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."
Rhodes, an energetic former lacrosse player and a history major, recently went to Capitol Hill and sat through two days of Nardelli's testimony. He also spoke to a group of several hundred union auto workers at a rally in Baltimore, even though he admits that public speaking is not his strong suit. Indeed, a conversation with him can veer suddenly from the intricacies of an antique dining room chair to the "cool" design of Chrysler's Viper.
"Frank's a very good-hearted person, but he's quite mercurial," said Diane Duke, 57, who works for him as an upholsterer and seamstress.
Rhodes said that neither he nor his wife, Susan, owns any Chrysler stock. He said he sold what shares he had in the 1980s and put the money into his furniture business. His mother -- Gwynne McDevitt, 76, of Philadelphia -- holds the inheritance from her grandfather, Rhodes said.
Around town, he and his wife are more well-known for taking a truckload of donated clothes and other items a few years ago to Hurricane Katrina victims in Mississippi; launching a campaign last year to try to save the town's armory from being torn down; and hustling their four children -- two teenage girls and 4-year-old twins -- daily to schools, swim practice and lacrosse games. (He drives a beige Dodge Durango, his wife a blue Chrysler minivan.)
"We've got the Rockefellers, the Havemeyers and others down here, but most people have no clue whatsoever about Frank and his connections," said George Kennedy, an advertising salesman at an area newspaper.
Lately though, it has been hard to keep his hands -- and mind -- on the saws, wood and other equipment in his cluttered, dusty shop, say those around him, because he's been spending about 30 hours a week monitoring the Chrysler deal. He wakes up at 4 a.m. and is in his office by 5 a.m., clicking to half a dozen Web sites that track the auto industry.
"You could say that Frank's been a bit distracted these days with all that's happening with the economy and the Chrysler stuff," said Lori Elborn-Brown, a woodworker in his six-person furniture business.
Rhodes said he once thought about getting into the car business but enjoyed working with his hands. He launched the furniture-making business. One handmade chest in his shop sells for $28,000. Lately, his business has slowed, and his shop is open only four days a week.
After his grandmother's death, his cousin Jack Chrysler and Rhodes's mother passed on to him books, letters, black-and-white photos and other Chrysler memorabilia, including details from its efforts to make tanks and trucks during World War II. A thin black book titled "Secret," in gold letters, explains how Chrysler supplied engines that powered the B-29 Superfortress, a bomber used in World War II.
Since taking over the family collection, Rhodes has also amassed a fair amount on his own. There's a photo of him with Daimler chief Dieter Zetsche, a blue-and-white flag with the Chrysler emblem on it that he had autographed by engineers who worked on rockets for the company in Cocoa Beach, Fla. Outside his woodworking shop sits a small mint-green tractor that Chrysler made to carry airline luggage. Inside the storage shed for his wood, covered in a tarp, is an old 15-foot-long sign from the interstate that led to the Chrysler world headquarters before it was owned by Daimler. Next to it sit two motorcycle-like vehicles Chrysler made for the snow. Rhodes paid $500 for them and described them as being a "real flop" for the company. He also is heavily involved in the Walter P. Chrysler Boyhood Home and Museum in Ellis, Kan.
"I'm a historian," Rhodes said. "And I find out these things they've done, from space and military history to cars. It's something we can't afford to lose."
Rhodes is reluctant to criticize Chrysler's current or past leadership, saying he likes to remain upbeat about the company. There hasn't been a descendant of Walter P. Chrysler on the company's board of directors since the late 1950s, according to Rhodes.
Around noon on Tuesday, Rhodes took off his safety goggles and stopped cutting wood for a local church's communion table that he's building and checked the Internet for updates. In a few minutes, his cousin -- Jack Chrysler -- called from Utah to gossip about the fate of Chrysler's talks with Fiat and the U.S. government.
"It's coming down to the wire," Rhodes told him. "It's going to be right down to the end, but they're going to pull it off."
By week's end, the president announced that the government would stand behind a marriage with the Italian automaker, even as Chrysler sorts out its financial problems in bankruptcy court.
"Chrysler is still in business," Rhodes said later. "I am not waving the white flag. They'll emerge strong and lean."