February 22, 1942 to January 4, 2024
Orlando Rodriguez, Cuban-born Professor Emeritus of Sociology and influential peace activist, died in White Plains, NY, on January 4, 2024, after a brief struggle with Parkinson’s Disease. He was 81 years old. He is survived by his wife, Phyllis Schafer Rodriguez; his daughter Julia E. Rodriguez and son-in-law Charles B. Forcey; daughter-in-law, Elizabeth Soudant; and three grandchildren. He was predeceased by his son, Gregory E. Rodriguez, who died in the September 11, 2001 attacks in NewYork City.
Dr. Rodriguez was born in Havana, Cuba, on February 22, 1942, the only child of Marta Iglesias, a seamstress, and Jesus Rodriguez, a cracker salesman. In 1955, the family migrated to New York City to join Dr. Rodriguez’s maternal uncle, Francisco Iglesias. He entered the NYC public school system at thirteen, graduating from Samuel J. Tilden High School in Brooklyn. He earned a bachelor's degree in Sociology from the City College of New York, now part of the CUNY system, in 1965, and a Ph.D. in Sociology from Columbia University in 1974.
Early in his career, Dr. Rodriguez taught at Brooklyn College and then as a researcher at the Vera Institute of Justice. Most of his academic career was spent at Fordham University in the Bronx, where he was known as a devoted teacher, mentor, and institution-builder. He was first hired as a senior research associate at Fordham’s Hispanic Research Center (HRC) in 1987, where he led studies on mental health in Latino communities. From 1990 to 1997, he was Director of the HRC and taught in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology, where he collaborated on new programs in Peace and Justice Studies and community service, until his retirement in 2020.
Dr. Rodriguez’s early scholarly interests in crime, justice, and mental health informed his later public work, some of which came to national attention. Four days after September 11, 2001, still reeling from their son’s death in the World Trade Center attacks, Dr. and Mrs. Rodriguez penned an open letter, “Not In Our Son’s Name,” which called on then-President George W. Bush to resist calls for military retaliation. The letter concluded with a plea: “Our son died a victim of an inhuman ideology. Our actions should not serve the same purpose. Let us grieve. Let us reflect and pray. Let us think about a rational response that brings real peace and justice to our world. But let us not as a nation add to the inhumanity of our times.”
The Rodriguez letter, as it circulated rapidly over email, struck a chord, connecting the couple to other victims' family members and peace activists worldwide, contributing to the 2002 founding of September 11 Families for Peaceful Tomorrows, an organization calling for non-violent solutions to conflict in the Age of Terror. A documentary filmmaker, Gayla Jamison, followed the Rodriguez family for eight years and 2015 released a film, In Our Son’s Name (http://inoursonsname.com/index.php), capturing the story of their response to their son’s death. It also portrayed Dr. Rodriguez’s work in prisons promoting restorative justice and his testimony (with twelve other victim family members) in federal court on behalf of accused terrorist Zacarias Moussaoui, who faced the death penalty in 2006.
The Rodríguezes’ letter reached a national audience when historian Howard Zinn included it in the 2004 anthology Voices of the People’s History of the United States, inspiring a series of public readings in 2007 by actors such as Benjamin Bratt on stages nationwide and the film The People Speak (2009).
In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, Dr. Rodriguez characteristically drew the Fordham community into a collective process to grieve and make sense of the terrorist attacks. With Kerry R. Sweet, an NYPD police captain and attorney, he created and co-taught a course called “Terrorism and Society.” They described their goal to “stimulate students to think and analyze what is meant by ‘terrorism’ and its effect on society, and to look for similarities and differences between other examples of violent extremism – as well as the various approaches taken by governments in dealing with them.” The Fordham course was subject of an article in the New York Times on April 24, 2002 ,“Teaching Class on Terrorism After Losing Son To It”. (https://www.nytimes.com/2002/04/24/nyregion/teaching-class-on-terrorism-after-losing-son-to-it.html)
Dr. Rodriguez believed education and knowledge are the most potent weapons against political extremism. Toward that end, at Fordham, he was instrumental in creating a minor concentration in Peace and Justice Studies and a criminology course, “Harm and Justice, Crime and Punishment.” He also taught the Sociology of Religion at Greenhaven and Sing Sing Correctional Facilities for years as a volunteer for Rising Hope, a college-level certificate program. Prison work was deeply meaningful to Dr. Rodriguez, who explained that “by teaching in a prison…I’m making a statement to myself about what I feel toward the men who killed Greg, that I wish I could teach them. I wish I could have conversations with them. But I can’t, so this becomes a kind of substitute to lighten the load.”
Dr. Rodriguez was an active member of Memorial United Methodist Church in White Plains, NY, and Braver Angels, an organization that promotes civil conversations across political differences. A private burial was held on January 13 at White Plains Rural Cemetery. A public memorial service will be held in the spring of 2024. Donations in his memory may be made to the WESPAC Foundation (wespac.org), Rising Hope (risinghopeinc.org), September 11 Families for Peaceful Tomorrows (peacefultomorrows.org) or Braver Angels (https://braverangels.org/)