Meet the Greatest Generation Bill Rogers

Best thing about Bill is his sense of life: 'Never mind blindness'

Norm Walker

(Tom Brokaw wrote a book about the Greatest Generation, the people who lived through the Depression and World War II, then led our country into greatness for the next 50-60 years. Many members of that generation have been in Rye for decades. Rye Reflections will feature some of them in subsequent issues. Our first story is about Charles W. Rogers who moved to Rye in 1966. Though turning completely blind in 1989, he has managed to live a full, active life.)

December 31 at 8:00 a.m. "Bill" Rogers was in his back yard wielding a buck-saw across sizable branches placed on a large saw horse. When I arrived, he told me that he had been out there setting up piles of branches and cutting logs for four hours.  As a log dropped off into the snow, he reached down to pick it up and hold it against his leg before putting it into the wood-pile against his garage.
"I measure the logs by holding them up to my knee; that's so I can tell they're the proper length I'm lookin' for."  Bill has been blind for 20 years, so he has to measure the logs in this manner.

"Bill, you've been doing this for four hours!  Have you been hauling those huge branches all across the yard?"

"Yeah, it's easy what with the snow.  Hey, speakin' of snow, is another storm comin' in?  I feel snow on my head."

"There's a hefty storm coming, Bill; if you've been out this long, perhaps we ought to go get a cup of coffee."

Inside we sat in a cozy room, heated by Bill's Franklin stove and drank coffee while Bill warmed up and filled me in with much information about his long active life.

(Judy Palm photo)

Charles W. Rogers (above) was born in Brewer, Maine, in 1922, and at age six moved to Mt. Vernon, New York.  At age 16 he moved to Oldtown, Maine, north of Bangor.  He graduated in 1941 and by 1942 had joined the Navy where he worked in an ASW (Anti Submarine Warfare) Destroyer Escort up and down the East Coast, pursuing German U-boats and Milch boats all the way from Portland to Recife, Brazil. Bill says the ASW ships destroyed more than 800 U-boats; his ship took out two. On these destroyers he also occasionally did convoy work back and forth to Europe.

By January of 1946 he was through with the war and registered at the University of Maine. Aside from his years in N.Y., Bill was, in essence, a real Mainer. From age 6-16 he spent each summer working on the Richmond, Maine, farm of his grandparents where it's clear that he became a strong, able-bodied young man, planting and caring for vegetables, tending to animals, and cutting hay fields. One year in the early 1930's when there was a polio epidemic in N.Y., his parents, to avoid their son catching the disease, sent him to live with his grandparents and attend elementary school in Richmond.  

Since the family by 1938 had moved to Oldtown, Maine, where Bill entered the high school for three years. When he returned from the war, it was natural for him to attend the University of Maine, a college just down the street from his home.

Upon graduation in 1949 after majoring in business, he got a job for five years as an assistant manager at JC Penny. In 1954 he became a successful manufacturer's rep at Kirsch Curtain Rod Company; as Bill says, "Kirsch was the Cadillac of the curtain rod business, controlling over 50 percent of that business in those days."  

In 1971 the company was sold out to the Newell Company, a conglomerate that let all the reps go. At first he landed jobs as a house painter for a year, then ran a Cumberland Farms store for a year and a half, and for two years worked for Decatur Hopkins hardware store as a salesman on the road covering N.H. and Vermont. Finally, he landed a steady job at Portsmouth Housing Authority until 1984.  

After he retired, a friend at Ace Hardware let him work two or three times a week until 1989, the year he became permanently blind in both eyes. Bill had been blind in one eye since 1965, but that never got in his way or interfered with him working hard. The blindness resulted from a massive strep infection after the removal of a cataract from his good eye. Doctors worked on a cornea transplant that was successful for a few weeks, but scar tissue formed and the great surgeon Bill appreciated said, "I'm sorry, Bill, this is not going to work, and we can't do any more."  Bill, given his positive nature, did not have a negative reaction and thanked them for trying to repair the blindness.

Even since he's been blind, he clearly keeps busy. One of his top jobs in the summer is mowing his lawn. I got a big kick out of his explanation as to how he does that work.  "Norm, I pull the mower because if I don't I'll wipe out the shrubbery. By pulling when I hit the shrubs, I go around them." He likes to get a laugh at his adjustments. He takes pride in knowing where everything is in his yard and home.

Cutting wood is a constant chore, sometimes 6 hours a day. If he's not active around the house or at the Lion's Club or out shopping for food each Tuesday on the Senior SERVE bus, he listens to tapes from the Library of Congress at Concord, N.H. For the past 20 years he has "read" (listened to) more than 2500 books from that office. Two times a week he goes to the Post Office to mail tapes back and pick up many new ones. They send him material he likes, particularly history tapes and biographies; but, while I was interviewing him, he called up a woman in the Concord office and ordered Robert Penn Warren's "All the King's Men" and William Kennedy's "Ironweed" the moment I recommended those fiction works to him.

In other words, Bill never sits still. He is active physically, intellectually, and socially. (Every Monday he goes to the Senior meeting in the Rye Library.) I can understand why he does so, because he loves to offer lots of information to the crowd around him. The other day he asked, "How many of you know the names of the Seven Sisters colleges?" Everyone guessed, and he praised each person who got one, and finally rounded out the names when the group fell short. "Okay, good job; you did get the four schools in Massachusetts - Smith, Wellesley, Radcliffe and Mt. Holyoke - and Vassar in New York State, but you forgot about Barnard and Brynn Mawr. Now there you go - the 7 Sisters!" Always a bounce of liveliness in the discovery or acknowledgment put forth by Bill; never a sense of say-so or authority.

The best thing about Bill is his sense of love of life, love of thinking and exploring ideas, and living actively. He also has a great sense of humor and knows how to kid around. The other night when I called him to ask some questions about his biography, I got talking about how exciting it was outside that night because of a large full moon, as Bill learned over the radio later on - the biggest full moon in one hundred years.  

I asked him, "Bill, have you noticed that moon tonight it is one big beach ball out there in a clear sky above the ocean!" There was a small hesitation in his answer: "What are you? A wise guy?" Of course, I tried to pretend that I was just kidding him rather than being a bit thoughtless by asking for his reaction to the giant moon. But the chuckle in his remarks allowed me to be aware how much fun it is to talk with Bill. Once he reminded me how someone questioned why he would cut wood in the middle of the night and how he would simply say, "Hey, what difference does it make? It's dark all the time." For Charles Rogers ("Bill") darkness does not cause any negative thoughts in his mind he just grabs hold of the vitality in the world around him, embraces it and stays on top of life.

He's a grand man to know!

February, 2009