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A father’s death leaves family hurt, perplexed

Raquel Colon, a daughter of Pedro Rodriguez, who was found dead in the Charles River, in front of a shrine in his honor at her home in Cambridge.

Bill Greene/Globe Staff

Raquel Colon, a daughter of Pedro Rodriguez, who was found dead in the Charles River, in front of a shrine in his honor at her home in Cambridge.

When the body of an older man was pulled out of the Charles River ­earlier this month, it wasn’t clear whose it was.

But it was clear right away whose it wasn’t, and that was what seemed to matter. It wasn’t Jonathan Dailey, a graduate student who had mysteriously gone missing the week before. The older man’s name, who he was and how he came to die, earned scarcely a mention, lost in all the focus on Dailey.

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What happened to him was sad, to be sure. But it was secondary.

The next day, as Dailey’s body was found in the same river, police identified the older man as Pedro C. Rodriguez, a 69-year-old from Cambridge. Rodriguez, who became a progressively heavy drinker in the three years since his wife died, had been hospitalized the day before after falling on the sidewalk near his home. Investigators said there is no indication his death was suspicious.

His grief-stricken family, who buried him Monday beside his wife, Aurea, have been left to wonder why Rodriguez didn’t come home this time, the way he always did after long nights on a bar stool, park, or street corner. And what could have sent Rodriguez, who almost never left his corner of his Cambridge neighborhood, to the river’s edge.

Pedro C. Rodriguez

Handout

Pedro C. Rodriguez

“How did he get there?” his daughter Raquel ­Colon asked in a strained voice. “That’s what perplexes me the most. It’s just so painful. He did not deserve to die this way.”

Colon said it pains her that her father would die so publicly, yet be written off as just another washed-out old drunk, another lost soul. Her father was a good man who was respected and loved, she said, and led a life that deserved to be remembered for more than the way it ended.

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“I want my father to be remembered for the man he was,” she said. “He was a hard-working, humble man, and his reputation meant a lot to him.”

He and his wife, who met as teenagers growing up in Puerto Rico, spent a happy, committed life together, and raised five children. He worked hard, at a steel company and a farm before finding work with the Cambridge public works department, where he was a trash collector for nearly 20 years.

Colon pointed to a commendation Rodriguez received when he retired, which noted he had been recognized for outstanding performance and in one three-year stretch did not miss a single day of work.

Rodriguez was a skilled softball player, and listened to the Red Sox on the radio nearly every game. He loved good stories, especially nostalgic ones from his boyhood, and relished the telling. His stories always took their time, his daughter said, and usually some winding turns, too. His family’s eye-rolls only made him go slower.

“I miss them, now,” she said of his stories.

Rodriguez looked forward to times when the whole family, with all 10 grandchildren, would get together, usually for a holiday cookout. He loved seeing everybody together, and would dance into the wee hours, even if he didn’t really know how.

“He would grab anybody,” Colon said, her smile wistful.

Rodriguez met his wife at her father’s shop in their hometown. Before long, they were first loves, and when Rodriguez came to Massachusetts, she soon followed. They settled in Cambridge, and when the kids grew up they stayed close. Grandchildren came along, and Rodriguez and his wife jumped at the chance to look after them.

“They were so happy,” she said.

When Rodriguez retired in 2009, the couple looked forward to twilight years filled with family. But just a few months later, Aurea died suddenly after a stroke.

Rodriguez was heartbroken, but for a while seemed able to cope. In time, however, he began to drink heavily, often with men from the neighborhood streets who came to be his friends.

“I have a feeling they filled that void,” Colon said.

Rodriguez would say the men had their troubles, but he genuinely liked them and enjoyed their company, she said. Better to be lonely together.

“He never looked at differences,” she said. “He would say it doesn’t make a difference what walk of life you come from. In the end we’re all the same.”

He would often bring them food, usually rice and beans, and sometimes lent them money, she said. He generally kept that part of his life hidden from his family, and would rarely spend time with his family after drinking.

His homeless friends knew him as “Petey,” and many came to his wake to pay their respects.

At a bottle-return center in his neighborhood, men gathered Thursday morning to cash in their haul. Around the corner, Carlos Rodriguez said he had known Petey for years, and couldn’t believe he was gone. He was a gentleman, he said, a quiet man who never cursed. When he told his stories, people listened.

For someone who wandered the streets, he was rich, and quick to share. If you needed $5, for a drink or a bite, he obliged.

“Not lend,” said Rodriguez, 56. “Give.”

Rodriguez knew Petey when he was working, remembered seeing him on the back of the truck. Then his wife died, and some part of him did, too.

“After she died, he started drinking a lot,” he said. Petey told lots of stories about his kids and grandkids, he said. But he never spoke about his wife.

Even as his drinking grew more dangerous, Colon said, Rodriguez remained active. He often swept the front stoop at his apartment building, and when it snowed would shovel and salt the walk. He woke early and rarely spent time sitting around the house, she said. His family cooked for him, and would drop off meals.

Family members told him he needed to stop drinking, and sometimes he would for months at a time. But he always relapsed, and eventually told his family he was fine as he was.

Her father would never admit to loneliness, Colon said, but clearly missed his wife more than he would ever say. He carried a picture of her in his wallet, so she stayed with him.

While on some levels he seemed content, especially when he was with his family, his drinking became more desperate over time, and last year he had a bad fall. But he always found his way home, she said.

After falling on the sidewalk near his home, he was taken to the hospital. But he never called his family, and was released when he sobered up. When his body was recovered, the hospital band was still around his wrist, discharge papers in his pocket.

The family noticed he was missing when the meal they had left remained untouched, and their worst fears were soon confirmed. Colon said she’s at a loss over what happened.

“He had a very set routine,” she said. “And he never would have wanted to take his own life.”

Rodriguez said he would often see Petey up early each morning, out walking and drinking. A group of friends nodded in agreement. He always had a bottle in his hand, and would give friends a free swig to help their hangover until the liquor store opened.

Other men in the group said they were very sad about what happened. One, Felix Munoz, said in Spanish that he had always admired him. He was a kind man who had a dignity about him, even in dark times.

“I looked to him like a father,” he said. He reached out his arms, far as he could, then slowly closed them in embrace, the way a father would.

Peter Schworm can be reached at schworm@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globepete.

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