Part I: Victoria man overcomes alcoholism, homelessness (w/video)
Jennifer Lee Preyss
Jan. 10, 2014 at midnight
Updated Jan. 9, 2014 at 7:10 p.m.
Rise of the Walking Dead
Ernest Lefelt Rydolph Jr. was homeless and an alcoholic until 2008 when a religious experience turned his life around.
If someone you know is struggling with addiction, call Gulf Bend Mental Health and Wellness at 361-575-0611 visit gulfbend.org, or Mid-Coast Family Services at 361-575-7842
This is the Part I of a two-part series on Ernest Rydolph. Next week, the Advocate will explore Rydolph's life and spiritual walk, post-addiction.
He stacked a pile of bricks against the tin siding of a carpentry warehouse, forming a makeshift chair.
In the mid-afternoon heat, he sat down on the chair to drink two 32-ounce crushers.
Leaning against the bricks, Ernest Rydolph Jr. wrapped his lips around the chilled beer can - a regular, if not hourly, activity.
For the past nine years, Rydolph had taken up residence at the property, sleeping on a throwaway twin mattress, sharing the floor with a family of rats and mice that creep their way in through the floorboards.
Puss-filled sores on Rydolph's face - caused by years of alcohol consumption, poor nutrition and a lack of proper hygiene - were worsening and his weight had dropped to a sickly 138 pounds.
His near three-decade long addiction was killing him, and he knew he had to make a decision: stop drinking or die alone in a drunken fog.
Clinching the crusher in his hand, Rydolph lifted his hands in the air.
"God, if you hear me, please deliver me from this life," he begged, getting up off the brick chair to pace around the property.
Rydolph took another sip of beer.
Sitting down, walking around, sipping beer, praying for deliverance - that's how Rydolph spent the next hour.
Realizing the Lord was listening to his struggle, he stared at the second 32-ounce bottle and wondered if this time, he could walk away.
He'd tried to stop drinking in the past, but painful withdrawals, violent shaking and hallucinations always followed, he said.
God would have to intervene if he was going to survive the aftermath of sobriety.
He finished the first beer and held the second in his hand.
"Lord, if you just let me finish this second beer, I promise I'll never touch alcohol again."
That moment, on April 20, 2008, Rydolph finished the second beer then walked away from alcohol addiction for the last time.
"I felt so happy, so light. It was finally over for me, and I could feel it. I could feel this weight lift from my body, and I knew I was free," he said. "I didn't have no shakes, no hallucinations, nothing. It was a miracle. Only the God I serve could do that."
This April, will be Rydolph's sixth anniversary of sobriety, which he'll celebrate from the comfort of his second-floor, downtown Victoria apartment.
The balcony off the master bedroom overlooks the streets he once slept in, and the vacant homes and sheds he once broke into for shelter.
Losing a father
When Rydolph's father died of a heart attack when he was 18 years old, beer became a source of solace for the Bloomington native.
He wasn't a stranger to booze before his father's death, but the grief of losing a parent aggravated his addiction.
By the time Rydolph was a student at Bloomington High School, he was drinking most mornings before class.
"At first, I liked the taste. But then the taste would end up getting me drunk, and I liked that, too," he said. "Pretty soon me and my friends were drinking a case of beer before school every morning."
Yet Rydolph and members of his family didn't see his drinking - then - as anything more than teenage rebellion.
It wasn't until the death of his father, Ernest Sr., that alcohol began to lead his life.
"I was very close with my father. He loved me. I was his only boy," Rydolph said. "When I went into the hospital room to see him, I remember his eyes were gray. I leaned in and told him I'd do my best to take care of Mom and my sisters."
It was a promise Rydolph would not keep.
Following the funeral, Rydolph went home and realized he couldn't live at home anymore. The memories of his father were everywhere, and he told his mother he had to leave.
For the next several years, Rydolph began jumping around from home to home, staying a few nights or weeks on a friend's or family member's couch. He was always on the move - always with a beer in his hand.
After dropping out of high school, Rydolph started working at a nearby plant.
"I was making good money until my friend asked if I wanted to earn what I made in a week in one day," he said.
The job offer was selling crack in Bloomington. But instead of getting paid in cash, Rydolph said he would get paid in drugs, and he would be responsible for turning a profit.
"I sold to everyone - black, white, Hispanic - it didn't matter," he said. "I was basically supplying Victoria."
