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Getting to Know… Mack Rhoades

Mack Rhoades, the Mount Vernon Council of Citizens Associations’ Citizen of the Year, was born in 1956 and grew up in Bell, a township in Los Angeles. He says he has a keen appreciation for community organizations because his family did not have much money growing up. He was the beneficiary of subsidized school lunch, after-school programs and YMCA summer camps. He spent much of his childhood in church, and eventually went to bible school and became a Baptist Minister. But after getting married, he decided he needed to earn more money, so he joined the Army and became a military policeman at Fort A.P. Hill, north of Richmond and near his wife’s family. In 1978, when one of his two sons became seriously ill, he left the army and joined the Caroline County Sheriff’s office.

Rhoades’ son died, and his marriage did not survive the tragedy. His wife and second son moved back to California, and Rhoades became a police officer in D.C., where he stayed until 1986, when three injuries in one year convinced him to to return to California in search of “the most mundane thing I could find.” He became a security supervisor at Disneyland. The experience marked him forever. He has a Mickey Mouse tattoo on his shoulder.

When a friend in D.C. became sick with AIDS in 1989, Rhoades came back to help care for him. The man was Navajo, and a mutual friend found Rhoades a job with an Indian-owned company that contracted with the government. For 13 years, Rhoades traveled to Indian communities all over America, helping the reservations add modern systems like computer networks.

In 2004, Rhoades took a job with the Michael Baker Corporation, creating databases and Web services for FEMA’s flood mapping division, because the office was near his home in Huntington, where he has lived since 1992 and been community association president since 1996. He sold his house five years ago, intending to leave the neighborhood, but when his neighbors found out, they offered him a house to rent and convinced him to stay. When Cameron Run flooded in June and 160 homes in his community were left uninhabitable for days, Rhoades led his community through the clean-up and represented them to the county, state and federal agencies that became part of the response.

When did your community involvement begin?

“[When I bought my house] there was a lot of drug activity and just craziness going on in my street. So I called [Mount Vernon District Supervisor] Gerry [Hyland] and said, ‘You aren’t doing your job.’ He was very up front with me, answered all my questions and said, ‘If you don’t like it do something about it. So I did.’” [He and his neighbors began videotaping cars that stopped to buy drugs and they convinced the police to become a regular presence on the street.]

“Around 1996 I guess it was, I opened my door one night after the doorbell rang and there were about 20 people in the front yard. It was the community association, and they said ‘We want you to do what you did on your street for the whole community, will you come to our next meeting?’”

What was your reaction to the flood in June?

“I wanted to move after the flood. I was shocked the next day when I was talking to people on their front porches, the look on their faces and what they were bringing out of their houses, cars twisted around curbs. I just wanted to get out of there. But talking to people and hearing them say they were glad I was here, I realized I just couldn’t leave until things were fixed.”

“I’m not sure what I’m going to do yet. I’ll see what happens. I like living there but I want to own a bigger house and I don’t know what I’m going to do.”

You’ve had a wide variety of careers…

“All of it has a continuing theme and that’s just community service — I didn’t think about it until recently — whether it was the police department or whether it was the church. I was a youth minister so I was really dealing with kids who were having issues with their families, their parents drank. To me it was just a natural extension of that. I’m a firm believer that God uses you for your skills. This is a similar thing to being in the ministry. It’s just service to the community.”

Talk about your three years a co-chair of the Mount Vernon Council of Citizens Association.

“There’s a part of the Mount Vernon District that wants to keep it the way it is, which is nice and not cluttered and more green, and then you have another part of the group that wants to bring in higher end development and stuff like King’s Crossing. And within that you’ve got to recognize that just because of where Mount Vernon is and its proximity to public transportation, you’ve got a whole group that are blue-collar workers. And there’s a whole group of us that’s worried about them and where they’re going to live. Everybody’s trying to figure out where to meet all these needs in the district. And the Council’s great for that. You’ve got all these different advocates… and at the end of the day even though people argue and disagree, everyone’s focused on what’s best for the district.”

“I get a real sense of community living in Mount Vernon.… You have all these people who don’t necessarily come home and close their door but they look at the community in broader terms. And I think the county’s very responsive to everything we ask them for, the police department especially. We have almost no crime in Huntington anymore, and that wasn’t true a few years ago… I think getting Mount Vernon Hospital to stay was a big thing. All those things make it a community. I don’t think you see that in other parts of the county on the same scale.”