Ramblin’ Home

By Charmain Brackett
Photos courtesy of Don Rhodes’ family photo collection

Long before Donald O. Rhodes rambled into a newsroom, a fair-haired tot plunked out letters on the typewriter — too young to know what he was putting on the paper threaded into the machine. Yet, the black and white photograph that ran with Don Ramblin’ Rhodes’ obituary foreshadowed a future that brought him before country music royalty and high-powered political figures as well as the virtual unknowns in his community.

“I am often asked, ‘Who was the most successful Augusta media person I’ve seen come through town in almost 50 years?’” said Bill Kirby, who spent 35 years at The Augusta Chronicle. “‘Two,’ I say quickly. Austin Rhodes and his locally driven radio show and the late Don Rhodes and his unimaginable success at reporting, writing, editing, authoring and remembering every politician, celebrity, actor and civic activist who visited this part of the world since before we landed on the moon.” 

Rhodes, who died June 9, worked as a journalist in Georgia for more than five decades. Most recently, he served as the publications’ editor for Morris Communications Company, LLC., as well as the publications’ manager for the National Barrel Horse Association and The Augusta Futurity. Although, he began his career with Morris Communications at the Savannah Evening Press in 1967 as a police beat reporter.

After being drafted and serving a year in Vietnam, he returned to Savannah, where his Ramblin’ Rhodes column launched on Halloween 1970. When he moved to Augusta in 1971 to write for The Augusta Chronicle and Augusta Herald, he brought the column with him.  It held the distinction of being the longest-running column on country music, marking its 50th anniversary in 2020.

Newspaper ink started running through Rhodes’ veins early, seeping in over three summers working at the Atlanta Journal. He spent two summers as a copyboy and another as an intern. The job was not much more than an errand runner, but it allowed him to attend a press conference with The Beatles, standing within feet of The Fab Four, get coffee for Sonny and Cher and eat with then Georgia state Senator Jimmy Carter, Ramblin’ Rhodes noted in his 2014 column marking his 50 years in journalism. 

Photo courtesy of Don Rhodes' family photo collection.
Don Rhodes with country music legend Johnny Cash.

His early mentors could see his passion. In that same 2014 column, Rhodes added snippets of a 1964 letter of recommendation he had received from the journal’s editorial cartoonist, Lou “Eric” Erickson. 

“Don Rhodes is a nuisance,” Erickson wrote. “He bothers reporters, editors, editorial cartoonists; anyone who has anything to do with newspapers. He is curious, ambitious and devoted to the idea that being a newspaperman is a worthy profession.”

He added, “But when I meet a guy who thinks newspapering as a profession is worthwhile for reasons besides a byline and money, I’ll endorse him. Don is that kind of a person. And a newspaper should give him his opportunity to become a newspaperman.”

Throughout his career, he would amass a trove of stories. He wrote about famous and unknown alike. 

“I have found that people across the board of ages, ethnic and political backgrounds and either long-time residents or relative newcomers love to read about unique and fascinating people, period. The lesser known, the better read. I’ve always championed average people doing extraordinary things,” Rhodes wrote in a 2023 email. “One time, someone wrote a letter to the editor complaining that I wrote about so many unknown singers in my music column. Well, they were totally correct. But I also point (out) that almost no one in the CSRA had ever heard about Reba McEntire, Barbara Mandrell, Dolly Parton, Garth Brooks, Luke Bryan, Marty Stuart, Joe Diffie, The Judds, Alabama, etc., until I wrote about them!”

Not only did Rhodes write thousands of newspaper articles and columns, but he also penned several books including ones on the area’s history as well as entertainment. He wrote about Ty Cobb and James Brown. And he remembered everything.

“He knew stories that had been mostly forgotten. Better yet, he shared them. There are things that will be harder to forget in the future because Don tracked them down, filled in the blanks and turned in the tale. Stories like a young Dolly Parton performing at the North Augusta High School gym. Or actress Jayne Mansfield, then 19, living on Damascus Road and taking the bus downtown for acting lessons. Or the layout and specifics of the old Warren Park baseball field, where Ty Cobb played his first game,” said Kirby. “After a while, it was not so amazing that Don knew all this stuff, it was amazing that he remembered it. He was quicker than Google.” 

Often Barbara Walker, the library manager at the Nancy Carson Library in North Augusta would call on Rhodes when she was planning a historical presentation. She’d tell him what she was working on, and he could come up with a plan.

“He had the whole program set up in five minutes. It was wonderful. I didn’t have to do it,” she said. “It was an awesome thing to have him as a friend. We truly miss the walking encyclopedia. There are so many stories that no one else will be able to capture the way Don did.”

In January 2023, he started writing for the digital newspaper Augusta Good News. He turned in his final column June 6, and it ran June 7, two days before his death. He paid tribute to the legendary Tina Turner, highlighting her 1987 Augusta appearance. The featured photograph was of his torn ticket stub. 

The consummate researcher couldn’t find any evidence online that Turner had indeed played the Augusta-Richmond County Civic Center (later named the James Brown Arena), but he held proof of that ticket stub, a photo from The Augusta Chronicle as well as memories of it being one of the absolute best concerts he’d seen in his life.

Rhodes said that his goal in life had been to do as Erickson recommended — be a good newspaperman. In that 2014 column, Rhodes wrote, “I’m still trying to be a good newspaperman.” He followed that desire to the end of his life.

Photo courtesy of RedWolf.
Don Rhodes with Brenda Durant, president of the Greater Augusta Arts Council, and Augusta magazine publisher Ashlee Duren at the 2022 Arts Awards.

Seen in the October 2023 issue of Augusta magazine.

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