Bread man: Opelikan earns moniker with half a century in local bakery business

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Editor’s note: This story was in progress prior to Calvin’s passing away last week. An owner of the “Opelika Observer,” Calvin was a treasured member of the community who will be missed by many. We hope this piece about his contribution to the company he loved is a tribute to his memory.

By Alison James
Associate Editor

“They wouldn’t hire me because I was just 19 years old, but I knew everybody up there, so I went to all the big stores on the route and told them what was happening and that I was trying to get a job. They called Jim Tom (Hamilton) and told him that if he’d hire me (they would help me out).

So began Calvin Rhodes’ career with Flowers Bakery – in 1954 as a route salesman for Ingram’s Bakery on Eighth Street in Opelika. Newly-married and in great need of work, he delivered bread to his hometown of Camp Hill.

But delivering bread was just the beginning for Rhodes. He became a district manager in 1956 and then a sales manager in 1960. In the late ‘60s the company, which by then had been acquired by Flowers, sent him to work as a sales manager and then marketing manager at the Atlanta Bakery. The 1970s found him back in Opelika, where he became president of the bakery in the mid-1970s.

“Calvin knew the business front and back,” said Steve Bordeaux, who joined Flowers in ’73 in his early 20s as a route salesman after leaving the Marine Corps. Bordeaux rose to district manager and sales manager in Montgomery and then vice president of sales in Opelika before taking over as president upon Rhodes’ retirement. “Most of the time, when he asked you a question, he already knew the answer. He wanted to see if you were going to tell him the truth about it.”

In 1978 Rhodes received the President of the Year Award – the first year it was ever given.

“He was always firm but always fair to everybody. He always wanted the best for everybody,” Bordeaux said. “He always wanted us to put the best product possible out on the market to reach the consumer, because you never get a second chance to make a first impression. He worked a lot of long, hard hours.”

In a bakery that often runs 24 hours a day, seven days a week and puts out 45 million pounds of rolls and buns annually for a number of Flowers Bakery labels, including Sunbeam, Nature’s Own and Wonder Bread, that kind of work ethic is a must, and it was a standard Rhodes was committed to for more than 50 years.

Rhodes’ 50 years of service, in 2004, drew congratulatory letters from bakeries throughout the region. More than three dozen are preserved in his heavy blue scrapbook, praising him with appellations like “a man of high esteem and character,” “one of our most accomplished executives,” “a great leader,” “loyal, dedicated and contributing member,” an inspiration to many” and “truly one-of-a-kind.” Friends and colleagues shared expressions of thanks like “You truly epitomize ‘company man’ in my book,” from Gene Lord, president and chief operating officer at the Thomasville, Ga., bakery; “Many changes have occurred, but you have been a constant strength for our company,” from Brad Alexander, regional vice president; and “Your massive contribution to our Company is unparalleled and your ability to candidly “tell it like it is” is unmatched,” from Ty Deese, president of the bakery in Villa Rica, Ga.

“It was just a good company to work for,” said Rhodes of his time with Flowers.

He retired at age 70 in 2005 to care for his ailing first wife; otherwise, “he’d still be working,” said his daughter, Adair Martin.

It was a legacy that continued among his family. His son-in-law and nephew both work in Flowers bakeries in other states.

Rhodes passed away last week.

“They called him the bread man,” said his wife, Flora Jane Rhodes. “He knew his bread.”

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