-large today. Bless you and your family. May your memories always be good.

  14. Sue September 22, 2009 at 11:15 am #

    Maria,

    I have great memories of your dad. There are two that I remember vividly. When I began at Rodale, I worked at Fitness House for many people who had their offices there. One of my responsibilites was sending out booklets on Fish Farming. One day, my phone rang (it was one of those old black telephones and there was no caller id back then). The guy asked for a booklet and I said, “well that will cost you a dollar sir”. Your dad said, “this is Bob Rodale. I don’t think I have to pay for it.” I was so embarrassed, but I guess he knew I was doing my job.

    The other memory was the day I had to go out to Bob & Ardie’s house and teach Bob how to use a computer. I was the “trainer” at Rodale–we had just gotten stand alone computers. When I arrived, he told me I had to be quiet since Anthony had been out late and was sleeping. After about two hours of teaching him the basics, Bob said, “I’ve had enough. Thank you” and I was on my way. Makes me smile every time I think of it.

  15. Helen September 22, 2009 at 2:23 pm #

    Thank you for yet another glimpse into your fascinating family. How wonderful to find a spoken record to share with Eve and Lucia. I am sure they would have also been very proud of what he achieved during his life.

  16. Chris September 22, 2009 at 2:47 pm #

    What a beautiful tribute. May he rest in peace.

  17. Scott September 23, 2009 at 3:40 pm #

    Maria,

    What a wonderful tribute to a great man and, obviously, a wonderful father. Thank you for sharing this memory.

  18. Barbara September 27, 2009 at 1:15 am #

    Thanks for sharing some memories of your father. I was a Nutrition student at Penn State when he died. One of my professors had arranged for Bob to come visit and talk in our Global Nutrition class after his return from the Soviet Union She was so excited about it that the whole class anticipated meeting him. I really had no idea who he was at the time, but was interested in finding out. Our professor was late for class and distracted when she came in after hearing of his death. I did not realize just what/who I had miss out on until about a year later when I really started to understand the importance of “organic” and truly good health. I am incredibly thankful to the Rodale Institute and the family’s continued devotion to its mission.

    May your years in the ‘top seat’ be fruitful, enjoyable and enduring.

  19. Nathan September 27, 2009 at 11:42 pm #

    Maria,

    From the next generation pursuing organic life, thanks for the poignant picture of your father. His words still carry a tremendous amount of meaning, even two generations later!

  20. Bo Walton October 30, 2009 at 3:09 pm #

    Maria,

    I too, lost both parents at a young age… I was 12 when my mother passed and 20 when my father passed! I too, believe that everything happens for a reason, and it is a blessing when we can understand that reason. Thank you for the (tearful) entry about your wonderful, eccentric father! The 3 Russian hats pay homage to your fathers’ love for you and your sisters.

  21. Suzanne October 13, 2012 at 11:08 pm #

    Thank you. I thought Prevention magazine went down after his death. More commercial, less genuine. More preachy and patronizing, less research. You come from a sturdy line and I send you my kind regards. I am sorry for your loss.

  22. meri cope January 14, 2013 at 11:27 am #

    i don’t remember you from school…i remember heather & heidi…i went to school with your brother, david…very sweet…when he died, i wanted to let the family know what a wonderful person he was, but never did…sorry…i want to thank you for this recipe!…i grew up on it…

  23. Pamela Crossley September 9, 2013 at 8:39 am #

    Hi Maria, some members of our family were speaking fondly of your family yesterday and I googled up this very nice piece of writing. I think your dad would know where it all comes from. My own best memory of him was one day I was working at Rodale after leaving high school. I was (and am) into the whole Rodale world view and of course road my bike to work. Somewhere on one of the grassy-verged roads outside Emmaus my chain and gears got messed up and I off to tinker with it. After some time your dad came riding along, recognized me, smiled, got off and squatted down to help me untangle things. We rode on together. If you believe in what your dad believed, those things go together. If you want everybody to bike to work, you have to stop and help all the bikers whose equipment is tangled up. You dad is one of the great figures in the histories of environmentalism, publishing and Emmaus. His kids had to pay part of the price for the benefits so widely spread. We who benefitted understand.

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