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Joseph E. Rolfes, travel agency owner and World War II veteran, dies

Joseph E. Rolfes developed a love for travel from his service in the Navy.
Joseph E. Rolfes developed a love for travel from his service in the Navy.

Joseph Edward Rolfes, a retired travel agency owner and World War II Navy veteran, died of congestive heart failure and dementia complications Feb. 3 at Oak Crest Village in Parkville. The former Parkton resident was 94.

Born in Harrison, Ohio, he was the sixth of nine children of Edward R. Rolfes, a truck farmer who also sold insurance, and Mary Otto, a seamstress.

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Mr. Rolfes left high school in December of his senior year in 1944 to join the Navy during World War II and trained as a radio operator in Gulfport, Mississippi.

He was assigned to the USS Audubon, the USS Laurens, USS Rochester and USS Jack C. Robinson and sailed throughout the Pacific. He made stops at Pearl Harbor, the Caroline Islands, Manila and Philippine islands, the Marshall Islands, Okinawa and Tokyo Bay.

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“My father loved geography, and his first experience with travel was in the Navy. It was a real-life experience for a young man,” said his daughter, Ann Matthews of Baldwin.

He received a commendation for participation in the rescue of 197 fellow sailors from a sinking US LST near Okinawa that had been damaged during a typhoon.

He left military service as a Seaman 1st Class in July 1946 and served another nine years in the U.S. Navy Reserves.

After leaving the service Mr. Rofles worked for the U.S. Postal Service on mail trains running between Cincinnati, Huntington, West Virginia, and Detroit.

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He eventually moved to Cleveland to work with the Baltimore-based J.E. Greiner Engineering Co. and was an accountant on the Ohio Turnpike construction project.

He and other employees in the Cleveland office traveled to Baltimore each year for the annual company Christmas party.

“Greiner was in its heyday, and the company chartered two Pullman cars that held about 60 employees,” said his daughter. “They stayed at the Belvedere Hotel.”

It was during these parties that he met his future wife, Margaret “Margie” Meier, a secretary for Frank Taylor, the Greiner firm’s comptroller.

Once the Ohio Turnpike project finished, Mr. Rolfes transferred to the Baltimore office.

The couple married in June 1957, honeymooned in Mexico, settled in the Gardenville and raised four children.

They later moved to Parkton and in 2011 retired to Oak Crest Village.

Mr. Rolfes worked for four years with Greiner, was briefly an Aetna insurance agent and then joined the old Metropolitan Tourist Co. on Charles Street, where he began a long career as a travel agent and later agency owner.

“He was a farm boy from Ohio,” said his son, Joseph E. “Joe” Rolfes Jr. of Cockeysville. “He joined the Navy and saw the world. It gave him a wanderlust about travel in general.”

In 1962 Mr. Rolfes joined WAYE Travel in Bolton Hill. “While there, each Saturday he co-hosted a 30-minute radio talk show focused on global travel and exotic vacation destinations,” said his daughter.

Mr. Rolfes left WAYE and opened Santilli & Rolfes Travel with a partner, Frank Santilli. They rented a small building at the southeast corner of Charles and 26th streets owned by the old Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, whose trains passed in a tunnel.

“Every time a train went by the building shook,” said his daughter.

In 1979, he left the partnership and branched out on his own, opening Rolfes Travel Inc. at 1126 N. Charles St. in Mount Vernon near his old Greiner office.

Rolfes Travel quickly became a successful travel agency and moved to Hunt Valley after purchasing Hunt Valley Travel.

“He connected with his clients. He had an innate sense of the best trip to plan for them, and he was pretty much spot-on accurate,” said his son. “He was even-tempered. He could sit down, face a client across a desk and converse. He was a natural at picking up on the clues of what his people really wanted.”

His son said his father was himself well traveled and was an expert on cruise lines.

In February 2002, Mr. Rolfes and his son joined WorldTravelService in Hunt Valley. He retired in 2004.

“My father was a gentleman, had a quick wit and was generous,” said his daughter. “He enjoyed his family — immediate and extended, family parties, visiting historic sites and playing poker.”

Mr. Rolfes donated his body to the Maryland Anatomy Board. A memorial Mass and celebration are being planned. No date has been set.

In addition to his wife of more than 63 years, who worked alongside him as a secretary in the travel business, his daughter and son, survivors include another daughter, Mary Stershic of Baldwin; another son, Mark Rolfes of College Grove, Tennessee; a sister, Thelma Greenham of Harrison, Ohio; and six grandchildren.

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