Polk State College is mourning the loss of Jim Rhodes, a nearly 30-year employee whose positive impact has been felt throughout the College community.
From assisting faculty with instructional technology to serving students as a mathematics professor and tutor, Rhodes is remembered as a person who was always there to help and as a cornerstone of the Polk State family. He passed away Dec. 19, 2019 at the age of 53.
Jim Rhodes joined Polk State in 1991 as a part-time employee in the Winter Haven Campus Library before achieving his master’s degree and joining the College’s Institutional Technology team. In this position, Rhodes’s generous nature and quick wit led to many life-long friendships with his colleagues.
“Jim was undoubtedly influential,” said Charles Fox, who served as Polk State’s Director of Instructional Technology Services. “He worked tirelessly, and he cared about people more than he cared about himself.”
Rhodes and Fox held an Institutional Technology Institute each summer for faculty to learn basic software skills as the College’s first computers were being put on desks. Their collaborative training approach made their sessions enjoyable and memorable for faculty members. They also built and maintained the College’s website, which was among the first five community college websites established in the infancy of the World Wide Web, Fox said.
Rhodes also played a large role in the development of distance learning at the College, as well as the launch of the College’s learning management system. He ensured faculty members received interactive and personalized training so they could thrive in the new landscape of higher education, and he even coined the term for the College’s first online system – Polk Access to Learning, or PAL.
Jim is remembered for being consummately approachable, a characteristic that made him an effective trainer and teacher.
“He co-led the first years of PAL training and certification when online teaching was new. He gave the faculty many ‘Jim-isms’ during the process such as ‘snackage’ and ‘the PAL,’” said Bill Caldecutt, Professor of Biology and President of the Faculty Senate.
Rhodes was also an active member of the Faculty Senate, and Caldecutt called him a “strong and fair advocate” for faculty concerns and a “friend who inspired others.”
“He was a kind, steady, and deeply friendly person. I went to him countless times over the years for his wise experience and counsel,” Caldecutt recalled. “He helped me with many tough decisions. He was quiet, but vocal at all the right times.”
Rhodes taught mathematics as an adjunct instructor for 10 years before becoming a full-time faculty member in 2011.
“He helped out in any way possible – he helped the students and the faculty,” Professor of Mathematics Megan Cavanah said. “He met students where they were – academically and in life – and was understanding of students’ responsibilities outside of college. He was always willing to go the extra mile to help students succeed.”
He was equally dedicated to fellow colleagues.
“He was tech-savvy and would help with new software, and he would cover a class if needed,” Cavanah added. “He was kind. He was a great listener, and he would always go out of his way to help others.”
Soft-spoken and warm, he was known for instantly putting people at ease.
“If Jim had a motto, it would have been, ‘I’m here for you,’” said Courtlann Thomas, Director of the Teaching Learning Computing Center (TLCC) and Learning Resources on the Lakeland Campus.
She recalls students lining up outside of his office, and Rhodes putting them first – ensuring he met with each of them before moving on to his other responsibilities.
Professor of Mathematics Penny Morris explained that even after being paralyzed six years ago, Rhodes remained dedicated to his students and passionate about teaching.
“Jim would have students come to his home for any extra help they needed. Sometimes these were former students who needed help with another class they were taking at Polk State or at a university,” Morris said. “Jim would also tutor the children of former students. Some of his caregivers were nursing students, and he helped them with their dosage calculation classes.”
Thomas called Rhodes a “quiet hero” who “would offer support even when it was an inconvenience for him.”
“He was always available and made people feel special,” she said. “That’s why he was always so popular with the students – he made it known that the students came first.”
A quiet, private person by nature, colleagues have always viewed Rhodes’s “teaching persona” as larger than life.
“He was open, honest, embracing, and supportive,” Fox said. “The bottom line was that he wanted students to have open access to higher education. He wanted students to have the support they needed to achieve their degrees and to improve their lives.”
“His work with the students impacted their lives and, of course, his work with the faculty was driven by the students,” he added. “Jim was inevitably one of the most impactful individuals at Polk State, with countless positive contributions to the College.”
Colleagues also remember Rhodes for his love of architecture, travel, and rollercoasters, which inspired his participation in Polk State’s inaugural Human Library event in 2019. He shared with students, faculty, and staff his experiences traveling across the U.S. and Europe as a rollercoaster enthusiast.
After his passing, social media was filled with thoughtful words from family, friends, and colleagues.
“[He] did so much, especially for first-generation collegians,” shared Ed LoPresto, former program director and adjunct faculty member.
“A true gem of a person,” Professor of Mathematics Anna Butler wrote.
“I miss his voice; his silly texts; his witty sense of humor; I miss everything about him,” Rhodes’s sister Susan Shipe shared. “He was such a kind and gentle soul who touched the lives of many.”
A memorial service will be held Feb. 1 at 11 a.m. in Lakeland at Oak Hill Cemetery, 4620 U.S. Highway 98 S. Individuals who are interested in contributing to a memorial in honor of Rhodes are invited to visit foundation.polk.edu/rhodes for more information.