Cardinal Cadence - Spring 2008

It was all about love

Julie and Ben RogersIf ever guardian angels kept watch over Southeast Texas and Lamar University, they flew on the wings of Julie and Ben Rogers. And if ever one person symbolized the soaring spirit of entrepreneurship, it was Ben Rogers.

“It wasn’t about them. It was about the community they loved, and it was about working closely together for the benefit of everyone,” said their daughter, Regina. “It was all about love.”

Ben Rogers’ father died at the age of 29 during a flu epidemic in Chicago and left six children, ranging in age from 6 months to 9 years. Their mother could not read or write English, and she soon lost the leather-manufacturing business her husband had started.

When he was 8, Ben was out on the street selling newspapers. He went on to work as a milkman and laundry man. “Dad never forgot his roots and people who are unable to succeed because of their limiting circumstances,” Regina said. “He always wanted to make opportunities available for others.”

Julie Rogers became an attorney at the age of 19, while Ben Rogers had no college education – which is why he valued Lamar so much, their daughter said.

“I can remember when my parents received honorary degrees from Lamar. They were so excited. That meant so much more to Mom than her college or law degrees. Dad, who was quite an athlete, would have loved to have gone to college. He attended night school for a couple of years, but he just couldn’t do it and work 18 hours a day too. He always felt that having an education would have enabled him to accomplish more.”

Nonetheless, he and his brothers went on to extraordinary success, with hearts even bigger than their business ventures. Now, the Rogers family has established the Ben J. Rogers Chair in Entrepreneurship in Lamar’s College of Business. It is a gift from the grateful children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren of Julie and Ben Rogers: Dr. Arvey Rogers ’55 of Miami, Fla.; the late Dr. Bernard Rogers ’55; and Regina Rogers of Beaumont; Arvey’s children and their spouses, Stacey and Dr. Robert Edelman, Scott and Pamela Rogers and Shana Rogers; and Arvey’s grandchildren, Millie and Rose Rogers and Jessie and Benjamin (named for his great-grandfather) Edelman.

“They all are very much aware of the legacy of their grandparents and their relationship to Southeast Texas. This is being done by our family in honor of Dad—a gentleman who, although he didn’t have a college education, believed strongly in the ability of young people to forge ahead and become leaders in their communities, as well as successful businessmen and women.”

The chair serves not only to advance the region but also to recognize the role Lamar has played in the Rogers’ lives. “We know how important raising money is to implementing services and providing impetus to students,” Regina said. “We want to attract as many people as we can to Lamar, so we felt it was important for our family to provide a lead gift, particularly in the College of Business—an area where Dad had such an impact on Southeast Texas.”

The Ben J. Rogers Chair in Entrepreneurship is the pivotal phase of a long-range plan to make entrepreneurship an area of excellence for the college, said Enrique “Henry” Venta, dean of Lamar’s College of Business. “The next step is to bring in a leading teacher-scholar. The generous support of the Rogers family will enable us to attract a high-visibility individual who will provide curricular guidance, teach some of the courses and conduct research. Our expectation is that this person will also be very involved in spreading entrepreneurship throughout the region.

“We are most grateful to the Rogers family for this endowment and for the confidence the family has placed in the College of Business,” Venta said. “It’s great to bring in the chair, but the endowment and the name—because of the great reputation of Ben Rogers in this area—will enable us to attract an individual of the highest caliber.”

The Rogers’ contributions to Lamar University are legendary, from the “I Have A Dream” Program and the Julie and Ben Rogers Community Service Award to the Ben J. Rogers Outstanding Business Student Award to the Julie and Ben Rogers Women’s Athletic Scholarship, established in 1991 by the Babe Zaharias Foundation Inc. to honor the couple.

“Dad was interested in athletics and particularly in providing encouragement to female athletes because he because he felt that women were not always given the same opportunities as men,” Regina said. Ben also was a driving force behind Beaumont’s Babe Zaharias Museum, working hard to see that mementoes and memories of the world’s greatest female athlete were preserved.

Of the Rogers Outstanding Business Student Award, Regina said: “After Dad’s passing, we wanted to recognize extraordinary young people who were graduating and help them financially. It’s been so rewarding to see the caliber of students who are excelling and, after receiving the award, going on to become leaders in business.”

Julie and Ben were charter board members of Lamar’s Friends of the Arts, beginning in the early 1970s, and devoted arts patrons. Regina well remembers the year her mother and father chaired Le Grand Bal while Julie was still recovering from breast cancer surgery. Always one to think big, Julie brought in an elephant to complement the event’s “Under the Big Top” theme.

“Dad believed education was the key to success,” Regina said. “That is why, on his 75th birthday, Mom, my brothers and I contributed the funds for 75 scholarships in honor of his 75th birthday. He didn’t want a party. He said he would much rather take youth from single-parent families to a baseball game at the Astrodome in Houston.”

That did not occur, but, at a surprise birthday party on June 5, 1988, Regina said, “We took that concept and rolled it out into something in perpetuity.” Her father’s gift was the Ben Rogers/Lamar University/ Beaumont Independent School District “I Have a Dream” Program, based on a national initiative for sixth-graders. Seventy-five “dreamers” would earn scholarships to Lamar upon successfully completing their studies in public school. They were paired with mentors, many from Lamar, and provided with other enhancements and incentives. With four additional classes of 75 students each and support from people throughout the country, nearly 400 “dreamers” have graduated from high school; more than one-half of them earned degrees in higher education, and many are from Lamar.

