.- Whether it was fighting fires in Washington, D.C., working on safety issues at the University of Virginia’s medical center, treating lightning-struck victims in the Shenandoah National Forest or distributing Communion at Mass at Our Lady of the Blue Ridge Parish in Madison, Va. Jesse Hodges has worked hard for others all his life.
The 71-year-old’s great love of nature, his steadfast dedication and his deep spirituality stem from life experiences as well as the guidance of family and friends. For the first eight years of his life in Macon, Ga., where he was born in 1940, Hodges was raised by his great-grandmother and surrounded by extended family. Living together in a cluster of houses at the end of a bus line, they were together constantly, working, singing and cooking. Faith was a big thing — not necessarily the Catholic faith, but devout Christianity.
“For all we didn’t have, we had so much,” Hodges said. “We always looked at it like we were rich.”
Hodges’ great-grandmother, who was a Methodist, sacrificed to send her great-grandson to Catholic school because it offered him the best education. At school, he received his sacraments and had a love of Catholicism ingrained in him.
When he was 8 years old, Hodges and his sister moved to Philadelphia to join his mother, who had made a home there. Immediately, he knew that life wasn’t for him.
“The nearest green grass was about 13 blocks away,” he said. “Everybody (was) on top of everybody.”
Hodges continued to attend Catholic school — now at St. Elizabeth, staffed by Missionhurst priests — and to this day has a rosary given to him by one of the clergy hanging over his dresser. Also an altar server, he continued to be formed in the Faith.
As soon as Hodges was old enough to get a job, he did — with perhaps even a slight fudging on his part about his age. He worked part-time at a hardware store where he was mentored by one of his life’s great influences, a German immigrant named Mork who became a father-figure in his life.
“He took me under his wing (and) he taught me a lot of things,” Hodges said, including the value of a dollar, and the benefit of hard work and dedication. “At Christmastime, he used to take me to his house. He would put up a train and it was like I was family.”
Hodges’ life changed profoundly when, a couple of years after moving to Philadelphia, he had an accident in which “my whole life flashed in front of my face.”
While out with a friend doing odd jobs, something spooked the horse that was pulling the wagon they were riding on. When the reins slipped from his hand, Hodges determined the only way to re-gain control of the racing steeds was by walking toward them to gather the reins.
But, “when I walked, I slipped,” he said. “Holding on, with feet dragging, all I (could) see is this wagon wheel coming for me.”
Images flashed through his mind of people he knew and “pictures after pictures of things I had done.”
Exhausted, Hodges nearly let go — but, just at the last second, he got the sense he should try to hold out a little longer.
“I didn’t pray, I can’t tell you that,” he said. But “something told me just to hold on.”
Almost immediately, a man ran into the road and slowed the horse.
From that moment on, Hodges knew that he was put on the earth for a purpose.
“God didn’t take me then so He has a plan for me,” he remembered thinking. “He’s going to lead me in the right direction.”
From then on, he lived his life with a steady, almost fearless determination. In 1957, at the age of 17, Hodges joined the Air Force, where he traveled to Texas, California, Guam, the Philippines and beyond. He always worked, whether cleaning barracks or selling oddball items, then sent the money he earned home to his mother.
When he left the Air Force, he joined the D.C. fire department, where he fought fires, rescued families and learned the importance of working together as “one” with his unit.
Coming of age during the Civil Rights era, Hodges said discrimination never much touched his life.
“I never was taught that I was different,” he said. “I was always taught that God made you, you were a human being, one of God’s children, and (to) make Him proud.”
As a fireman, Hodges said he learned to be compassionate. He saved people, he saw people die. He was inside a church when the attic floorboards fell out from underneath him, leaving him and a fellow firefighter straddling a beam in the rafters.
“Don’t let anybody tell you that firemen don’t pray,” he said. “There’s a sense of companionship and there’s a sense of God.”
Hodges’ best memories are from his 10 years working on Engine No. 9, and as a fire fighter, then sergeant and eventually retiring at the rank of lieutenant.
Hodges met his wife, Margie, who lived near the fire station, and the two were married July 6, 1963, at St. Augustine Church in Washington. Together, the couple raised five children who attended Catholic school. Then, in 1979, the family moved to a house they built just south of Madison in Greene County. Though Hodges had, for five years, a long commute to the fire station, he was able to much more fully enjoy the outdoors, which he calls “magnificent even in its worst time.”
“I’ve seen rain come sideways and thought it was pretty,” he said.
On their 10 acres of land the family raised animals from pigs to chickens to sheep (they still have 46 goats), and planted numerous trees.
Even after retiring from the fire department in the early 1980s, Hodges, naturally, remained active. He took a job as a park ranger in Shenandoah National Park, where he occasionally ministered to people struck by lightning. He “ran” with the Greene County Rescue Squad.
In 1989, he went to work for the University of Virginia as transportation supervisor for the university’s medical center, where he worked nights. This was followed by a stint as a fire safety officer, also at the medical center, where he trained employees and taught them what to do in case of a fire. He eventually was approached about being the safety director for the medical center, a job from which he retired (again) in 1995.
Taking a break from the workforce, Hodges joined the parish council at Our Lady of the Blue Ridge and, just because they needed someone to do it, volunteered to mow the grass on the parish grounds.
“I do almost anything anybody asks me to do,” he said.
In addition to being an extraordinary minister of Communion, Hodges and his wife attended eucharistic adoration. Hodges meets once a month with a senior group that eats out together, distributes Communion at a nursing home and packs boxes for U.S. troops overseas.
Part of an old-school generation, Hodges gets to church early for Mass and values the time he can spend praying on his knees. He also values the “closeness” of the people at Our Lady of the Blue Ridge, citing active participation as the key to a unified parish family.
“The biggest key is to get everybody involved, that’s how you stay together,” he said.
A mantra in Hodges life is to “truly believe.”
“I truly believe in Jesus Christ,” he said. “I truly believe that there’s life after death.”
Being able to work hard, to serve others and to love God has given him a fullness in life.
“My prayers have been answered,” he said. “I never expected a lot out of life because when I was born I never had a lot.”
Working for the good of others, he said, has always been his forte.
“That sense of help — that’s what you’re here for,” he said. “We all have a purpose. I feel blessed with the life that I’ve led.”
Posted with permission from The Catholic Herald, official newspaper for the Diocese of Arlington, Va.