Joe M. Rodgers dies at 75

Between myriad business successes, construction magnate and investor became a major player in Republican politics and served as U.S. ambassador to France

Ambassador Joe M. Rodgers passed away today at the age of 75. He had been suffering from cancer.

As an entrepreneur, investor, social activist, political operative and diplomat, Rodgers was a man of local, national and global influence. And all of that success began, essentially, with a golf junket.

In the spring of 1968, a friend offered Rodgers a ticket and a place to stay for the Masters Tournament. As Bill Carey writes in the Nashville business history Fortunes, Fiddles & Fried Chicken, Rodgers ended up sharing a house in Augusta with Dr. Thomas F. Frist Sr. The Nashville physician had recently joined with entrepreneur Jack Massey and others to create a private hospital company.

Rodgers had started his own construction company in 1966 after working as sales manager for Dixie Concrete Pipe Co. As he and Dr. Frist strolled the famed course and talked business, a bond developed. Soon after they returned home, Frist offered Rodgers the job of building a hospital in Erin, Tenn. for the new Hospital Corporation of America.

By 1970, Joe M. Rodgers & Associates Inc. was constructing 19 hospitals for HCA. By 1979, it had built more than 200, reporting that it had completed more than $120 million in contracted work the prior year.

Along with HCA jobs, its work in the 1970s included a parachute job to finish the construction of National Life & Accident Insurance Co.'s Opryland USA entertainment complex.

Labor strife had idled the contractor working on the project in April 1972, and Rodgers' company took over with a mandate to have the theme park ready to open by May 19. Crossing picket lines, Rodgers and his subcontractors worked in shifts around the clock.

"There was one stretch when we poured concrete for 54 straight hours," he later recalled in a Nashville Banner interview.

They beat the deadline by two days – earning a $50,000 bonus, which was given to local Boy and Girl Scout groups.

After suffering a heart attack in 1977, Rodgers decided to redirect his energies. He sold a majority stake in the construction company, which continued to bear his name, and moved into real estate development while also founding a merchant banking firm, Rodgers Capital Group L.P. High-profile real estate projects in which he was involved included Vanderbilt Plaza and the Third National Bank building – now the Fifth Third Center – at Fifth Avenue and Church Street downtown.

American Constructors Inc., another construction firm founded by Rodgers in 1979 along with real estate investor Ted Welch and the late entrepreneur Jack Massey, built Vanderbilt Plaza and has since erected such local landmarks as the Country Music Hall of Fame, the Wildhorse Saloon and the Schermerhorn Symphony Hall.

In 1976, Rodgers emerged on the national political scene as an early backer of former California Gov. Ronald Reagan's candidacy for president. He served as Tennessee finance chairman for Reagan's primary campaign against President Gerald Ford.

Reagan lost the nomination that year, but Rodgers continued to be one of his major supporters and served as finance chairman of the Republican National Committee from 1978 to 1980. The committee raised some $75 million during that time, dramatically increasing its donor base.

After Reagan took office in 1981, he appointed Rodgers to the Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board. He continued to raise funds for a variety of GOP-related causes, and in 1984 he served as finance chief for the successful Reagan-Bush re-election campaign.

In 1985, Reagan rewarded Rodgers by naming him U.S. ambassador to France for a four-year term. He and wife Honey settled into their official residence in Paris, a mansion dating from 1852 with 25-foot ceilings in its reception rooms and two acres of gardens. They kept a supply of GooGoo Clusters on hand as a Nashville treat to share with their diplomatic guests.

Francois Mitterrand, president of France, personally awarded Rodgers the rank of Grand Officier of the Legion of Honor.

In 1991, Rodgers became chairman and acting CEO of Berlitz International Inc. as the language-products company was dealing with controversies that emerged when part-owner Robert Maxwell died under mysterious circumstances.

Rodgers held several public-company board seats at various times over the past two decades. He was a director of AMR Corp. (parent of American Airlines), Gaylord Entertainment Co., Thomas Nelson Inc., Tractor Supply Co., Gryphon Holdings Inc. and Willis Corroon PLC.

Among the civic, charitable and religious organizations he was involved with were the Salvation Army, the Middle Tennessee Council of Boy Scouts of America and the Fellowship of Christian Athletes.

Rodgers was involved with a number of conservative causes. In the 1990s, he served as chairman of the Tennessee Family Institute, an affiliate of Focus on the Family. He also became chairman of Shepherd Financial Services Inc., a mutual fund group that screened out companies thought to support abortion, pornography, gay rights and other issues opposed by conservatives.

In 2008, Rodgers served as fundraising co-chair for the presidential campaign of Republican former Tennessee Senator Fred Thompson.

Among the many honors bestowed on Rodgers were honorary degrees from the University of Alabama, the University of the South and Rhodes College. He received the National Exchange Club American Enterprise Award and, in 2000, was named one of nine "Leaders of the Century" by Associated Builders and Contractors.

From 1989 until 1999, Rodgers held the Jennings A. Jones Chair of Excellence in Free Enterprise at Middle Tennessee State University.

Born in Bay Minette, Ala. on Nov. 12, 1933, Rodgers grew up in Montgomery and earned a bachelor's degree in civil engineering from the University of Alabama. He served three years in the U.S. Coast Guard.

Rodgers is survived by his wife of 52 years, Helen Martin "Honey" Rodgers, daughter Jan Rodgers Dale (Bob) and son Mason Rodgers (Kelli), as well as eight grandchildren.

Following a private burial, visitation with the family will be held at Christ Presbyterian Church on Wednesday, February 4 from 12:00 noon until 4:00 p.m. at which time a memorial service and celebration of Rodgers' life will be held. 

In lieu of flowers, contributions may be made to The Rodgers/Dale Family Foundation for support of Christian organizations (P.O. Box 158838, Nashville, TN 37215).

At this link: Friends and associates remember Joe Rodgers.