By Brandon Martin
In the face of adversity, many men would call it quits, but when life’s circumstances sought to break Jim Rothrock’s spirit, he picked up the gauntlet and accepted the challenge.
Jim Rothrock died March 8, but his smile and charming demeanor will remain with his family and friends for significantly longer.
“The thing I’m going to miss most about him is his smile, his pretty eyes and his laugh,” said his wife, Jane Rothrock. “He made everybody laugh, he smiled, and he was just the sweetest guy. That was his personality.”
Jim Rothrock, 72, was born in Martinsville in 1948. His father, Tom, passed away while he was still young, leaving his mother, Ruth, to raise six children by herself.
Two years later, Jim Rothrock experienced another life changing event. He became paralyzed after suffering a spinal cord injury while sledding.
Not one to let that slow him down, Jim Rothrock began treatment at the Woodrow Wilson Workforce and Rehabilitation Center (WWRC) to learn how to care for himself in a wheelchair.
After his undergraduate studies at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian College, Jim Rothrock returned to WWRC to train disabled people applying for jobs.
Having found his calling in life, Jim Rothrock pursued a graduate degree in Vocational Rehabilitation at Virginia Commonwealth University. That’s when his life changed once more.
“Jim was in graduate school at VCU, and he was doing an internship,” Jane Rothrock said. “The program he was supervising was a program for newly-hired rehabilitation counselors from the Mid-Atlantic. I was a new rehab counselor in Connecticut, and I went down to Woodrow Wilson for a 6-week, in-depth training program. Jim was kind of our dorm daddy, our go-fer, he was a lecturer.”
That was in the fall, 1977.
“After summoning all the southern charm he could, he invited Jane to join him and … a romance began,” according to his obituary. By January, the two were engaged, with an August wedding planned – the beginning of their 43-year journey together.
Jim Rothrock eventually gained the post of Commissioner for the Virginia Department of Rehabilitative Services, serving under five governors (Wilder, Warner, Kaine, McDonnell, and McAuliffe) while helping Virginians with disabilities exceed others’ expectations of them during his 16 years on the job.
In his career and personal life, Jim Rothrock always left people with the same impression, according to Jane Rothrock.
“He just brightened up everyone’s day. When he was in the room, he kind of took the air out of the room because everybody just stopped and listened to Jim,” she said. “He was funny, he was charming, he was very sincere, he would help anybody at any time for any reason.”
Jane Rothrock said her husband’s personality was such that most people forgot he was confined to a wheelchair. “No one ever noticed his wheelchair at all,” she said, and recalled their beach trips together.
“He always loved to be at the beach,” she said. “He loved going to Holden Beach, N.C. Nothing was planned and we just kind of relaxed. He would tell funny stories from his youth and everybody loved it. When you were friends with Jim, you were friends for life.”
While in the hospital, Jim Rothrock shared his love for the beach with everyone in the hospital, whether they wanted it or not, she said.
“He had recently been in the hospital for seven weeks. I walked down the hall very soon after he got in and these nurses were just shaking their heads outside of the door. I asked if something was wrong,” Jane Rothrock said. “They said Mrs. Rothrock, you’ve got to tell your husband to keep the radio down. Jim had his phone on the Myrtle Beach ‘Beach Music’ station. He would blare that thing and sing songs as loud as he could. He did it all day. They would come and close the door, tell him to keep it down, but he loved beach music.”
Jim Rothrock learned he had cancer shortly after a surgery related to pressure sores from his paralysis.
“He went in, the surgery was over, and the doctor said ‘Mr. Rothrock, does your stomach hurt? Your stomach looks kind of big,’” Jane Rothrock said. “Jim said ‘well, I can’t hold my gut in because I’m paralyzed. I’m just getting older and I’m getting a pot belly.’’
After performing some scans, the doctors noticed something wrong in his colon.
“So, they went in to take out a tumor in his colon and when they opened him up, they found that his whole cavity was full of tumors. He never felt the pain. The doctors didn’t know how he was alive with so much cancer,” Jane Rothrock said. “They closed him up and gave him 3-6 months. He died 10 days later” in their home.
“He went to sleep on Monday night and didn’t wake up on Tuesday. He did it his way and didn’t suffer,” Jane Rothrock said.
At one point after the cancer diagnosis, their grandson, Henry, asked Jim Rothrock if he would be able to walk in heaven, Jane Rothrock said.
She said her husband replied, ‘That would be great. But if I don’t, the wheelchair has been really good to me. I’m okay with it.’”