Obituaries

Robert Howard Rodgers, 79, of New Haven

ROBERT HOWARD RODGERS

NEW HAVEN — Robert Howard Rodgers, 79, of New Haven passed away suddenly at home on Feb. 20, 2024.

Due to his mother’s military service, he was born in Alexandria, La., on May 24, 1944, a fact most embarrassing to this ninth-generation Vermonter. Robert grew up on the family farm in New Haven, where he learned carpentry, plumbing, and how to design and repair almost anything. He also learned where the bloodroot, Dutchman’s breeches, and morels grew, where the brook turned into a small waterfall, and where the best hills were for sledding.

Robert attended Beeman Academy before continuing on to Phillips Exeter Academy. He later graduated magna cum laude from Harvard College in 1966, where he was also elected to the national honor society Phi Beta Kappa. He completed his academic training in 1970 with a PhD from Harvard University.

Thus credentialed, Robert went on to a distinguished academic career as a professor of classics. He began teaching at the University of California, Berkeley, where he met the love of his life, Barbara Saylor, whom he married in New Haven in 1973.

While northern California had its charms, such as sunny weather and wine country a short drive away, Vermont was home. When Barbara received a job offer to teach at the University of Vermont, Robert was ecstatic to return to his childhood home and raise two children: Eleanor and Cyrus. Robert joined Barbara in the Classics department of the University of Vermont, retiring in 2017 from his role as Lyman-Roberts Professor of Classical Languages and Literature.

His interests ran far beyond the classics; Robert was also drawn to local history and to genealogy. Over the years, he acquired numerous awards and fellowships, and published a great number of books and articles in the classics, genealogy, and history. His publications include a history of New Haven (New Haven in Vermont, 1761-1983), a family history, and three books on probate records in Middlesex County, Mass. His professional scholarly pursuits were wide-ranging, but included Roman aqueducts and agriculture; understanding the rural agrarian life from centuries past was no doubt of interest to a man who grew up on a farm and saw the nature of farming in Vermont evolve over the course of his lifetime.

Robert was deeply devoted to service, public and professional alike. He served as New Haven town auditor for over a decade, town historian for nearly two decades, and long-time officer of the New Haven Evergreen Cemetery Association. He served on school boards from 1986-1994, was an officer in the church since 1981, and actively participated in countless historical societies and nonprofits. He peer-reviewed papers for prestigious classical journals, held many committee positions at the University of Vermont, served as external tenure evaluator for a number of well-known universities, treasurer for the Classical Association of New England, and trustee of the New England Historic Genealogical Society.

Following his retirement in 2017, Robert was able to devote himself more fully to his pastimes — primarily carpentry. He had a true gift for design aesthetics, which shines through in details large and small, in the finish work he completed in the family house, and in the barn erected in 2020. The barn contained both of Robert’s favorite architectural elements — a cupola and horse windows. It also boasts a springbok weathervane, an homage to his granddaughter Maya.

Maya was born in 2020 in Stellenbosch, South Africa. Being born far away and moving to New Haven as a newborn is something this eleventh-generation Vermonter shares with Robert; she is as enamored of her grandfather as he was of her. She was the absolute light of his life and brought him endless joy in his final years (when she wasn’t jumping on him or pulling his hair). Knowing that his granddaughter would grow up in the same house and chasing butterflies, hunting wildflowers, and sledding on the land that meant so much to him was a comfort and a joy.

He was a lifelong student of history and genealogy; family, sense of place, quality of work, and serving institutions he cared about were important to Robert. So, too, was good food and wine, along with pure Vermont maple syrup. He never met a dog or a pig he didn’t love or a bird that he did.

His unique personality came across in many ways; he had a quirky humor that peeked out on occasion. Whenever he happened upon an interesting name or phrase, he would save it for later use. Luckily for his children, such names were bestowed on pets such as Tesselgrave (a mistaken recollection of the name Tesselschade) and Huptia Zosa (which means “upside down, alive” in Greek).

Robert is survived by his wife, Barbara Saylor Rodgers of New Haven; son, Cyrus Rodgers of Burlington; daughter, Eleanor de Villiers, her husband, Richard de Villiers, and their daughter, Maya de Villiers, all of New Haven; as well as many other close friends, extended family members, and numerous devoted and affectionate former students.

In keeping with Robert’s wishes, there will not be any public services. A celebration of life is planned for May 24, his 80th birthday. His family requests that anyone so inclined share written stories of Robert: funny, poignant, or memorable, to make into a keepsake for his granddaughter.

In lieu of flowers, memorial contributions may be made to the New Haven Congregational Church. ◊

 

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