Age is immaterial for oldest TDCJ employee
|At age 84, mechanical engineer F.L. “Dusty” Rhoades is the oldest employee working for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. “Work is work,” he says. “It makes no difference.”
Photo by David Nunnelee
Some of his co-workers call him “Grandpa,” but F.L. “Dusty” Rhoades is used to the respectful ribbing. Once while working in Saudi Arabia on a natural gas pipeline project, the Facilities Division mechanical engineer, born when Warren G. Harding was president, was awarded a pen and pencil set by the locals for being the oldest employee on the job site.
“I’ve worked on a lot of jobs, and I’ve always been one of the oldest workers,” he said. “It doesn’t bother me. I don’t think about age. I just think about being able to do my work. And as long as I can do it, age is immaterial.”
At 84, Rhoades is the oldest employee working for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice in any position. He was born and raised in Shreveport, Louisiana, and went on to work across much of the country and world after earning a degree in mechanical engineering from Louisiana Tech University and a degree in natural gas engineering from the University of Oklahoma. He landed his first job as a professional engineer in 1947 with United Gas Pipeline Company of Shreveport, the same company that employed his father. But soon thereafter, a rival company in Oklahoma came calling for his services with a tempting salary offer of $295 a month.
“United then offered me $300 a month,” Rhoades said. “That extra five dollars is what sold me. It was good money then. Things were cheap. Bread was a nickel a loaf, and you could buy a pair of shoes for three bucks.”
Rhoades worked briefly as a correctional officer for TDCJ before landing an engineering job during the expansion of the state prison system in the 1990s. Once the construction was complete, he left for a while before reapplying for a job in the Facilities Division at age 80. And he fully expected to be hired.
“TDCJ doesn’t discriminate on age,” he said. “No matter how old you are, if you can do your job, they’ll hire you.”
Rhoades is now part of an engineering group responsible for replacing mechanical equipment on prison units across the state. He says his years of experience allow him to pass along his knowledge to the younger engineers in his group.
“I give them a hard time, telling them that they’re a bunch of kids,” he said with a chuckle. “They all have different ideas about work, and I tell them that work is work. If there’s a job to do, just do it. It doesn’t hurt you. Nobody died from working that I know of. I push them a little, but not a whole lot. I like to joke with them.”
Rhoades says he continues to work well into his 80s because, like everyone else, he has bills to pay.
“I’m always needing to pay bills,” he said. “For some reason, grocery stores want their money when you buy groceries. And you’ve got to pay money when you buy gas.”
Rhoades said the longest he ever worked for a single employer was 11 years, but that he has never really retired.
“You can stay around the house and run your wife crazy, and she runs you crazy,” he said. “That’s the way it works. It’s good to be married, but you can’t stay at home all the time. I’ve known people that retired, and they didn’t live a year. They just sat around and did nothing.”
Rhoades married Venice, his wife of 60 years, after returning from World War II to finish up his degree at Louisiana Tech. During the war he piloted B-24 bombers for the Air Force and flew 32 missions over Germany.
“We got shot at every time we went up,” he said. “That’s no fun, but we didn’t have a choice.”
Today, Rhoades and his wife live in Katy, but he spends weekdays in a trailer at the Ellis Unit trailer park rather than commute. When he returns home on the weekends, he buries himself in woodworking and other hobbies.
“I like to build stuff,” he said. “I never sit around and do nothing.”
Rhoades underwent heart surgery 25 years ago and suffers from the aches and pains common to people his age. Still, he expects to work at least another year for TDCJ before perhaps retiring to work on his home projects.
“The good Lord has been good to me,” he said.