Members of the community gathered Friday to welcome Johnnie Hodges Sr. back to the house he has called home for more than 60 years. In July, the 90 year-old World War II veteran was carried out of his home after falling behind in paying the bills while caring for his ailing wife. After hearing his story, people from across Western New York and the country came together to help Mr. Hodges return to his home.
"I watched my father exhibit unshakeable faith during a difficult transitional period of his life as a husband, caregiver and great father," said Hodges daughter, Robin. "During this journey, I personally witnessed many miracles right before my eyes! The scripture states: The blessing of the Lord makes one rich, and He adds no sorrow to it. (Proverbs 10:22 NKJV). On this arduous journey, there was no sorrow in our lives - only faith in the Lord. To God be the glory!"
"The best way to thank our veterans is through actions that demonstrate we appreciate their sacrifices and we are here to support them at home," Congressman Brian Higgins said. "We are happy to play a role in this homecoming, which was made possible thanks to HUD's guidance and through the actions of many who came forward in gratitude."
"It has been gratifying to partner with so many people committed to helping Mr. Hodges and his daughter purchase and return to their longtime home," said Holly Leicht, HUD's regional administrator for New York and New Jersey. "Thanks particularly to Congressman Higgins' office, Lou Michel at The Buffalo News, countless benefactors who rallied to Mr. Hodges' cause, and the staff at HUD's Homeownership Center, today we at HUD can proudly say that we've fulfilled our mission to provide quality affordable housing for someone among the most deserving - a U.S. Veteran - and his family."
Hodges began his service with the U.S. Navy Jan. 8, 1944. Following training in Bainbridge, Maryland, he was stationed aboard the USS General Harry Taylor. Hodges served as a stewards mate third class on the troop transport ship during World War II, taking part in missions across the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans until his honorable discharge on June 17, 1946.
Hodges first settled in Boston, where he met the love of this life, Flora Middlebrooks. Prior to their marriage, he applied for and was offered a position at the Bethlehem Steel Plant in Lackawanna. In December of 1948, Johnnie and Flora bought their first home on East Utica Street in Buffalo. In 1956, the Hodges were looking for a bigger house and purchased a beautiful new home on Humboldt Parkway.
The dedication and work ethic Hodges groomed in the Navy helped him flourish here at home. While working at Bethlehem Steel, he became the first African-American to serve as foreman in the coke oven division. In addition, Johnnie and Flora were entrepreneurs, owning a successful delicatessen on Jefferson Avenue from 1965-73. After retirement from Bethlehem Steel in 1983, Hodges worked part-time as a school bus driver for Laidlaw for over 25 years, until retiring at the age of 85 to care for his wife, whose health was declining due to Alzheimer's disease.
"Caring for a person with Alzheimer's disease requires years of strength, dedication and the kind of boundless resiliency that often requires everything else be put second. It is a long, uncertain and demanding journey under even the best of circumstances," said Leilani Pelletier, executive director of the Alzheimer's Association of WNY. "Mr. and Mrs. Hodges fought a battle that thousands of our neighbors are fighting right now. I hope that their story will ignite in each caregiver, each neighbor, each citizen the awareness of the kind of strength Alzheimer's demands and that we are never truly alone. My deepest respect goes to Mr. Hodges. Welcome home to the place where boundless love and endless dedication has so obviously lived. "
With attention focused on health issues, the Hodges fell behind in their bills and faced foreclosure. After appearing in The Buffalo News, Hodges' story spread and people from near and far came forward looking to help. Enough donations came in through a GoFundMe account to buy the home back and make much-needed repairs to the property. Higgins' office, with great cooperation from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, worked to guide the family through the process of reacquisition.
GoFundMe campaign organizer Greg Elwood said, "This was an amazing experience for me. My sincere hope is that the campaign serves as an example of the great things that happen when people come together around a common cause."
Photos by Will Jones, owner/photographer, Xavier's Photography & Design