Kannapolis Rotary honors 91-year-old former POW
By Hugh Fisher
KANNAPOLIS - Rickard Rodgers, 91, has seen history unfold before his eyes.
In World War II, he was a soldier in Company I of the 120th Infantry Regiment, 30th Infantry - the "Old Hickory" division.
On October 21, 1944 - 68 years ago this week - Rodgers and the rest of his combat patrol were taken prisoner by the Germans.
Moving through the enemy perimeter after nightfall, their ammunition depleted, Rodgers and his men found themselves at gunpoint.
It took more than seven months, but on May 8, 1945, Rodgers and others cut through a fence and made good their escape. They rejoined the 30th Infantry Division later that day.
"The stories of that time are both tragic and chilling," said Ed Hosack, a member of the Kannapolis Rotary Club who helped research Rodgers' military service.
"Perseverance and the instinct to survive became their sustaining force."
And the perseverance of people like Rodgers, Hosack said, sustained America.
On Tuesday, the Kannapolis Rotary Club paid tribute to Rodgers, and all U.S. veterans, with a special program honoring his career in and out of uniform.
Rodgers joined Rotary 39 years ago, on September 1, 1973. He served as treasurer, then as vice president and as club president for the 1978-79 year.
He has also been named a Paul Harris Fellow, after Rotary's founder, in honor of his charitable work and service to the community.
Rodgers' daughter, Janet Rodgers Johnson, said only a few were aware of the surprise waiting for the man whom many in Kannapolis know as "Rick."
Tuesday morning, about 40 motorcyclists from three groups - Patriot Guard Riders, Rolling Thunder and the Combat Veterans Motorcycle Association - arrived at Rodgers' home.
They escorted him and his family downtown to Rotary Hall on West Avenue.
There, a crowd of visitors applauded his arrival, while cadets from the A.L. Brown High School Navy JROTC saluted Rodgers as he entered Rotary Hall.
Hosack introduced Rodgers and recounted the story of his captivity and escape.
Hosack also described Rodgers' career in Kannapolis after leaving military service in 1945: life with Virginia, Rodgers' wife of 71 years, and their children.
After the Army, Rodgers worked for the H.E. Hall Furniture Company before opening a grocery store in Midway, on South Main Street.
In later years, Rodgers worked for Security Bank in Kannapolis, served as president of the former Kannapolis Merchants Association and then, in 1985, as a member of the Kannapolis Chamber of Commerce.
His voice full of emotion, Kannapolis Mayor Robert Misenheimer, fellow Rotarian and longtime friend, read a proclamation honoring Rodgers, then presented him with the key to the city.
Robin Scharding, a member of the Cabarrus Rotary Club, presented Rodgers with a pin that had been given to participants in the Flight of Honor - a program that honored veterans with a trip to visit the World War II memorial in Washington, D.C.
Scharding said that the nation's World War II veterans need to be honored by their country, before it's too late.
"We live our lives today because of what they did for us," Scharding said.
District Governor Chris Jones, also in attendance, said Rodgers is an example of a true American hero.
"What a wonderful opportunity to be here and celebrate someone who has given us the gift of the country we have today," Jones said.
Kannapolis Rotary Club President Deb Carter said the event, which was attended by about 90 people, left her feeling "immeasurable pride and gratitude."
Johnson said that, for her father and family members, the day was "almost overwhelming."
Rodgers took the microphone to thank the crowd, saying he wished his wife, Virginia - unable to attend due to health problems - had been able to join him.
But Rodgers also showed his sense of humor
Rodgers thanked the motorcyclists who had turned out to honor him.
But, he added, "I hate to tell 'em, but I've never been on one in my life, and I don't expect to ever get on one."
After pausing for laughter, Rodgers went on, "And I thought this group escorted funerals, and I was kind of shook up for a little bit."On a serious note, Rodgers called the morning's honor "the greatest thing I've ever seen in my life."
A great compliment from a man who lived through the world's greatest war, and formed part of America's "Greatest Generation."
Contact Hugh Fisher via the editor's desk at 704-797-4244.