Soldier, city department head, volunteer, Rufus Riggs dies at 79 after lengthy cancer fight


Rufus Riggs was 79.

COLUMBUS, Ga. (WRBL) — After a lengthy battle with cancer, a retired soldier and Cataula resident Rufus Riggs died Monday.

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Born Christmas Day 1942, Riggs was 79.

Visitation will be Thursday, July 1, 2021, from 5 to 6 p.m. followed by a Rosary at Cox Funeral Home in Hamilton. The funeral service will be at 11 a.m. Friday at Christ The King Catholic Church in Pine Mountain.

A Louisiana native, a private Interment will be held at Holy Family Catholic Church Cemetery in his hometown of Lawtell, La.

A Vietnam veteran and retired Command Sergeant Major, Riggs lived every day as if it would be his last. And he said as much during a Thanksgiving 2017 interview with the Ledger-Enquirer.

“I have tried to live my life in a way that if I die tomorrow, I would have no regrets,” he said. “I tell my friends who say, ‘I am so sorry you have that cancer,’ I say to them, ‘Really don’t feel sorry because I know I will die, we will all die. That’s a given. The baby born today will die.”

And that’s how Riggs lived his life until it ended in his Harris County home.

“I am not afraid to die, and I am prepared to die when that time comes,” he said in that interview. “It doesn’t mean I will sit in a corner and feel sorry for myself and give up. I will fight as long as I have life in me, but knowing that dying is inevitable, there is no point in being afraid of it.”

And the reason Riggs did not fear death can be found in the way he spent his nearly eight decades of life. He was an advocate for equality, fairness, and developing team members with strong solid leadership by example.

The son of Felicien Riggs and Eva Hawkins, he was born in the rural area of St. Landry Parish, the heart of the Creole and Cajun culture.

After graduating from Carter G. Woodson High School in Lawtell, in 1961, he joined the U.S. Army on July 24. And he served 28 years with distinction.

His military honors include the Legion of Merit, a Purple Heart, five Meritorious Service Medal awards, two Army Accommodation Medals, nine Good Conduct Medals, Vietnam Cross of Gallantry, Combat Infantryman’s Badge, Expert Infantryman’s Badge and Parachutist’s Badge.

The Army took the smalltown Louisiana kid around the world and back.

His overseas assignments included two tours in Germany, Panama, Vietnam, and two tours in Korea. Stateside, he was assigned to Fort Jackson, S.C.; Fort Gordon, Ga.; two tours at Fort Polk, La.; Fort Bliss, Texas; two tours at Fort Benning; the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y.; and his final assignment was as the command sergeant major at Fort Devens, Mass.

His next to last duty post at West Point is notable because he was a non-commissioned officer assigned to the academy that trains the future leaders of the Army.

Riggs and other NCOs who draw that assignment are there, as one former NCO put it, “to show the cadets what right looks like.”

He retired on Nov. 1, 1989, and settled near Fort Benning, working as the chief of various divisions in the Public Services Department of the Columbus Consolidated Government.

As he did in his military career, Riggs moved up through the ranks. He retired in 2007 after 17 years. He finished as the director of the city’s Public Services Department, in charge of everything from trash pickup to animal control.

Columbus Mayor Skip Henderson was on city council when Riggs directed the Public Services Department.

“I don’t think the people of this community understand just how important a role Rufus played in their everyday lives,” Henderson said. “He was not only one of the best department heads I ever worked with he was also just a quality human being.”

And Riggs brought his military training to the city post, where he worked for Carmen Cavezza, the city manager and a retired three-star general.

“Rufus didn’t see a lot of gray,” Henderson said. “It was yes or no. And he figured if it was any wiggle room in the middle then it probably wasn’t a good thing to be doing. And he always told you what he thought. And I certainly respected him for that.”

Riggs did not sit still in retirement.

Riggs served as a volunteer in his church, Christ the King Catholic Church in Pine Mountain, and at Brown Bag of Columbus, a non-profit organization that helps feed the elderly.

It was in that volunteer work that he found purpose.

“I’m doing what I’m supposed to do. I firmly believe that,” he said in a Ledger-Enquirer interview. “That’s why I’m here. That’s why God put me here, so I can do this work.”

In June 2017, Riggs was diagnosed with small cell neuroendocrine carcinoma of the bladder. It is a rare and aggressive form of the disease and he was treated at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.

It was there he came full circle with his mortality and the fact that cancer would likely kill him.

“You have to face it as a reality of life,” he said in the 2017 Ledger-Enquirer interview. “And you prepare by the way you live your life every day. That’s how you treat people — how giving you are and how forgiving you are.”

His wife, Sam, has been by his side every step of the cancer journey.

“We are very close, and our love is very strong,” he said in that interview. “But caring for a sick person wears on anybody. I try and lessen that on her the best I can and do what I can for myself. There are times she wants to do something for me, I will say, ‘No, honey. I can do it.’ And she will back off and let me do it.”

He was preceded in death by his Father, Mother, Godfather, and a brother – Lenson Riggs.

Survivors include his wife, Annette (Sam) Riggs; Son, Antonio Riggs; Daughter, Heather Smith (Phillip); Grandchildren: Eva Riggs, Malcolm Riggs, Noah Smith, Brooke Smith; Great-Grandson, Anthony Riggs; Brothers: Wortie Riggs (Janice), Adam Riggs, Woodrow Riggs (Reita), Menson Riggs, Larrel Riggs; Sisters: Arabella Minick, Bernella Phelps (John), Anne Chenier (Kelly); and a host of nieces and nephews.

In lieu of flowers the family asks that you please make a donation in his honor to Brown Bag of Columbus, to Homeless Resource Network, or a local charitable organization of your choice.

A few days before Riggs passed away, Sam sent a note to Dr. Matt Campbell, Riggs’ physician at M.D. Anderson. Telling him the end was near, the doctor responded.

“Thank you for the update please tell Rufus that he means the world to me and I’m so proud of him for fighting his cancer so hard,” Campbell wrote. “I wish more people in the world had the character of Rufus it would be a much better place.”

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