Remembering Roy Rohter, father and husband, philanthropist and founder of Catholic academies, who died in this week’s mudslides

An early morning flash flood in Montecito on Jan. 9 claimed the lives of at least 17 people, with another 43 people reported missing, including four children — victims of the mudslides that overtook hundreds of homes and swept cars into the ocean. The tragedy’s first identified fatality was a recognized name in the Catholic community: philanthropist and father of three, Roy Rohter. He was 84 years old.

Rohter and his wife, Theresa, were both in their Montecito home when the mudslide hit. Rohter died at the scene, while first responders were able to save Theresa from drowning. She spent several days in the hospital after suffering multiple broken bones. On Jan. 11, she was able to return to her children and grandchildren.

A born entrepreneur and successful real-estate broker, Rohter is remembered for his magnetic presence and unfailing devotion to the Catholic Church. His ability to speak with ease to complete strangers usually meant that he ended up encouraging a fallen-away Catholic to return to the sacraments, Michael J. Van Hecke, the headmaster of St. Augustine Academy in Ventura and Rohter’s close friend for 25 years, told Angelus News.

“He had the magnetism, that was a gift from God,” Van Hecke said. “The world’s greatest salesman. If you have a real salesman, you want to be with them. You want to talk with them … not the high-pressure salesman, but the real world-class salesman is the guy that is interested in you. And that comes across and he’s going to find out what you really want and what you need.”

Rohter had a particular interest in pro-life causes, Church liturgy and the education of the young, which led him to found three Catholic schools: St. Monica Academy in Pasadena, St. Augustine Academy in Ventura and Faustina Academy in Irving, Texas. He was also a generous donor to Thomas Aquinas College, a liberal arts program in Santa Paula and Catholic Charities.

“He just loved being with people and helping people,” Van Hecke said.

The Thomas Fire forced many people in the Santa Barbara area from their homes in December, and Rohter and his wife stayed with the Van Hecke family for eight days. Amid the sudden and tragic death of his friend, Van Hecke is grateful for the “great gift” of having these final days.

During the eight-day visit, Rohter shared the story of his conversion to the Faith, which took place during “a powerful moment at a Mass he was invited to attend,” Van Hecke said. “Recounting the story he could not hold back weeping tears at the generosity of God to call him to love him.”

Rohter had taken on many different jobs from a young age in order to practice that natural gift of salesmanship. As a kid he hocked baseball cards and peanuts at baseball games, later working as a dance teacher, at a post office, at an accounting firm and at a wedding planner firm before becoming a real-estate broker. But after his conversion, he wanted to talk to people about Christ.

“As he grew and really became a strong Catholic, he knew that there was only one thing that mattered and that was saving souls,” Van Hecke said.

Catholic Charities is assisting the many mudslide victims, many of whom have been stranded for days or evacuated in military vehicles from a place that once was the world’s most coveted zip code but now resembles a war zone.

The Red Cross has also been assisting victims, while Santa Barbara City College has opened a shelter, although fewer than 100 people have stayed there as many opt for hotels.

Daniel Grimm, Catholic Charities’ regional director for Santa Barbara/Ventura, said that although the residents of Montecito have been blessed with wealth, they are still in need of prayers — prayers for the continued safety of the living and injured and prayers for those who have died.

Van Hecke echoed the importance of prayer: “There is one thing Roy would want from everyone — prayers.” He remembered Rohter often saying, “Make sure everyone prays for my soul.” To which, Van Hecke said, “We will, Roy!”

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