By Gary Ruessegger
Special to the New Journal and Guide
Five days before Veterans Day, the name of 1964 Norfolk State graduate Thomas H. Rhodes was added to the university’s Veterans Memorial beside Echols Hall.
On February 12, 1966, a sniper’s bullet took Rhodes’ life in Vietnam. The Portsmouth resident was a member of Mt. Hermon Baptist Temple, a 1959 graduate of Norcom High School and NSU’s first pole vaulter.
The son of Henry and Iona Rhodes was also a member of the Spartan wrestling team. Before his military service, Rhodes taught math at Currituck Union High School in Maple, North Carolina.
Rhodes’ homecoming appropriately took place during Norfolk State’s homecoming weekend. Former and current NSU students packed the campus before their big game with Savannah State. The Spartans later defeated the visitors, 20-17, in overtime.
But while the pre-game celebration erupted in the middle of the campus, a more somber ceremony took place just outside of Echols Hall, the same building that would host Saturday night’s homecoming dance.
Retired Army Col. Tim Lamb, president of the NSU Military Alumni Chapter, presided over the dedication of Pfc. Rhodes’ name to the Veterans Memorial.
The selection committee, composed of three retired colonels and a former lieutenant (Col. Moses Whitehurst, Col. James Whitehead, Col. Norvel “Rock” Dillard and former Lt. James “LT” Edwards), spent countless hours of work on the research.
The junior officer, now Dr. Rev. James Edwards, discovered Rhodes’ story in a March 1966 article in the then Norfolk Division of Virginia State College’s “Spartan Echo.”
“I was doing some research and just came across the article,” said Edwards, the retired pastor of the New Rose of Sharon Missionary Baptist Church in Chesapeake. “I wasn’t waiting another 26 years,” he added.
The monument was originally dedicated on Nov. 15, 2008. For over 25 years, Edwards fought to establish the memorial at Norfolk State to honor the Spartans “who have given their lives for their country on the battlefield.”
Edwards wrote letters, made phone calls, sent e-mails, prayed and patiently waited. That wait ended on a rain-soaked Saturday morning seven years ago. The re-dedication took place under blue skies and a shining sun.
Half a lifetime ago, Edwards was a platoon leader in Vietnam. He was wounded twice in Southeast Asia. His license plate displays a Purple Heart with the message “2 N Nam.” He returned home with two Bronze Stars pinned to his chest. The memorial is very personal to him.
The other five names on the monument include Maj. Warren Goss, Sgt. Edward Williams, Lt. Linwood Carter, Capt. Alan “Pinkie” Boffman and Lt. Col. Alfred Barnes.
Carter and Boffman were classmates of Edwards and Barnes was their ROTC instructor.
Barnes had earlier served in Korea where he received seven citations including the Silver Star with Oak Leaf Cluster, the Bronze Star with two Oak Leaf Clusters, the Purple Heart and the Korean Presidential Citation.
Carter and Boffman died in Vietnam on Oct. 21, 1971 and March 18, 1971 respectively. Barnes lost his life during an enemy rocket attack on May 12, 1969.
“We were in ROTC together at Norfolk State,” said Edwards.
Over 50 people attended the re-dedication ceremony including Rhodes’ 95-year old mother Iona Rhodes, his sister Ruby Bryant, the selection committee, NSU Athletic Director Marty Miller, NSU Interim Vice President for University Advancement Dr. Deborah C. Fontaine and NSU Interim President Eddie N. Moore, Jr.
The ceremony was especially moving for President Moore, a Vietnam veteran in 1969-1970. Despite it being homecoming weekend, he rearranged his schedule to be there. It was that important.
Many active duty military attended. Like on D-Day in 1944, among the first to arrive were two members of the 82nd Airborne–Capt. J. F. Foster and Capt. M. A. Cyrus, both 2010 NSU graduates. As a cadet at the university, Cyrus attended the original dedication of the monument in 2008.
Even before they arrived, Lt. Edwards was already there with his wife and chief lieutenant, Rev. Delores W. Edwards. Whenever he’s involved in a project, you can bet his wife of over 50 years will be assisting nearby. She was accompanied by their youngest great grandchild Nasaiah (Hebrew for Miracle of God).
“I couldn’t do any of this without her,” Edwards explained. “She’s the best-they don’t come any better.”
The original dedication included remarks from Edwards and Brig. Gen. Arnold N. Gordon-Bray, former commanding general for the Army Cadet Command at Fort Monroe.
Gordon-Bray paid tribute to the first five names on the memorial and added that “it is a probability that the memorial may have another name.” He was right.
Almost fifty years after his death, Thomas H. Rhodes finally joined his fellow NSU graduates on the memorial. Family members helped the selection committee unveil the updated monument. It was that important.
Clear blue skies were overhead and Rev. Edwards couldn’t stop smiling.