A member of the legendary Tuskegee Airmen during World War II, John W. Rogers Sr. flew 120 successful combat missions across Europe, earning a reputation among his peers as “the best dive-bomber pilot in the business.” He and his comrades later won the Congressional Gold Medal for their valor.
In the 1940s, when few African Americans attended law schools due to racial discrimination, Rogers, JD'48, again was a trailblazer, graduating from the University of Chicago Law School and subsequently serving 21 years as a widely respected juvenile court judge in Illinois.
Rogers, a Hyde Park resident, died Tuesday, Jan. 21, at the University of Chicago Medical Center. He was 95. A memorial service will be held at 1 p.m. Friday at Rockefeller Memorial Chapel, 5850 S. Woodlawn Ave. A funeral will follow at 2 p.m.
“The legacy of John Rogers Sr. is essential to the contributions that the entire Rogers family have made to the University of Chicago community,” said UChicago President Robert J. Zimmer. “John and his family members were pioneers in many facets of their lives, and they made it possible for others to build on their successes. John’s historic achievements and his devotion to service will serve as a lasting inspiration at the University and across the nation.”
U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, Lab’82, who knew Rogers since childhood, told the Chicago Tribune that he “lived his values more clearly than almost anyone I know.”
“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,” Duncan told the Tribune. “He was a real role model for so many people in the community who came before his court and dealt with tough issues.”
A native of Knoxville, Tenn., Rogers was born on Sept. 3, 1918 and moved in with his uncle in Chicago at the age of 12, after both of his parents passed away. From a young age, Rogers dreamed of flying planes and attended the Civilian Pilot Training Program on the South Side of Chicago. Upon obtaining his pilot license, he joined the U.S. Air Force, and in 1941, became part of the famed 99th Pursuit Squadron of the Tuskegee Airmen—the first squadron of African American pilots in the U.S. military.
In later years, Rogers recalled that he and his comrades had encountered discrimination during recruitment and training because whites did not take their black colleagues seriously as combat fighters.
“Even though they (whites) let us into the military, it does not mean we were fully accepted as equal,” Rogers said in a 2012 interview. “The Tuskegee Airmen were seen (by white servicemen) as an experimental group. They (whites) wanted to see if we were any good in combat before deploying more African Americans in the air.”
Rogers and his team members excelled. Mark Hanson, curator of the Chanute Air Museum in Rantoul, Ill., where the 99th was first activated, said in 2012 that Rogers was regarded as a pilot who “could put a 500-pound bomb through a building’s window.”
After the war, Rogers returned to Chicago and applied to the Law School. According to John Rogers Jr., a University Trustee who also chairs the board of directors of the Laboratory Schools, his father was not admitted on his first attempt, but he showed up at the school in his captain’s uniform and eventually “argued his way in.”
On the first day of class, Rogers Sr. met his future wife, the late Jewel C. Stradford Lafontant, who later became the first African American woman to graduate from the Law School. The couple married in 1946.
“[Rogers Sr.] always said that he learned to think at the Law School—that the Socratic method they used and the quality of the instruction and professors was world-class and made him a better thinker,” said Rogers Jr.
The couple’s education at the law school paid off. Lafontant became the first woman and the first African American to hold the post of U.S. Deputy Solicitor General. Rogers went into private practice after graduating in 1948. He started his own law firm and subsequently worked for Earl L. Neal & Associates. In 1977, Rogers was appointed a juvenile court judge in Illinois and served on the bench for 21 years.
A number of the youths who appeared before him later wrote him letters thanking him for giving them a second chance and one straightened out and formed a church, his wife told the Chicago Sun-Times.
“John Rogers Sr. was a pathbreaker. From his service as a Tuskegee Airman to his appointment as a distinguished judge, he was a leader,” said Michael Schill, dean of the Law School. “I am proud that John was a graduate of UChicago and would like to think that the education he got here helped prepare him for the great success he achieved in his long and important life.”
In 2007, Rogers Sr. was among the 300 Tuskegee Airmen to receive the Congressional Gold Medal, Congress’s highest civilian honor.
The Law School honored Rogers Sr. and his first wife in 2012 by naming its dean of admissions' office for Rogers Sr. and Stradford Lafontant, who died in 1997. The school held a celebration in honor of the family and to thank Rogers Jr. for a significant donation he made to name the office after his parents. A plaque featuring a photo and biographical information about Rogers Sr. and his first wife is on display in the Law School’s main classroom hallway.
Rogers met his second wife, Gwendolyn, AM’53, in 1968, and they were married in 2001. “He was a wonderful person, and we had a wonderful life together,” she told the Chicago Tribune.
For those who intend to send a gift of remembrance, the family is asking for them to be made to the University of Chicago Law School (contact Alison Coppelman, director of alumni relations and annual giving, 773-834-8652), the Chicago Urban League (Darrious Hilmon, vice president of development, 773-451-3500) or the Chicago “DODO” Office of the Tuskegee Airmen Inc. (www.taichicago.org/donors).