John W. Rogers Sr. was a member of the famed Tuskegee Airmen during World War II and went on to a successful legal career capped by 21 years as a Cook County Juvenile Court judge.
"He was an amazing figure who lived his values more clearly than almost anyone I know," said U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who grew up in Hyde Park and knew Mr. Rogers since childhood. "He didn't preach — he just embodied his values, which included treating everybody well, taking care of other people than himself and always being on time. He was a real role model for so many people in the community who came before his court and dealt with tough issues."
Mr. Rogers, 95, died Tuesday, Jan. 21, at the University of Chicago Medical Center after a long illness, said his son, John W. Rogers Jr., the founder, chairman and CEO of Ariel Investments. He was a resident of Chicago's Hyde Park neighborhood.
Mr. Rogers was born in 1918 in Knoxville, Tenn. His mother died when he was 4 and his father died when he was 12, and he and his sisters moved to Chicago to live with an uncle, Henry Turner. Mr. Rogers graduated from Tilden Technical High School and earned a bachelor's degree in education from what is now Chicago State University in 1941.
He earned his pilot's license before enlisting in the Army Air Forces. Before World War II, African-Americans had been barred from flying for the U.S. military. Civil rights groups persuaded the government to create an African-American pursuit squadron based in Tuskegee, Ala., and Mr. Rogers became part of the Tuskegee Airmen's 99th Pursuit Squadron. He was one of the original 28 airmen in the first group to go overseas.
Mr. Rogers was promoted to captain and flew 120 missions in Europe. Years later he was part of a group of about 300 Tuskegee Airmen to be honored with the Congressional Gold Medal. And in January 2012, Mr. Rogers was one of a group of Tuskegee Airmen who came to the White House as a special guest of President Barack Obama to view the movie "Red Tails," which tells the airmen's story. Mr. Rogers already knew Obama because John Rogers Jr. was a major supporter and fundraiser.
"The fact that Jack knew President Obama so very well just made the moment even more meaningful," said Valerie Jarrett, a senior adviser to Obama. "He had a twinkle in his eye and was so delighted to be here. I was just so thrilled he was able to make the trip."
After the war, Mr. Rogers applied to the University of Chicago Law School. Initially rejected, he returned in his captain's uniform, his son said, and made the case that someone who had served his country deserved admittance. His bid was successful, and he attended the law school on the GI Bill.
On his first day of class in law school, Mr. Rogers met Jewel Stradford, who went on to become the first African-American woman to graduate from the university's law school and later served in two presidential administrations. The couple married in 1946 and divorced in 1961.
After graduating from law school in 1948, Mr. Rogers formed a firm with Stradford. He later joined Earl L. Neal & Associates, which today is Neal & Leroy. From 1974 until 1977, Mr. Rogers worked with Earl L. Neal, who died in 2005.
"He was a real problem solver who young lawyers sought out for advice," said Neal's son, Langdon, chairman of the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners. "Clients were extremely devoted to him because of his good advice, strong legal skills and compassionate and kind demeanor. He was a man of few words, but everything that he said carried meaning and weight."
In May 1977, Mr. Rogers was appointed an associate judge in Cook County and several months later was assigned to the Juvenile Division. To the often-complicated cases involving minors, Mr. Rogers strove to bring compassion and justice, said friends and family members.
"On the surface he was a stern man, but underneath that he had a sensitivity about some of the difficulties that some of the kids had growing up and how they had gotten into trouble and how society needed to be more thoughtful and helpful to them," said former Chicago Public Schools chief early childhood education officer Barbara Bowman, who is Jarrett's mother. "He was really sensitive."
"So many juveniles have said many years later how he gave them the benefit of the doubt," said Mr. Rogers' granddaughter, Victoria Rogers. "For me, his legacy is about those core values of his that I'm trying to follow."
Mr. Rogers retired from the bench in 1998. In 2012 the University of Chicago Law School named the school's director of admissions office after him and his first wife, who died in 1997.
Jarrett said she recalled Mr. Rogers first and foremost as a father.
"I know how extraordinarily proud he was of his son John and all of his accomplishments, to see him grow up and become a father and be so successful in business and give back to the community so generously," she said. "That's very consistent with the values that Jack instilled in John as a child."
On a blind date in 1968, Mr. Rogers met a fellow University of Chicago graduate who would become his second wife, Gwendolyn. The couple dated for 33 years before marrying in 2001. They traveled extensively and played bridge.
"He was a wonderful person, and we had a wonderful life together," she said.
There were no other immediate survivors.
A visitation will be at 1 p.m. Friday at Rockefeller Memorial Chapel, 5850 S. Woodlawn Ave., Chicago. A funeral will follow at 2 p.m.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun