During her first year as coordinator of volunteer services at Mystic Seaport, Rhoda Hopkins Root doubled the number of volunteers. This is the first thing others tell you about Root, and an accomplishment she addresses humbly.
"We needed more people," she says matter-of-factly. "I knew we had to recruit. So we went out to senior centers, to Stone Ridge, to churches and the response was overwhelming," she says.
The Seaport now boasts a veritable army of volunteers — 1172 strong.
It is not Root's style, it seems, to do anything in a small way.
Maybe it's that she is gifted with a natural way of motivating people; of making them feel welcome and valued and heard.
Maybe it's that she's the kind of person who sees what needs to be done and just does it.
Or maybe it's that the thrum of horses hooves has always sounded in her blood, and people sense this and want to follow her just to see where she is going.
But wherever she has traveled in her 82 years, Root has been a trailblazer, intentionally or not.
As a tennis player, she won the Canadian National Singles Championship, the Championship of Mexico, was ranked eighth in U.S. Ladies Singles and played the tournaments at Forest Hills and Wimbledon.
When a passion for the sport of fox hunting took hold, she chased excellence once again, becoming the first woman huntsman to the Fairfield County Hounds and the first woman in the United States to occupy that position to a recognized pack of foxhounds.
But reforming that ancient, and decidedly male tradition of the sport was not her object.
"I'm not one for causes," she explains. "I had the position and I was going to be good at it. Three or four members resigned in protest," she says, but whatever small furor there was died as quickly as a huntsman's horn sounding over the hills.
The work of a huntsman is physically and emotionally intense. It requires round-the-clock dedication to the pack. "You become their mother," she says. And the sport itself is fraught with so many variables. Rain or wind can make it difficult for the hounds to catch the fox's scent. Sometimes the pack will pick up on a deer or coyote instead and take off after them. And once the chase is on, and the pack and the horses are flying in a cacophony through the countryside, an unsure or inexperienced rider can imperil those around him. "If you fall down in front of somebody, he is going to fall down too," she said.
But the hours and devotion, she says, are rewarded in the field, when 30-40 hounds are giving chase, and even in the fire of their pursuit, heed their huntsman's call.
"It's thrilling," she says. "They all come and they all know their name."
In her 21 years as a huntsman, she brought glory to Fairfield County, winning the Pack Class at the Bryn Mawr Hound Show for seven consecutive years.
She left the sport in 2000. "I woke up one morning and I was done. I figured I'd broken every bone I could," she says, joking that she was on a first-name basis with the local emergency room doctors.
She moved to Stonington because she had friends here and loved the area. "Everyone who is here wants to be here. It makes it a happy place."
She began volunteering as an interpreter at Mystic Seaport. And six years later, her life took another interesting turn. She met her husband, Dr. Howard Frank Root, in 2006 when he walked into her office seeking to volunteer.
"Interviews [with potential volunteers] usually last about 15-20 minutes," she said. But they got to talking. For two hours. About tennis and life and whatever people talk about when they meet the person they're going to marry. An hour after he left, her phone rang. "I don't want to be presumptuous..." he began, by way of asking her to dinner. They were married six months later.
Root's first marriage had ended 30 years prior, and though she wasn't looking for a partner, she says there was serendipity to finding love again.
"It was God-given," she says. "I'm fortunate in that I met someone who didn't change my life that much. He's an independent soul, and I'm an independent soul. But we have wonderful interests."
At a volunteer celebration a few years ago, someone remarked to Root that she went 'to such a great extent to keep volunteers.'
"Yes,' I replied, 'I even married one.'"
"Of course that's not something you can do too often," she laughs.
In retirement from radiology, Dr. Root now works three to four days a week in the visitor's center.
"He's devoted to the museum," she says, adding that there is a magic about the Seaport that draws people in. "There's a feeling that pervades this place," she says, "It's magical. It truly is." It inspires the interpreters who narrate the history exhibits, and invite visitors into the community life and arts of yesteryear — the blacksmith's forge, the ropewalk, the apothecary, and the printing press, among others. Equally vital are the volunteers who help to keep the museum's buildings, grounds and vessels shipshape, who act in its original productions, who greet visitors and work community and fundraising events.
Some retirees work a full-time schedule at the seaport. Some more than that. They log roughly 85,000 hours a year.
"Our volunteers and staff are very, very well-educated," Root said. "They are dedicated to the stewardship of our artifacts."
For some, this dedication spans years. Root speaks of institutional advancement staff member Matthew Stackpole, whose father served as curator from 1953 to 1966; and Howard Davis, who has 52 years total of paid and volunteer service.
But while Root attributes the dedication of volunteers to the scope of opportunities and mystique of the seaport, her friends and colleagues said there is another kind of magic at work.
"You have to wonder, 'Why do people do stuff for Rhoda that they wouldn't ordinarily do?' But she makes you feel so special, so needed," at-large volunteer Lisle Ann Jackson said.
(Jackson, incidentally, also met her future husband when they collaborated on a volunteer project together.)
Lisle's mom, Becky Jackson, says she has seen people come and go during her own 35 years of volunteering. But Root is the best.
At 92, Becky Jackson works two days a week as the Membership Building receptionist, right across the hall from Root's office.
"I've never seen anything like it. She knows everybody and she remembers everybody. She has a fantastic memory. I don't know anybody who's done as much as she has, especially for the Seaport."
"I'm just proud to know her," says Vicki Anderson, the former associate director for business development at the Seaport and now the executive director of the Pawcatuck Neighborhood Center. She and Root and have been friends and colleagues for about 10 years.
"She can speak with everybody and anybody. She has a great way about her," she says.
Anderson adds that Root has been instrumental in orchestrating a much-needed spike in food donations for the center's food pantry during the critical winter months.
Admission to the Seaport on the day of the Community Carol Sing is free with a canned good donation for the Neighborhood Center's food pantry, which serves all of Stonington, North Stonington and Westerly. (The event takes place Dec. 18; the Seaport is open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and the Sing begins at 3.)
"It's such an old-fashioned, magical way to celebrate the holidays. And it's popular. Five years ago we were having difficulty getting food to feed people," Anderson says. "We were really overwhelmed and happy that that happened."
The center recognized Root's efforts with its Good Neighbor Award last year.
Susan Funk, the Seaport's executive vice president, also lauded Root's ability to bring people of diverse ages and interests together in a meaningful way.
"Rhoda is just a remarkable person in that she has a lot of energy, unfailing enthusiasm and an incredible work ethic," she says.
"She stays in very close touch with the volunteers and she's able to gather a group at short notice. ... she's really able to rally the troops."
"There are an incredible number of volunteers of different ages and skill sets, which requires a very different level of coordination and support." Root, she says, keeps on top of it all.
Funk echoed those who spoke of Root's ability to reach and inspire people, saying that she conducts herself with an unmistakable sense of joy about who she is and what she's doing.
"She's a person who comes to a party by boat. A lot of people feel that she sets a great example for how to live a wonderful life."