NORFOLK -- For Lynette Rhodes, there’s no place like home.
No place like where she climbed her back yard’s fruit trees, her already scraped-up knees propelling her up the limbs to where she could just reach out and devour the rewards that awaited her.
No place has come close to evoking the childhood joy of catching fireflies in her bare hands, digging up worms, prodding June bugs and racing on her bike down familiar and safe Norfolk neighborhood streets.
So when Rhodes returned to Norfolk years later, it felt like it was meant to be.
Near the endearing port-city activity in Norfolk, the Norfolk District, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers headquarters building squats, bulky and formidable on the shores of the Elizabeth River. In a maze of cubicles on the second floor, Rhodes cobbles her accumulated skills as a biologist, environmental scientist and regional section chief together to help run the district’s regulatory department.
Every day, Rhodes is entrenched in a balancing act, weighing the need for economic development and environmental protection. In the permitting section, Rhodes and other regulators tackle thorny environmental issues from regional water supply questions and wetlands protection, residential subdivisions to expressway expansions and mountaintop mining.
While Rhodes could have ended up at the Norfolk District any number of ways, she has little doubt that God was the one that brought her home.
Rhodes spent her childhood in the Norview section of Norfolk, watching in wonder as trees blossomed and grew – she said she loved the outdoors and nature and was curious about all living things – especially plant life.
Rhodes said her father, who had a degree in biology, would huddle with his children and share his knowledge of the world around them.
“My father would often use his knowledge of biology to explain to my brother and me about nature and photosynthesis, and how all plant life required carbon dioxide, water and sunlight to grow,” Rhodes said. “I was fascinated.”
After graduating from Norview High School, Rhodes attended Virginia State University, like her grandmother, mother, aunt and dad before her.
As a Trojan, she devoted her hours to studying in labs as she earned her biology degree. Rhodes’ professor, Evelyn W. Jemison, took note of Rhodes’ efforts, and urged her to apply for a fellowship at Washington University.
The fellowship earned Rhodes a summer of performing surgery on rats. Rhodes’ work determined the clearance of radioisotopes, or atoms with unstable nuclei, in the blood system.
“I was terrified at first -- rats!” she said. “Somehow, I learned to conquer my fears and complete my experiments.”
Rhodes exchanged rats for newts when she moved on to Purdue University in Lafayette, Ind., after graduating from VSU. She wrote and published her master’s thesis research paper on wound healing in the amphibian’s skin.
But the years spent in labs steered her in a different direction.
“I was so tired of getting up at 2 a.m. every morning to check on the newts,” Rhodes said. “I was living my life in labs and becoming disenchanted with performing research on living creatures: I just wanted a real life.”
Rhodes began to find that life in Norfolk, after reconnecting with a childhood sweetheart.
She ran into Clifford, the boy who had once taken her to prom, while hanging out with a visiting cousin one evening at a popular Norfolk nightclub, The Big Apple.
Rhodes looked sheepish as she admitted she took notice of Clifford, who was then in the Air Force.
“He really changed and looked so good, all buffed up,” she said.
After exchanging small talk with him, Rhodes and her cousin left the club and returned home.
But Rhodes was smitten.
By the time she and her cousin arrived at her front door, Rhodes remembered how she and Clifford always supported each other through the years, and was convinced that they were destined to be together. She promptly turned around and returned to the club.
The two were married at Norfolk’s First Baptist Church just eight months after she graduated.
Rhodes, ready to settle permanently in Norfolk, was torn: she didn’t want to leave her friends and parents again, but didn’t want to limit her job opportunities.
She said she asked God for guidance, and applied for a job at both the Baltimore and Norfolk districts. Baltimore offered the new college graduate a project manager position in their regulatory section.
In Baltimore, Rhodes said she was initially overwhelmed by the Corps’ diverse missions, but was ready to dive into her work.
“She came to us as an open vessel fresh from college, full of energy and a willingness to listen and learn,” Woody Francis, a fellow project manager said. “It’s rare to find a person with those character-attributes who totally removes their ego and just listens and learns.”
Rhodes said that through her prayers, her coworkers’ guidance, and her desire to work hard, she was lifted through the whirlwind of work -- and the work was demanding: she helped rehabilitate Poplar Island Wildlife Refuge with dredged material and issued permits for erosion control projects to protect the island. She also helped protect historic resources by co-developing a streamlined historic review process used by the Baltimore Regulatory Branch.
Projects were developed, executed and closed out. Rhodes became a mother. The first black female project manager. And 17 years later, Rhodes was still in Baltimore.
But Norfolk began to beckon her home.
Rhodes remembers kissing her father goodbye during one of her weekend visits to his nursing home in Norfolk. She was startled – his skin was hot.
Within hours, she had him transferred, with a fever of 104 degrees, to a nearby hospital. She extended her stay until she was assured he was improving, and then returned to Baltimore.
But a week after Rhodes left her father, she received the call no son or daughter ever wants to hear.
“My heart dropped when I heard my mother say, ‘he has passed,’ ” Rhodes said.
Moving back to Norfolk had already become a priority for Lynette and Clifford, as their parents advanced in age. It became more important than ever when Lynette’s mother was put on portable oxygen to help manage a chronic illness and Clifford’s mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.
Then, Rhodes said, her prayers were answered: in January 2005, she was selected as the Norfolk District’s chief of the Southern Virginia Permit Section, becoming the first black section chief in Norfolk.
Just as she had in Baltimore, she found a mentor to guide her, and fellow employees who would immerse her in Norfolk’s regulatory program.
Rhodes wanted to pay her mentorship experience forward, and at Norfolk District, she is a volunteer member of the district’s science, technology, engineering and math team.
“The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is fertile ground for STEM career choices,” Rhodes said. “I know of no other agency that incorporates all the STEM fields into one organization.”
Rhodes said the time she spent with her father ignited a love of biology in her -- as a result, she looks for every opportunity to promote and encourage young people to choose a career in STEM-related fields.
She’s done the same for her sons, Clifford Jr. and Joshua, as her father did: Rhodes shares her love of nature with her sons. One plans on working in a STEM field as a certified public accountant.
Today, the Rhodes’ family resides across the street from Lynette’s childhood home. She readily mentors youth at her church, at her sons’ schools and in her neighborhood. Rhodes said she’s compelled to give back as much as possible because she feels so blessed to be back where it all started.
“God … gave us the strength we needed to carry on and he’s watched over our family all these years,” Rhodes said. “Now he’s brought us home.”