I have many fond memories of Odell Rhodes, and grieve that he had lost contact with so many of us before his death earlier this year. The only time I saw him after we left Guyana was in 2008, during a memorial ceremony that Lela Howard organized to name the names of the Jonestown dead. I hadn’t seen him for thirty years, and I needed to do a double-take to recognize him. He seemed the same, though quiet and pensive. After 36 years, I know the feeling and have seen it in others: when you make your first trip back – back to familiar Peoples Temple faces and those memories – the hardest part is the anticipation, the unease of being not “in charge” of your inner turmoil or the reaction of your former friends and fellow survivors. All of us survivors face that. But it gets easier each time, each anniversary, each gathering, or each email. And, finally, it is one more part of the person you have become. Even now, I am almost always fragile before contacts or presentations, and I am elated afterwards. That is when I can sit back and be happy that my dearest friends who survived are still part of my life.
On that day, at Lela’s ceremony in San Francisco, I could almost read Odell’s mind. He just couldn’t reconnect with any of us that day. He was pleasant and smiled at us all, and seemed genuinely happy to see so many people – and we were happy to see him – but it wasn’t enough for him to want to maintain the contact.
Odell survived by making the conscious decision not to participate in the dying going on around him, one of the very few people to make that decision. His decision likely was the first step on a long and lonely road that so many other survivors have taken, but his circumstances made his path that much more difficult. There was no way for him to take loved ones with him. Like him, none of the survivors feels we did everything we could have done to change things then. We no longer have a choice: we can’t go back and fix anything.
I remember Odell quite well from our time in Jonestown. He seemed to be happy and fulfilled as he worked in the community. He always had young people he mentored, either tutoring them or giving them life lessons. He was kind and calm. I never saw him in any kind of conflict with another person. He was steadfast, and a pleasure to be around. We had a deep friendship since we both spent time with the youth.
My favorite recollection of Odell was that he was my morning alarm clock. I often worked late into the night, either teaching and tutoring, or typing in the law office with Dick Tropp. At the bewitching hour, I would stagger to bed and a deep sleep. As the sun was rising a few hours later, Odell would head from his cottage up to the breakfast area. As he passed my cottage, he would use his cane to bang on the wall and call up to my window, “Laura, time to wake up!” He’d continue until he got some sign from me that he had broken through my fog.
The last time I saw Odell in Guyana was when the survivors were finally grouped and ready to head back to the USA. He spent time with us while the airlines were arranging enough air marshals to have one for each of us. Once we left Guyana, I lost track of Odell.
I am sorry that he lived these last 36 years without the friendships that have made such a difference in my own survival.
(Laura Johnston Kohl, who had lived in Jonestown but was working in Georgetown on 18 November, died on 19 November 2019 after a long battle with cancer. She was 72. Her writings for this website appear here.)