A neighbor who's always full of 'Hope'

Good fences, it has been said, make good neighbors.

The witticism has been attributed to American poet Robert Frost, who knew plenty about the road "less traveled" in a literal and figurative sense.

He also undoubtedly knew that a bad neighbor is a grave misfortune, while a good neighbor can be an eternal blessing.

Each time I am greeted by attorney John Rogers, my relatively new neighbor, I count my blessings that our paths crossed in 2007 and then intersected again last year. I feel equally blessed to know his longtime companion, Jan, a retired college book store manager who is as lovely as she is sharp.

Formerly associated with The Googasian Firm in Bloomfield Hills, before he retired a few years ago, Rogers was the product of a big family. Some 100 brothers and sisters, in fact.

He spent his formative years on a 2,000-acre farm near Poughkeepsie, N.Y., the home of Vassar College. It was a place that spawned "Hope" for Rogers, whose unsettled childhood in New York City would eventually give way to a life full of academic and professional achievements.

Rogers, who practiced law for more than 55 years, became acquainted with the legal system at an early age, bouncing around as a ward of the court from the time he was 6 years old and a first-grader. It was a legal journey he shared with his "real" brother and sister, children left in the wake of a broken family during the depths of the Great Depression.

"Times were really tough then, as they are now for many people," said Rogers, who during his career maintained a busy practice in probate law and estate planning. "My sister, brother, and I were lumped into the same boat, trying to find a home where we could make a go of it."

They did at "Hope Farm," a combined community for underprivileged children and agricultural operation that was fueled by a military-style regimen that instilled a sense of discipline and purpose into kids of all ages. It was run by the Episcopal Diocese of New York and for Rogers and his siblings, it was a godsend.

"We lived in cottages of 30 kids, where you were up at 6 a.m. and in bed by 9:30," Rogers said. "Everything was very regimental. Breakfast was at 7 and was a half-mile away from the residences and if you didn't get there in time, you missed out on the meal, plain and simple. They didn't cut you any slack. It took some getting used to, but you learned the ropes in pretty short order."

From the time he was 10, Rogers was entitled to work on the farm, toiling in the fields, plowing, seeding, and then harvesting. It was a course in "Agriculture 101" for a boy with his roots in Manhattan.

"I didn't know anything about farming, but I learned a lot in a hurry, especially about the importance of hard work and teamwork," he said. "There is nothing easy about farming, but there is a tremendous amount of satisfaction that you derive from seeing the real fruits of your labors. We canned everything we grew and we were a self-sustaining operation."

Rogers quickly found his footing at Hope Farm, earning the respect and admiration of his "house mother" and "house father." He exhibited a strong work ethic, which when coupled with his academic promise and natural athletic ability made the once wayward boy stand out.

"I took well to the discipline of the place," he said. "It gave me purpose."

Rogers was a two-sport star in high school, playing quarterback on the football team and serving as captain of the baseball squad.

"Even though we were a small school, we regularly beat some of the best prep schools in the area," Rogers said with pride, noting that he graduated in a class of just 13. "We were always in top condition, which I'm sure came from all the time we spent working on the farm."

He graduated from high school in 1941 at the tender age of 16, eventually finding his way into the Army Air Corps where he dreamed of becoming a pilot during World War II. Instead, he was an aerial gunner in a B-24 bomber, spending a year overseas in New Guinea, the Dutch Indies, and the Philippines.

"For me, the greatest thing that came out of my service aside from the experience itself was the G.I. Bill, which allowed me and countless others the opportunity to attend college," he said.

He followed his brother, Douglas, to Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, and then transferred to Yale University, the Ivy League school where his father had graduated. Rogers tried out for the baseball team at Yale, which was captained at the time by a talented first baseman who would make a name for himself in politics: George H.W. Bush, the 41st President of the United States and the father of the 43rd.

While baseball stardom would not beckon for Rogers, he did enjoy success in the insurance field after graduation, saving enough money to attend law school at the age of 30. He spent one semester at George Washington University before transferring to the University of Michigan Law School, graduating in 1957.

His first job was with one of Pontiac's largest law firms, a three-attorney office that included several lawyers in their 70s.

"I can remember at the time, in my early 30s, of thinking that they were really ancient," Rogers said of the senior partners. "I even grumbled one day about one of them who kept repeating himself. A colleague reminded me not so gently that, 'John, someday you're going to be old.' I got the message."

Now, as a nonagenarian, Rogers can chuckle at the "message," just as he smiles in this presidential election year at the memory of his first and only run for state office.

It was 1966 and the Democrats needed a candidate for the 65th District race in the heavily Republican region of Birmingham and Bloomfield Hills.

As political fate would have it, Rogers lost by a landslide. But Rogers, ever the staunch Democrat, looks back on the political episode with a sense of pride.

"It was when exit polling was first being used," Rogers recalled.

"Some 30 seconds after the polls closed at 8, they determined the winner and it wasn't me. I still believe it was the quickest political knockout in state history."

Published: Thu, May 26, 2016

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