Seven decades after he suffered through subzero cold and frostbite in World War II’s Battle of the Bulge, Rodolfo Rodriguez’s legs still felt stiff and achy. He was always turning up the heat to try to get warm.
He dodged a bullet and worse — literally — after leaving two GI friends who asked him to get a cigarette. Returning, he found them blown to bits by a bomb.
He slept on the frigid ground for weeks at a time.
In later years, the war affected him in many ways. He slept fitfully. Sometimes, he’d get impatient with his kids. He’d been employed at a Nabisco factory before his service, but when he returned home, he couldn’t stand the din of the machines.
He worked a series of other jobs, sometimes simultaneously, to raise eight children, eventually becoming one of the first to own a Pepe’s Mexican restaurant franchise in Chicago.
His life was a testament to resilience and reinvention.
At age 79, he sought help for post-traumatic stress disorder. Afterward, “he was just so much more easygoing, more open-minded with us,” said a daughter, Lulu Bologna.
In the 1970s, he was riveted by American dominance of the tennis world. Matches bristled with John McEnroe’s pugnacity and Jimmy Connors’ ferocity.
In his 50s, he taught himself to play tennis. He also kept active with swimming and bowling.
Mr. Rodriguez, 89, died April 25 in hospice care in Las Vegas, where he and Lucille, his wife of 68 years, had retired.
Born in Eastland, Texas, he moved to Chicago with his parents. He grew up on Taylor Street and attended Goodrich School.
His family needed money during the Great Depression. At 8 years old, he had a job delivering tortillas from a pack carried on his back.
He attended Cregier High School, but he didn’t graduate. “As soon as they bombed Pearl Harbor, he was first in line to sign up,” said his daughter-in-law, Violet Rodriguez.
He’d already met Lucille, the classmate who would become his wife. “He would throw little paper airplanes at me on my desk,” she recalled, “and I was wondering who the heck is throwing them.”
He told her she could see someone else while he was gone, because there was no guarantee he’d come home from the war.
“I said, no, I’m not going out with anybody. I’m waiting for you,” she said.
The Battle of the Bulge, in December 1944, was the last major German offensive of the war. Americans suffered 81,000 casualties, making it the bloodiest battle of the war for the United States. Mr. Rodriguez was in the 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 82nd Airborne.
“One time, there was two sides of them marching, two battalions,” his wife said. “He spotted his two friends and he went across to say hello to them. . . . They said, ‘Do you have a cigarette, Rudy?’ and he said ‘Yeah, it’s in my pack.’ And he crossed to go get it on the other side, and when he came back, he said he was paralyzed when [he saw his] buddies’ bodies, and they were in pieces. They threw a bomb right there.”
Mr. Rodriguez was hit by shrapnel, earning a Purple Heart. His injury was treated in England. “The girls in England, they would say, ‘Oh, Rudy, you look like Clark Gable,’’’ his wife said.
When he returned, they married at St. Frances of Assisi parish on Roosevelt Road. They raised their family in Brighton Park, and later, near Midway Airport.
He worked at the post office and at Columbia Pipe & Supply on Pershing Road before opening two Pepe’s restaurants at Taylor and Aberdeen and at 45th and Ashland.
“When I was a kid, he would take us to McKinley Park and fly kites,” said his son, Philip.
He loved “El Rey,” Vicente Fernandez, the king of Mexican ranchera music. His favorite drink was Johnnie Walker Black.
Most of all, he liked holding hands with Lucille. “He would always find the spot on the couch where he could sit on the opposite side just so he could hold her hand,” said Violet Rodriguez.
Mr. Rodriguez is also survived by his other daughters, Elyse Rodriguez and Barbara Bensley; his other sons, Anthony and Ricardo; his sisters, Catherine Murillo, Erminia Acevedo and Rosie Sida; his brother, Joe Rodriguez, five grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.
Visitation is 3 to 9 p.m. Sunday at Damar-Kaminski Funeral Home, 7861 S. 88th Ave., Justice. His funeral is at 10 a.m. Monday at St. Daniel the Prophet Catholic Church, 54th and Nashville, Chicago.