FLORENCE - When Florence County sheriff's deputy Joseph "Joey" Rodgers was shot and killed in the line of duty 17 years ago, his family and friends vowed that his death would not be in vain.
They made good on that promise with the establishment of The Joseph C. Rodgers Scholarship Foundation, which continues to provide academic opportunities for Florence County students interested in a career in law enforcement or firefighting.
"The intention of the foundation is to commemorate Joey's life and to keep his spirit of hard work and commitment alive in our community," said James Epps, a lifelong friend of Rodgers' who recently took over as president of the foundation.
"I knew Deputy Joey Rodgers for all of my life prior to his death. I don't remember a time when I didn't know him," Epps said. "We grew up on the same street in Lake City, our parents were great friends and we spent a great deal of time together while we were growing up. We attended school together from kindergarten through graduation. We basically traveled the path from kids to adults together. I am sure that Joey would be proud of the assistance that the foundation has provided to students from Florence County over the years."
Rodgers, 25, was shot and killed by a murder suspect April 9, 1997, after he responded to a call that the suspect had been sighted. The suspect, who had committed a double-homicide two days before, shot and killed Rodgers on sight. The suspect then stole his cruiser and began to leave the scene but was stopped by officers, who shot and killed him.
Rodgers not only was a sheriff's deputy but also served as a volunteer firefighter with the South Lynches Fire Department and the Lake City Fire Department. After his death, friends and family members established the scholarship foundation to honor and commemorate his life of service. The scholarships are made possible through fundraisers and donations.
"Joey was a public servant kind of guy. He enjoyed helping his community and did so every chance he got," said Rollins Rhodes, Rodgers' cousin who's now an investigator with the Florence County Sheriff's Office. "I think he'd be proud that there was a scholarship in his name that was helping others."
Each year, the foundation provides a scholarship to two deserving individuals from Florence County. Since its inception, the foundation has awarded 39 scholarships to area students, totaling nearly $70,000.
Tommy Sullivan of Florence County was also a friend of Rodgers' and helped establish the scholarship foundation. He said applicants must be residents of Florence County, have a minimum 2.5 GPA and a documented background of volunteerism and community service. He said an interest in law enforcement and firefighting is preferred but not necessarily required.
"We look for someone who has an interest in law enforcement, but we don't always get applicants who are going into the criminal justice field," Sullivan said. "The main thing is that applicants must be from Florence County and must have some type of commitment to the community, not just a commitment to self. Joey was dedicated to public service, and we look for the same in applicants."
Florence County Sheriff's Sgt. Michael Brumbles was a recipient of the Joseph C. Rodgers scholarship in 1999. He said it was an honor, one that he took especially seriously because of Rodgers' commitment to law enforcement, as well as his own father's.
"I knew Joey and his family growing up. He was a good guy. His whole family - they're all great people," Brumbles said.
"My dad, being an ex-police chief, I'd always been around law enforcement and I'd always wanted to follow in my dad's footsteps, so this was a blessing to me," he said. "It helped me go to Florence-Darlington Tech and get my degree in criminal justice and it took a lot of the financial burden of college off of me and my parents. I think Joey would be real pleased and honored that his name is being used to help young people go to college and better themselves. I think he'd like that."
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