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Lela Rhodes, former Louisville Seminary employee and spouse of A.B. Rhodes, dies at 95

Apr 07, 2016

Lela Cecelia Elizabeth Nelson Rhodes, 95, died peacefully at her home in New York City on April 3, 2016.

Lela RhodesShe was born in Rocky Point, North Carolina, on June 5, 1920, the year the 19th amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified giving women the right to vote. One of Lela’s greatest hopes was to see a woman president in the White House in her lifetime. Lela’s father, Marvin, was an inventor of farm tools and later worked for the railroad. Influenced by his Quaker grandfather, Marvin led the building of the only high school for African Americans in their county and was harassed by the Ku Klux Klan for doing so.

Lela attended college at 15 and married Arnold Black Rhodes, a family neighbor, who would become a Presbyterian minister, Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary professor, and distinguished scholar of Old Testament research and theological education. Lela and “Abie” delighted in each other for six decades as partners in ministry, parents to three daughters — Lessie Anne, Priscilla and Katharine — and beloved by sons-in-law, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.

Lela was manager of the Louisville Seminary bookstore, where Arnold Black, himself a Louisville Seminary alum (BD ’41), taught Old Testament studies. The Louisville Seminary A.B. Rhodes Professorship in Old Testament was established in 1981. Arnold Black was the first occupant of the chair until his retirement in 1982. He died in 2002.

The Memorial Garden at Louisville Seminary was named for Lela Rhodes by her friend, Mildred Horne. Not only was Lela a formidable businesswoman at the seminary bookstore, she was also pastor without formal portfolio to the seminary's students, staff, and faculty.

The experience of the segregated south of their childhood led Lela and Abie to work for civil rights in Louisville during the 1960s. Lela became the first woman elder at Bardstown Road Presbyterian Church in the 1970s. After taking care of Abie, who suffered from Alzheimer's disease until his death, Lela moved to New York City at age 83. For a brief period, she attended a class at Columbia University which had been a longtime dream. She thrived as a New Yorker and shared her love of beauty, her Southern hospitality, and a gracious winsome spirit with many in the neighborhood and friends made through association with Auburn Seminary, where her daughter, Katharine, is president.

Lela is survived by two daughters, Katharine Henderson and Priscilla Schmitt; Deon Campbell, her beloved friend who cared for her during her last years; sons-in-law, Charles, Carl and Jay; and grandchildren, Julia Davis, married to Jonathan, Tanya King married to Craig Popelars, David King, Dean Schmitt, and Lelane Schmitt, married to Andy Peterson. She is preceded in death by her husband, Arnold Black Rhodes, and her daughter, Lessie Ann. A memorial service celebrating Lela's life will be held at First Presbyterian Church in New York City on Saturday, May 7, at 11 a.m. Gifts in Lela's honor can be made to Auburn Theological Seminary in New York City, www.auburnseminary.org, or 475 Riverside Drive, Suite 1800, New York, NY, 10115.
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