On This Chrysler, Tenacity Comes Standard

By Dana Hedgpeth
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 2, 2009

CHESTERTOWN, Md. -- Past Todd's Body Shop and a crab shack, across from a field of wheat on Route 291, hangs a modest sign for Frank B. Rhodes Jr., furniture maker since 1983.

Enter the metal warehouse he uses for his office, showroom and woodworking shop, and there's nothing to let visitors know that the Eastern Shore 50-year-old is one of the few remaining heirs of Walter P. Chrysler, the founder of the auto company that is now struggling to survive.

But around the corner from the showroom's racks of flowered and paisley fabric swatches, one finds what essentially amounts to a mini museum to Chrysler. For the past 20-plus years, Rhodes -- who is the great-grandson of Walter P. Chrysler -- has kept the family's archives and added to the collection.

The memorabilia ranges from an old metal clock with the inscription "Use Chrysler Corp. Parts Division Products" to three cupboards stacked with books, movies and letters related to the company. There are a big boat engine Chrysler once made and walls decorated with black-and-white pictures of Chrysler's founding father -- one, taken in 1936, shows him standing behind a row of dead geese he hunted with a friend in Cambridge, Md.

For years, Rhodes rarely mentioned his connections to the Chrysler family, and few in town even knew, save for a few close friends. But over the past six months, Rhodes has launched what amounts to a one-man PR campaign to try to save the auto company his great-grandfather founded in 1925.

With help from his bookkeeper, he's sent hundreds of letters to most anyone who would listen -- and even those who wouldn't -- including the president; every member of Congress; Chrysler chief executive Robert L. Nardelli; Steven Rattner, the head of President Obama's auto task force; former Treasury secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr.; and Ronald A. Gettelfinger, the head of the United Auto Workers. He's volleyed e-mails with bloggers who are against a bailout of the auto industry and debated Internet talk-show hosts.

His missives seek information on a person's position and attempt to cajole critics and rally allies: "Mr. President," he wrote Obama in April, "I know with due-diligence the auto task force will use every tool necessary to make this work for Chrysler and more importantly our country."

The president has yet to respond to the letter. But Nardelli wrote back in January to assure him that "the entire Chrysler team is working tirelessly to do everything we can to preserve the wonderful heritage of your great-grandfather."

Nardelli added: "I also want to thank you for your recent purchase of a Dodge Caliber on December 10th for your daughter, which speaks volumes of your confidence and support in Chrysler LLC."

Rhodes keeps a recording of a voice mail from the mayor of Lansing, Mich., thanking him and encouraging him to keep up the fight.

His biggest motivation in his fight to save Chrysler is his grandmother -- Bernice Chrysler. In 1979, when Chrysler was on the verge of bankruptcy and a few months before she died, Rhodes said, his grandmother asked him to "please do what you can to keep the engine running."

"She told me that, and I guess it has stuck with me," Rhodes said. "This would hurt her so bad."

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2009 The Washington Post Company