John W. Rogers Sr. Dies;
Tuskegee Airman, Judge
BY MAUREEN O’DONNELL AND LYNN SWEET Chicago Sun Times Staff Reporters January 22, 2014 11:41PM
It was one of those proud, full-circle moments when former Tuskegee Airman John W. Rogers Sr. was invited to the White House for a screening of “Red Tails,” a film about the pioneering African-American aviators who served their country with courage and daring despite racism in the military and at home.
He’d grown up in Knoxville, Tenn., in a time of segregated water fountains and Jim Crow rules that barred people who looked like him from using whites-only restaurants or drinking fountains.
Mr. Rogers returned from flying 120 often-dangerous missions for his country to be turned down for admission to the University of Chicago Law School, relatives said. Instead of taking no for an answer, he returned the next day decked out in his captain’s uniform and offered to take any test to get in.
Not only did he gain entry, he became a respected judge and friend to Barack Obama years before Obama became president.
So when “Jack” Rogers was invited to Washington for the 2012 screening of “Red Tails,” he couldn’t stop beaming.
“I will never forget the look on Jack’s face when he walked into the room, because Jack knows the president long before he was president,” said White House Senior Adviser Valerie Jarrett.
“As you could imagine, coming here with your colleagues with whom you served at a time [the military] was still racially segregated, and you are invited to the White House by President Obama to watch a movie in tribute to your service, well, it does not get better than that,” Jarrett said.
“Jack was so excited, he was brimming with smiles,” she said. “The president went over to give him a hug.”
Mr. Rogers, 95, died Tuesday at the University of Chicago Medical Center.
He met the man who would one day be president back when Barack Obama was Michelle Robinson’s boyfriend. Mr. Rogers’ son, John W. Rogers Jr., was the captain of Princeton’s basketball team, and he recruited Craig Robinson, the brother of first lady Michelle, for Princeton.
Mr. Rogers lived in Knoxville until he was 12, when his father, a barber and minister, died of kidney problems. He lost his mother to pneumonia when he was only 4.
He and his three sisters moved to Chicago to live with his mother’s brother, Henry Turner. He was a kind uncle, and the children found it a happy home, said Mr. Rogers’ wife, Gwen.
After graduating from Tilden High School, Mr. Rogers attended community college and earned a teaching certificate from Chicago Teachers College. He taught in the Chicago Public Schools until war broke out, then he volunteered, his wife said.
“He always wanted to be a pilot, from when he was a little boy,” she said. “He used to make little airplanes from matchboxes.”
As a member of the 99th Pursuit Squadron, he was one of the first Tuskegee Airmen to go overseas, said Mark Hanson, curator of the Chanute Air Museum in Rantoul, where the 99th Squadron was activated. Based in North Africa, members of the 99th flew over Italy, he said, performing bomb missions and escorting white pilots.
With keen eyesight and steady nerves, Mr. Rogers had a reputation for meticulous preparation and precision. “He was one of the best dive-bomber pilots in that squadron,” Hanson said. Others said, “He could drop a 500-pound bomb through the window of a building.”
He viewed “Red Tails” a few times. His granddaugher, Victoria Rogers, remembers that when he watched, he moved his hands like he was still flying. “He said he could remember the tension,” she said.
After the war, Mr. Rogers practiced law, eventually partnering with attorney and future judge Earl Strayhorn, as well as Mr. Rogers’ first wife, the former Jewel Stradford, the first African-American woman to graduate from the University of Chicago Law School. He later shared office space with prominent attorney Earl Langdon Neal, and he was a trustee of what would become the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District, his wife said. He then served 21 years as a juvenile court judge, Gwen Rogers said. He rose to become a supervising judge.
A number of the youths who appeared before him later wrote him letters thanking him for giving them a second chance, his wife said. One straightened out and formed a church, she said.
Mr. Rogers and his first wife divorced when John Jr. was about 3 years old.
When their son was about 12, “instead of giving him a toy, they invested in some stock for him,” said Chief Judge Timothy Evans of Cook County Circuit Court. Their son later founded Ariel Investments.
“I used to thank Judge Rogers for giving him the stock. I would tell him he gave birth to Ariel, which created an opportunity for me,” said Ariel President Mellody Hobson, who last summer married filmmaker George Lucas, executive producer of “Red Tails.”
Mr. Rogers was active with the NAACP, the Urban League, and he sponsored scholarships for law students. In 2007, he and other Tuskegee Airmen were honored at the Capitol and awarded the Congressional Gold Medal. “He was a wonderful, wonderful role model,” Evans said, “moving forward, while giving back, every step of the way.”
“From his service as a Tuskegee Airman to his appointment as a distinguished judge, he was a leader,” said Michael H. Schill, dean of the University of Chicago Law School.“He was so honest,” his wife said. “He was so dependable. He was so generous.”
He stressed punctuality, dependability and aiming high. And he wasn’t above telling family members “You’re a Rogers” as he exhorted them to excellence.