Robert Rhoden, a respected Times-Picayune reporter and editor for 40 years who later developed skills as a communications strategist and Cajun musician, died Thursday at St. Tammany Parish Hospital. He was 66.
He died of complications of a lung infection, said Bob Warren, a longtime newspaper colleague and friend.
“He was one of those people who seemed to be good at everything he did,” said David Meeks, who worked with Rhoden in The Times-Picayune’s East Jefferson bureau. “He was comfortable on a golf course, he was comfortable working as a journalist, and he was comfortable on stage as a musician. He had a great, well-rounded life."
“He was the brother I never had,” added Kim Chatelain, a longtime co-worker and friend since their days at East Jefferson High School in the early 1970s. The two were roommates at LSU, where Rhoden played outfield on the baseball team and was a reporter and editor at The Reveille, the school newspaper.
They had summer internships at The Times-Picayune in 1978 and in 1979, after they graduated. When that second summer ended, “no one told them to leave, so they kept coming to work,” said Ron Thibodeaux, an LSU classmate who became a colleague.
“They were a good team,” Thibodeaux said. They were hired as full-time reporters at the end of the year and worked at the newspaper for 40 years.
Ron Thibodeaux, an LSU classmate who became a colleague at The Times-Picayune, said Rhoden was “calmly unflappable.” He and Rhoden occupied adjoining desks in the newspaper’s St. Tammany bureau for 18 years. Thibodeaux was bureau chief, and Rhoden was assistant bureau chief.
“He was a very cool customer,” Thibodeaux said. “He was somebody who had tremendous insights about people, about politics, about what made life interesting. He nonetheless was sort of a soft-spoken guy. He wasn’t brash about anything he did. … He was quietly efficient, not only in his work but also in the way he lived his life.”
Rhoden also was a great friend, said Colleen McMillar, who met him when both worked at The Times-Picayune. “He was always there. He was one of three people who helped me clean out my flooded house (in Mid-City after Hurricane Katrina struck), even though he had a tree come through the ceiling of his Mandeville home.”
When Rhoden left the newspaper in 2019 after it was sold, he and Sheri Sable-Campbell formed Sable-Rhoden Media, a communications firm, and he became what Chatelain called “a pretty doggone good photographer.”
And Rhoden let blossom his longtime passion for music, especially Cajun music. “He had his grandmother’s musical talent,” his brother, Bill Rhoden, said. “He picked up an accordion on a whim and played it. Can you imagine just picking up an accordion and playing the thing?”
Rhoden, who also played guitar and piano, took lessons from the renowned Cajun accordionist Bruce Daigrepont and had an accordion made, Thibodeaux said. He helped form Les Bons Amis, a group specializing in Cajun music that had gigs throughout the area.
His love of Cajun music and culture didn’t stop when the group left the stage, Chatelain said. “You’d get in the car with him, and there’d be Cajun music blaring out of the speakers.”
Rhoden’s exuberant lifestyle stopped in mid-November, Chatelain said, when he drove himself to an emergency room because he had trouble breathing. Doctors diagnosed a lung infection that spread to other organs, Chatelain said.
Throughout, “he always tried to be cheerful,” said Chatelain, the father of twin sons.
Rhoden was put on and taken off a ventilator four times throughout his struggle, Chatelain said. At one point in March, even though he was barely conscious, he asked his wife to wish Chatelain’s sons a happy birthday.
Survivors include his wife, Monica Breaux Rhoden; a daughter, Andie Rhoden of Fort Worth; and a brother, Bill Rhoden of Jacksonville, Florida.
Funeral arrangements are incomplete.