Earning thousands of dollars daily, Rydolph used the money to pay off his two associate co-sellers. Any money left over was used to buy beer, prostitutes, and the crack he eventually became addicted to.
"At that time, I was drinking a 24-case of beer for breakfast. You'd be up two days on crack alone, so I'd drink constantly, the whole time I was working," he said. "Every minute I had a beer, I was never without. Breakfast, dinner, supper, there was beer involved, that's all I was working for."
Rydolph's addiction became so severe, he was eventually asked to leave the drug-selling business. Local authorities were also starting to make arrests among dealers he knew, and he made the decision to move on.
For the next several years, Rydolph worked odd jobs, handyman jobs where he could find them and continuously moved around.
He was arrested more than 100 times for various charges, mostly related to public intoxication.
"Sometimes I'd get out of jail, and be right back in jail by the end of the night," he said.
He hustled family, friends and strangers for beer money and cigarettes, food and clothing. And when he couldn't come up with the money to buy beer, he resorted to petty crime.
"I started snatching purses, breaking in homes, stealing," he said. "I'd go into stores and put beer down my pants, I'd do just about anything."
Rydolph said he would go to great lengths to remain drunk all day, even walking into grocery stores and drinking beer off the shelves.
"I'd grab a cart and put things in the cart while drinking the beer," he said. "Then I'd have the girl ring up my groceries and pretend I didn't have my wallet."
When his mother, Ida Bell Rydolph, died in 2003, Rydolph's addiction and living situation spiraled out of control.
He had no money to bury her, and he and a family member had to dig the grave themselves. She was buried in a Bloomington cemetery without a service or headstone marker.
"That was tough on me. I was mad when she died. I remember throwing a beer can in her grave," he said.
Once again, the grief of losing a parent overwhelmed him. The promise he made his father at his death bed years earlier - to take care of his mother and siblings - was broken.
Longtime friend and retired educator, Jackie Gladney, said even while she witnessed the years of Rydolph's demise, she never stopped believing he would change his life.
"I didn't know what was going to happen to him. I prayed for him a lot," she said. "And we would all do our part. He knew he could go to my mom's house if he needed to. There were so many people in Bloomington who would take care of him."
When Rydolph showed up at her home, she'd take him to the store and buy him groceries. Sometimes, she would invite him to church and encouraged him to be baptized. Nothing helped.
"After a while, you could see the sores getting worse on his face. They were just nasty looking," Gladney recalls. "He was in bad shape, he really was."
The homeless life
After too many years of asking for handouts, Rydolph started sleeping on the streets.
Vacant homes, sheds, pickup trucks, grassy patches, eight-foot wide pipelines all served as temporary housing for Rydolph while he was homeless.
"Basically, anywhere I'd get tired and fall asleep was where I'd call home," he said.
He became used to covering himself with tarps for blankets and using cut wood for pillows. He weathered the elements and critters at night, and whenever he could earn a few dollars, he'd spend the money on beer.
Back at the shop
The last place he found to live was the carpentry shop at the corner of Moody and Juan Linn Streets.
Brian Silkey, the manager of the shop, allowed Rydolph to use one of the rooms inside the building, and he spent the first several months sleeping on the concrete floor. Since the building was owned by Chesnick Furniture, it wasn't long before he was able to convince one of the workers, Carlos De La Cruz, of Victoria, to give him an old twin mattress rather than throw it away in the garbage.
"I always said the shop was my condo. It was home to me," he said, mentioning his nine-year residence at the property.
De La Cruz said Rydolph was always asking him for money and often tried getting De La Cruz to drink with him.
"I didn't think he could change. I would see that poor guy in the back of the building asking for $5 so he could buy a beer. It was sad," De La Cruz said. "Old Ernest always looked dirty; dirty clothes, dirty shoes. And he drank a lot."
Years later, Silkey hired Rydolph for odds and ends jobs and helped him in whatever way he could until Silkey's death a few years ago.
Rydolph lived and drank at his "condo" for nearly a decade before making the decision to have God change his life on the bricks behind Silkey's carpentry shop.
That was the beginning of the end of homeless life, and a divine transformation that Rydolph refers to as the "rise of the walking dead."
"The life I led, I wouldn't wish it on my worst enemy," he said. "I'm not supposed to be here today. And I thank my Lord and Savior every day for that. He is the only reason I'm here and healed of addiction."