Sally Rhoads died August 11 after a long illness, leaving in her wake a tremendous number of good works. A towering example of how to work to make a community better, she was someone committed to service. Sally had a knack for getting things done in the face of skepticism and controversy. Among the physical reminders of her efforts are the Lenape Elementary School, which came into being when she led the school board, and Elting Memorial Library, which was roughly doubled in size thanks to a capital project she shepherded through as president of that board.
Bill Rhoads, whom she eventually married, first became friends with Sally in high school, when she was on the color guard and field hockey team. He recalled her being a lively, energetic, sparkling kid. “That’s how she always was.”
The couple moved to New Paltz in 1970 when Bill had been hired to teach history at the college. While she possessed a master’s degree herself, in psychology, Sally turned to public service by running for school board.
“She enjoyed talking to prospective teachers,” Bill remembered. Sally was frequently asked to give lectures about her perspective as a trustee to education students on campus. “She loved children and youth,” said Bill. In her pursuit of making a New Paltz education the best possible, “she was not afraid to confront people in the administration who disagreed with her.”
Though Sally Rhoads was known for the unvarnished expression of her views, what made her stand out was her ability to get people to listen and to act.
Elting Memorial Library was cramped and small in the early Aughts, despite expansions in 1962 and 1978. Director John Giralico had a vision to bring it into the 21st century. A feasibility study was done that concluded that there weren’t enough major donors, and the community wasn’t big enough to raise the $2.5 million needed.
Sally Rhoads didn’t take no for an answer.
“I had a vision,” said Giralico, “She told me she would help me realize it, and she did.” Sally, Giralico recalls that she was initially skeptical herself, but came around to the conclusion that the consultant was wrong. She applied her considerable will to raising the funds. That included taking Giralico along as she went door to door, calling in favors and gathering donations. Even with a third of the money coming from one major donor, it was not easy. “I don’t like asking for money, but we were a team,” said Giralico. It amazed me how many people she knew.”
Longtime friend Mary Ottaway was on the Elting Memorial Library board with Sally. “I watched with awe as she steered us with energy and expertise through the rough waters of the 2006 expansion,” she said.
An avid collector of old books, Sally leveraged that interest to expand the library fair into the major fundraising event each year for that organization. She organized the fair for 35 years, which included “getting volunteers to do the unpleasant work of lugging heavy boxes of books onto tables,” according to her husband.
Eileen Glenn, president of the New Paltz Community Foundation, remembered Rhoads’ “boundless energy and way of getting people to work on whatever she was trying to do.” She was a focused and effective leader. “She was always out there, getting people to help her, getting them to be energized,” said Glenn. “It was hard to be as energized as Sally.”
Doing it Sally’s way
The same people who respected Sally Rhoads for what she was able to accomplish found that one did not stand in her way lightly. “If you agreed, she was the best ally you could have, but if you disagreed, she was a dogged opponent,” said Jason West, who appointed Rhoads his deputy mayor during his second term as village mayor. She later resigned that post because of differences between them. “She had many tools, and she used them to the best of her ability,” West, who collaborated with Rhoads on projects both within the village government and outside it, said.
Stewart Glenn, who was on the village board with Rhoads for two years, remembers her resigning as deputy mayor. “She had strong feelings and beliefs, and stood by them,” he remembered. He described her as “a feisty pillar of the community” who “didn’t get pushed around.” She worked to get town and village officials on the same page for issues in which she believed.
Glenn hailed the library capital project as a central part of her legacy. The force of her personality is what pushed it through. Glenn said with a chuckle, “You’re gonna do it Sally’s way.
Ariana Basco, who served as a village trustee with Rhoads, called her “a firecracker.” Though it was possible to feel Rhoads “was steamrolling you in a conversation” when she was pushing her passion, she also took time to listen carefully to opposing views. “She was always willing to listen and learn,” said Basco. “She’d get excited and passionate and talk over you in a meeting, but she was always willing to hear you out.” Rhoads would always take the time to listen. If persuaded of the argument, she would change her mind.
During her time in that elected office, consolidating the two New Paltz governments was her prime issue. It turned out to be one of the a rare areas where Rhoads was unable to prevail by her will and charisma alone. The effort failed because the model proposed was determined not to be legally possible.
“She had her consolidation agenda, but it wasn’t her only focus” while serving on the board, Basco noted. She and Rhoads negotiated several union contracts together. Rhoads spearheaded an overhaul of downtown parking which resulted in a number of substantive changes being made.
How did Rhoads so it? “She was really good at picking out dissenting voices, and getting them on board,” Basco said.
Basco credits Rhoads with teaching her the ins and outs of the budget process. “There was no such thing as minutiae for Sally,” agreed West.
Rhoads’ interest in the details made an impression on Nancy Branco, the village treasurer. “She was a wonderful person to work with, and cared deeply about the people here and their morale,” Branco said. “Anyone who worked with her would tell you the same thing.” She characterized Rhoads as very dedicated as both a public servant and a community member. She “always had the best intentions.”
No ifs, ands or buts
“Our hearts feel heavy at village hall with former trustee Sally Rhoads’ passing,” said mayor Tim Rogers in a statement. “She spent enormous amounts of time and energy serving our village, but [the fact that] her list of New Paltz contributions and projects spanning decades, including service on the board of education and Elting Memorial Library’s board of trustees, is truly remarkable.”
Rhoads’ long track record of pitching in gave her a special standing in helping others realize their own vision for the community as well. That may be part of the reason she had such success in getting people to show up for the book fair and other projects. She knew the people of the community, and they looked upon her with gratitude, respect and at least a little bit of awe.
“But what a special joy it was to have coffee with Sally at the Bakery!” Mary Ottaway wrote in an emailed remembrance. “I would question her about the latest New Paltz controversy, and she would listen intently. Then she would lean forward across the small table, hand on chin, and give me a clear, forceful opinion with no ifs, ands, or buts about it.”
Her love of children may have informed the Rhoadses becoming pioneers in the New Paltz Halloween culture. Living across from the firehouse where the annual parade concluded didn’t hurt, either. In those days, before the holiday-loving Guenthers began hosting an iconic haunted experience at their Center Street home, Plattekill Avenue homeowners expected a few hundred kids to knock at the door Halloween night. (By comparison, neighbors now brace for more than a thousand when Halloween is on a weekend, although this year that may be impacted by the pandemic.)
Sally delighted in scaring her young visitors. One year, she used makeup and cut a hole in a card table to appear to be the ghoulish decoration of a human skull, only to open her eyes and speak when kids reached for the treats.
A huge footprint
“We miss her greatly,” Mary Ottaway wrote.
“She will be sadly missed,” said Branco.
“She left a huge footprint on the community, and she’ll be missed,” agreed West.
“Sally, thank you for caring so deeply about our community. You will be missed,” wrote Rogers.
As it happens, even role models have role models. Bill Rhoads says that his wife looked up to and admired other community-minded women who worked to improve New Paltz, including library leader Karen Conner, school district social worker Norma Mabee, and Mary Jane Ordway, former school board member and key figure in the local Reformed Church, where Sally served as director of Christian education. She held Carol Roper, a one-time town supervisor who worked as a library-board member to raise money for that capital project, in high esteem. Roper passed away earlier this year. Like Roper, Rhoads will be interred at the New Paltz Rural Cemetery in a private ceremony due to pandemic conditions. A more public memorial will be planned, her husband said.
Related— Sally Rhoads: An Appreciation