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Migrant worker in his youth, Rodriguez worked his landscape business into his 80s and operated Christmas gift program for needy kids for three decades

COURTESY PHOTO  - Jesse Rodriguez lived a life of hard work and community service. He was known as the 'Hispanic Santa Claus' in Madras. Jesus "Jesse" Rodriguez, known to many in the Madras area as the Hispanic Santa Claus who hosted an annual toy giveaway to the delight of local children, passed away July 7, at the age of 84.

Raised in Texas, Rodriguez came from a family of 15 children born to migrant working parents. His family followed the crops, living in migrant camps and working in California, Arizona, Oregon and Michigan. Everyone helped, and the importance of work was instilled in him at an early age.

As a child, he longingly watched as the neighbor kids got toys for Christmas. "But they were super poor and there was no money for toys," said his daughter, Narce Rodriguez. Lured by other kids, he started drinking when he was 13, which later led to a problem with alcoholism.

In 1955, Rodriguez moved to Madras to work in the fields, and in 1960, he married his wife, Lupe. He had a knack for organizing and worked 10 years for Madras Farms as a supervisor, hiring crews to work the fields.

Tom Kirsch, of Madras Farms, recalled, "Jesse was a good hard worker and loyal. He did a good job of managing the crews he was in charge of. He had his ups and downs in life, but his heart was where it should be and he was always trying to help people."

He and Lupe bought a house in 1980 and had four children, Jimmy, Narce, Jesse Jr. and Robert, but he wasn't home much. "I drank for 30 years, but just on weekends so I could keep a job. I neglected my wife and family because of drinking," he said in a 1995 article in the Pioneer about his decision to change.

His turning point came from a priest's comment and a run-in with the law. He had been sentenced to serve time in jail, when Father Leo Weckerle recommended him for an alcohol rehabilitation program. The priest told him, "Jesse, you're a good man, but you need to stop drinking," and he took those words to heart.

Since Rodriguez could neither read or write, he relied on listening and memory to complete the rehabilitation material. "I promised God I'd help others when I got out and try to help alcoholics," he said.

Working with Trini Ortiz, he helped start the first Spanish-speaking Alcoholics Anonymous Support Group in Madras. In place of drinking, he substituted a hobby of growing flowers, and every year he stayed sober, he added to his many flower beds at his home on Southwest J Street, by St. Pat's Catholic Church.

He also began a yearly fun activity for children where he asked businesses for donations and had pinatas. That developed into the Farm Workers Toy Drive, held on Christmas Eve in the Rodriguez's yard. For the night, the yard was decorated with Christmas lights and featured Jesse and Lupe as Santa and Mrs. Claus.

Because of his childhood experiences, his daughter said, "He wanted to make sure every child had a toy for Christmas."

"My dad was one of the first Mexicans to arrive here. Around September or October, after potato harvest, there was no longer any migrant work, so the workers stayed in the Madras area during the winter," his daughter said.

Knowing families were just getting by, Rodriguez started the toy drive to help migrant children, but then expanded it to include any child in need of a Christmas gift. Each year, he asked local businesses for donations, which he and Lupe would use to purchase toys for some 200 children who came to the event.

It was a big operation, with presents wrapped and color coded for boys and girls, young and older kids. "The whole family and grandkids helped wrap gifts, and other kids from the community volunteered to help," his daughter said.

December 2020 marked the 30th year of their Christmas giveaway. "We still did it, even with COVID, but we changed and gave food vouchers for families instead," she said.

Rodriguez also developed his love of flower gardening into a landscaping business and maintained many business grounds in Madras. He volunteered his services to care for the Catholic church's grounds, and also kept up several elderly people's yards for free.

"He was a very giving person and loved everyone. This was his community," she said of her dad, who liked to visit with and tease people during his rounds.

Retired car dealership owners Joan and Ron McDonald were friends with Rodriguez. "He did our landscaping for 25 years, and he and Ron became very good friends. He was a great example because he turned his life around, and he was voted the Chamber Volunteer of the Year in 2014," Joan McDonald said.

"Jesse was a good fellow. He had it rough growing up, but he got himself straightened up and turned out a darn good family he was awful proud of," Ron McDonald said.

Although his health was failing and his son Jimmy took over most of the business, Jesse continued to tend yards around town until last year.

"I'd see him when he was older still working and tell him he'd better quit or he'd die on the job," Kirsch said.

"That was just his work ethic," his daughter said. "We kept telling him he didn't need to do it, but it was his pride and joy and kept him going. He loved being outside in nature and the fresh air and working with the earth."

After Rodriguez passed away on July 7, family members held an hour-long recitation of the Rosary every day for a week at 5 p.m. A tent was set up in their yard and between 30 and 50 people showed up each day.

Even with all those people, his daughter said, "A deer would show up every day when the Rosary started, nibble apples, and then leave when the Rosary ended."

Nature paying its respects to a nature lover.

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