Donald E. Rodman, who parlayed his success in the auto business into a second career as a passionate philanthropist, died Tuesday following a period of declining health.
He was 88 and had been the husband of Marilyn G. Rodman, who died in May 2013.
Longtime president of Rodman Ford Sales, Inc. of Foxboro, one of southeastern New England’s preeminent Ford dealerships, Rodman in recent years had redirected his prodigious energies to philanthropic endeavors.
“He did a lot more behind the scenes than some people thought,” Gene Rodman, the eldest of five sons, said on Wednesday. “He really was such a dynamic person.”
Approached in 1991 and asked to help raise money for the Robert F. Kennedy Children’s Action Corps, Rodman responded by launching the Rodman Ride for Kids, the well-known bicycle event which has since raised more than $143 million for a range of nonprofits working with at-risk children.
The Rodman Ride is just one of several affiliated charities targeting youth under the “Rodman for Kids” umbrella. Others include a theater appreciation program, a car donation program, a holiday party and the appropriately named “Disney for Kids,” which since 1992 has provided 2,400 at-risk kids with all-expense paid trips to Disney.
Amy Branco Rossman, executive director of the Rodman for Kids organization, on Wednesday characterized her late boss as a true philanthropist and a champion for children.
“Don liked to explain that to be a real philanthropist you have to do more than just give — you have to inspire others to give as well,” Rossman said in a prepared statement. “And through his decades of work on countless boards and committees, and nearly 30 years of running his own charitable organization, Don influenced more giving that we can imagine.”
In Foxboro, Don Rodman supplanted his late brother, Gerry Rodman, as a perennial benefactor of the Foxboro Discretionary Fund — and more recently provided seed money for the Marilyn Rodman Performing Arts Center, named for his late wife.
On Wednesday morning, the familiar marquee overlooking the Common rotary poignantly announced his death:
“Don & Marilyn Rodman brought 50,000 kids to theater – together again today.”
A second impromptu display, this one a standard-sized billboard near Rodman Ford on Route 1, proclaimed, “The Lion Sleeps Tonight ... He did so much for so many.”
“Don did not forget his struggles growing up,” said James DeVellis, former selectman and president of the performing arts center’s board of directors. “Combined with Marilyn, and his passion for providing kids an opportunity to experience the arts, the resurgence of the Orpheum came to be.”
In particular, DeVellis said Rodman, had been instrumental in reviving the local theater, which in turn helped bring new energy and investment to downtown Foxboro.
“He helped bring a complicated process together with just a handshake and a smile, and I think that, in part, is why the Marilyn Rodman Performing Arts Center will succeed,” DeVellis added. “Don’s way of doing the right thing without expecting anything in return is what, in a short time, has already changed so many kids for the better and kept the volunteers focused to make it stronger. He will be missed by many.”
But before developing a passion for philanthropy later in life, Rodman had been a force behind one of Foxboro’s enduring brands – Rodman Ford Sales.
Raised in Dorchester, he developed a love affair with automobiles at a young age, and as a teenager worked on the cars of friends and relatives after school and on weekends.
Smitten by this informal tryout as a grease monkey, Rodman dropped out of high school for a full-time job as a laundry truck mechanic. He later enlisted in the U.S. Army, where he received additional training as a mechanic.
Following his discharge Rodman, now married, worked at a number of dealerships, progressing from mechanic to salesman to general manager — and earning a reputation for hard work, sound judgment and honesty.
“Of all his pet peeves, honesty was number one,” Gene Rodman recalled. “He drove that into all of us.”
By 1960 the would-be auto executive had caught the eye of the Ford Motor Co., which offered him a small dealership in Foxboro center, located across from the former American Legion hall (now Union Straw restaurant) on Mechanic Street.
Rodman jumped at the offer – then set about recruiting his brother, Gerry Rodman, who left an Air Force career to join the fledgling business.
With Don at the helm and Gerry’s persuasive skills as primary salesman, the dealership thrived – moving to its familiar location on Route 1 later that same year.
It wasn’t the last attempt to broaden the franchise. Rodman subsequently acquired a Lincoln-Mercury franchise in Foxboro and opened a second on Route 44 in Raynham, established the Rodman Health & Fitness Center and launched the technology-driven Rodman Collision Repair Center and Rodman Car & Truck Rentals.
Son of Annette Johnson and Elmer “Pop” Johnson, he is survived by five sons: Gene Rodman and Bart Rodman, both of Braintree, Curtis Rodman and Brett Rodman, both of Canton, and Craig Rodman of Natick; nine grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.
Services will be held at 10 a.m. on Tuesday, Sept. 3 at B’nai Tikvah, 1301 Washington St., Canton. Burial will be at Sharon Memorial Park.