Rodney S. Sadler Sr., 69, of Camden, a mariner, harbormaster, and community activist, died Wednesday, March 20, of heart failure at Samaritan Hospice in Marlton.

“Camden County lost a great public servant and community leader with the passing of Rodney Sadler,” Camden County Freeholder Jeff Nash said in a statement.

Starting in 1992, Mr. Sadler served the county as the harbormaster of Wiggins Park Marina. But he was best known for his leadership role with Save Our Waterfront, a citizens’ organization working to change Camden’s rundown waterfront on the Delaware River into an enticing destination for recreation and economic growth.

Mr. Sadler rose to prominence as an advocate for razing the Riverfront State Prison, a correctional facility with 800 inmates in a Camden neighborhood teeming with drug use and violence. The state wanted to consolidate its operations because the inmate census was decreasing. The plan recommended transfer of the inmates to other state prisons.

As president of the group, Mr. Sadler argued forcefully at public meetings for demolition. Local officials and prison guards opposed the move because they feared overcrowding of local jails and existing state prisons.

Riverfront State Prison as seen in a June 9, 2009 photo. The facility, which opened in 1985, occupied a prime site in Camden. Mr. Sadler was among those who successfully pushed for its demolition, saying it "has held Camden down since the day it opened."
Alejandro A. Alvarez
Riverfront State Prison as seen in a June 9, 2009 photo. The facility, which opened in 1985, occupied a prime site in Camden. Mr. Sadler was among those who successfully pushed for its demolition, saying it "has held Camden down since the day it opened."

“Riverfront State Prison has held Camden down since the day it opened on the waterfront,” Mr. Sadler told the Newark Star-Ledger in March 2009.

The citizens prevailed. When the prison was demolished that same year, Mr. Sadler was thrilled, said his wife, Anna. In its place is a four-acre park along the water. “Little people don’t usually win, but it was a great win,” she quoted him as saying.

The neighborhood has stabilized, but the economic development that county officials had hoped would occur on the remaining three acres has been slow to materialize, causing some residents to leave Camden. Mr. Sadler stayed.

“He had roots here. This was home to him,” his wife said.

Nash said Mr. Sadler contributed by volunteering for the Economic Recovery Board, Camden City Planning Board, North Camden Neighborhood Development Corp., and Camden Greenways Working Group.

“Rodney was as quick to lend a hand as he was to flash a smile, and his confident and easygoing style will be missed by all the organizations that benefited from his input,” Nash said.

Born in West Philadelphia, Mr. Sadler graduated from Overbrook High School and Antioch College with a bachelor’s degree in science. Mr. Sadler and his wife met while working for civil rights and against gang violence in West Philadelphia in the late 1960s.

”’We’ve got to get out on the streets’,” she said he told her, “and we did.”

He taught high school for four years in Philadelphia. In 1976, he moved to Camden after he was offered a teaching job at an alternative education program there. Since the job required residency, the Sadlers moved to a seven-acre property on the Delaware.

His wife said the couple were caretakers for the owner, who lived in a large house on the tract of land, while the couple raised three children in a small house. Two more children would come later. When the man died in 1980, the owner’s daughter asked Mr. Sadler what he wanted to do with the property.

“I want to build a marina,” he told her. And he did, Anna Sadler said. From 1980 to 2000, Mr. Sadler ran a marina business, but when it began to falter, he became harbormaster of the county-run Wiggins Park Marina.

Mr. Sadler held the job for 25 years before stepping down last year. “He loved being on the water,” his wife said.

She described Mr. Sadler as “outgoing and fun.”

“He was a party guy when he was younger, and he threw an enormous Christmas party every year. He loved reggae and Jamaica,” his wife said.

In addition to his wife, he is survived by children Rodney Jr., Eshu Ryan, Laura, Caroline, and Quinn Sadler; 11 grandchildren; a great-grandchild; and three brothers.

A viewing from 6 to 8 p.m. Friday, March 29, at the Falco/Caruso & Leonard Pennsauken Funeral Home, 6600 N. Browning Rd., will be followed by a Requiem Eucharist at 11 a.m. Saturday, March 30,, at the Episcopal Church of St. Paul, 422 Market St., Camden. Interment will be private.

Memorial donations may be made to Samaritan Hospice, 5 Eves Dr., Suite 300, Marlton, N.J. 08053, or the Center for Aquatic Sciences at Adventure Aquarium, 1 Riverside Dr., Camden, N.J. 08103.