Regina’s brothers both majored in pre-medicine at Lamar. Bernard became an optometrist, while Arvey graduated from the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston and completed an internship in Philadelphia and his residency in Miami, Fla., where he is a retired gastroenterologist and professor of medicine emeritus at the University of Miami Medical School. He is a former president of the American College of Gastroenterology.

“His memories of Lamar—and particularly of his biology professor, Dr. Edwin Hayes—are great,” Regina said. “No matter where he has been, he is a Lamar University graduate and proud of it. He has always attributed part of his success to his teachers and to the education he received at Lamar.” What most people don’t know, Regina said, is that her mother was also a part-time Lamar student, attending classes with her sons. One of the classes was psychology, Regina recalls. “I was a little girl at the time, but I remember they were very competitive in that class at Lamar.”

Ben Rogers never saw himself as a role model, his daughter said. “But we feel he is a role model in that young people today can be motivated by his accomplishments and the important principles he embodied, including integrity, loyalty and compassion. He was a man of his word, and if he said he was going to do something, you could bank on it. His goal was for a project to succeed, and money was never the bottom line. It was its success in terms of what it meant to the region, whether it was Gateway Shopping City, Parkdale Mall or any of the endeavors in which he and my uncles were involved.”

Ben Rogers and his brothers—Sol, Nate and Vic—founded Texas State Optical and were involved in projects in other areas of the country, Regina said, “but their real allegiance and their devotion was to Southeast Texas.”

The threads of Regina Rogers’ ties to Lamar University create a richly woven tapestry, colored by memories of childhood. “My family was very close to Mary and John Gray, whose lives were devoted to Lamar,” she said, and “we spent many wonderful occasions together.”

More important, Regina said, was the feeling her parents had, early on, that Lamar was an invaluable resource for Southeast Texas, that collaboration between Lamar and the region’s communities should be enhanced and the relationships nurtured— benefiting everyone involved.

“When Dad was president of the Chamber of Commerce in the 1960s, he made Lamar a major focus,” Regina said. “He used to say, ‘As goes Lamar, so goes Southeast Texas.’ They’re linked so closely that one’s success is dependent on that of the other. Lamar is the catalyst to development. Lamar’s successes— particularly in the past few years under Jimmy Simmons’ direction— have enhanced the image of Southeast Texas, statewide and throughout the country.”

In her own right over the years, Regina Rogers has had a profound impact on Lamar. She served as a regent of the former Lamar University System, stepping down from that position to accept an appointment to the state’s Coordinating Board for Higher Education, where she served six years. “I did everything I could to direct resources to Lamar and benefit the university,” she said.

Regina earned her undergraduate degree from Newcomb College at Tulane University and a law degree from the University of Houston. Her philanthropies, like those of her parents, are a “tale of two cities,” extending to Houston. Arvey Rogers’ cancer diagnosis when he was in his 20s became a catalyst for the family’s long relationship with the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, where Regina is a senior member of the board of visitors. Her attendance at charitable events in the Bayou City is as omnipresent as it is across the Golden Triangle.

Regina saw first hand the many ways in which her parents touched people’s lives in Southeast Texas—and the love and great appreciation they received in return. “People would ask Dad why he stayed here. They could have lived anywhere in the world, but this was home. This is where they thrived. This is where they wanted to spend their years, helping. And that is what they did.

“I learned so much from my parents about relationships and what is really important in life,” she said. “I remember as a child when Dad would ask us at the dinner table: ‘What have you done for someone else today?’ It was always about how we could help others. He was a man who easily expressed his love and concern for other people, and he derived great joy from helping them.

“Mom was always thinking about people who did not have opportunities for an education or financial resources. When I was young, if I saw something I liked, she encouraged me to select something I no longer needed and give it to a needy child before I was given anything new.”

Julie and Ben Rogers’ imprints span the Southeast Texas landscape, from the Julie and Ben Rogers Cancer Institute and the Ben J. Rogers Regional Visitors Center at Ford Park to the Julie Rogers Theatre for the Performing Arts and Wuthering Heights Park, which were gifts from Ben in honor of Julie to the city of Beaumont and reflect his great love for her.

Yet, said Regina, “It’s not about putting your names on buildings or putting Dad’s name on a chair as much as it is about trying to perpetuate that in which he believed so strongly: the importance of Lamar, of education and of providing programs to keep outstanding youth in this region so they choose to build their lives in Southeast Texas. That is the way to sustain and grow a community.”`

Why support Lamar University? “Because Lamar is impacting thousands of people and will do so for generations to come.”

Simmons has built a team to make Lamar a leader in educational excellence, Regina said. “Through their efforts and ability to attract dollars, the potential is unlimited. This is the right time for Lamar University to excel, to forge ahead, to become No. 1. As Dad always said, ‘Reach for the moon, and you might land among the stars.’ The sky is the limit.”

Ben Rogers was born June 5, 1913, and died Dec. 14, 1994. Julie was born April 6, 1914, and died Feb. 12, 1998.

Regina Rogers hears a lot about the legacy of her parents. She is carrying it on, people say. She is perpetuating their names, carrying their torch. But, she insists, “I am not interested in perpetuating their names as such as much as I am in continuing their love for Southeast Texas and the good deeds they performed so selflessly and which touched the lives of so many people.”

by Louise Wood

Cardinal Cadence, 5/23/2008