"It is impossible to properly express how much we will miss him personally, and how much the Senate of Pennsylvania will miss his presence," Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati and Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi said in a joint statement.
The seven-term Republican senator from Schuylkill County represented northeastern Pennsylvania's coal country and was the longtime chairman of the Senate Education Committee. He helped craft every major education initiative in recent history, including the Pennsylvania Safe Schools Act and the Head Start Supplemental Assistance Program, Scarnati and Pileggi said.
"Jim's passing is a tremendous loss for Pennsylvania," Gov. Ed Rendell said in a statement. "He was a great person and a tremendous fighter for school children in the commonwealth."
According to police, the accident happened around 7:30 p.m. Friday near Brodheadsville. Rhoades was traveling north on Route 209 and his Cadillac collided with a Chevrolet truck traveling the other way. After the initial crash, Rhoades' car then struck a third vehicle that had pulled onto the shoulder.
Rhoades was going to a ceremony where he was to be thanked by the Pleasant Valley School District for raising state money for the district, said an aide, Champ Holman.
Holman said a funeral was being planned and that Rhoades' family did not want any further details released.
Rhoades and his wife, Mary, were taken to Lehigh Valley Hospital in Allentown. Senate aides said Rhoades wife's condition was not believed to be life threatening.
Rhoades had served in the state Senate since 1981 and was seeking an eighth four-year term. He also served as a member of the Appropriations, Transportation, Law and Justice, and Environmental Resources and Energy committees.
His district covers Schuylkill County and parts of Berks, Monroe, Northampton, Lehigh and Carbon counties.
Rhoades taught and coached at Pottsville and Mahanoy City high schools, and was the principal of Mahanoy Area Junior High School before being elected to the Senate's 29th District seat in 1980.
"Jim was a one-of-a-kind senator," Pileggi and Scarnati said. "His down-to-earth approach to solving problems reflected his roots in Schuylkill County."
State Republican Chairman Robert A. Gleason Jr. called Rhoades "a great party-builder and supporter."
"He anchored the Republican Senate, an expert on education, a leader of the Senate," Gleason said. "He was going to retire this year and people talked him into going for one term. He was running hard."
Rhoades was facing two challengers in the upcoming election, Democrat P.J. Symons and independent Dennis Baylor. Symons' chief of staff Jeremy Mullen said the Democrat's campaign is being suspended until after Rhoades' funeral.
Senate Republican officials met Saturday to discuss the matter. Rhoades' death leaves the seat in uncharted territory, and Senate Republican officials believe the party will need a court's permission to replace Rhoades on the ballot with another candidate, spokesman Erik Arneson said.
Republicans hold a 29-21 majority over Democrats in the Senate. "We were counting on him to be re-elected. I don't know what happens now," Gleason said. "He'll be missed by everyone in the Republican Party."