Even from a distance, Jean Rogers’ presence was unmistakable: with her oversized glasses, broad smile, hand-made Marimekko-patterned dresses, blunt cut and perpetually ungray hair, Rogers was a highly active and visible member of the arts community.
Closer in, she was familiar to many as a children’s book author, one who made first-hand connections with her readers through frequent visits to local schools and libraries. Kids and former kids all over town sat at her feet in countless classrooms over the years, listening to her read, while others grew up with her books in their own homes, later reading them to their own children.
Closer still, those who knew her best say Rogers was known for the delight she took in all aspects of her life: in books, in children, in the arts, in her volunteer work, in the successes of her friends, and in her partner of nearly 70 years, George Rogers, who died in 2010.
“What I keep coming back to is her unabashed enthusiasm, the way she expressed her utter glee over things, clasping her hands and saying, “Oh my, yes!’ And that was with her to the last, that sense of delight,” said local writer Susi Gregg Fowler.
Rogers’ death last week at age 93 after more than six decades as a Juneauite was for many a great loss to the community.
“She was a friend, she was a colleague, she was an inspiration, she was an author, she was an artist,’” said Sharon Gaiptman. “She was bigger than life and she didn’t even know it.”
Rogers’ enthusiasm was frequently channeled through literature. Her daughter, Sidney Fadaoff, said books were always an inseparable element of her mom’s life as she raised her six kids, from mandatory reading time at the dinner table to the ubiquitous book she had in hand whenever she was sitting still.
“We got read to every night after dinner,” Fadaoff recalled. “We weren’t allowed to leave the table and go do art, go to a movie, go do anything, this was family time. After dinner mom would read a chapter or two, and she went through all of the Laura Ingalls Wilder’s ‘Little House on the Prairie’ series, and ‘Anne of Green Gables.’” Fadaoff said the family dinner table often included other kids from the neighborhood.
Even into her 90s, Rogers constantly had a book by her side, close friend Linda Torgerson said.
“Within the last eight months, she still said, ‘Reading is my solace,”’ Torgerson said. “I told her, ‘I have a sister that doesn’t like to read,’ and she just shook her head like, ‘How could you live without reading?’ She almost always had a book on her lap.”
Her identity as a writer was an important aspect of who she was, Torgerson said, and had been her whole life. As a girl growing up in Idaho, Rogers would carry a little notebook in the front pocket of her overalls, taking it out to write down ideas in pencil.
“As soon as she got home from school she would put on her overalls and she said she always had a pocket because, even as a little girl of six, she always kept little diary or something, a little journal that she could write in,” Torgerson said. ‘Because she thought of herself as a writer, even as a young girl. She always had something to write on.”
Rogers’ first job at 19 was as a fifth-grade teacher. After saving up enough money from teaching, she headed to the University of California at Berkeley to get her bachelor’s in English. There, in 1942, she met George Rogers, who was pursuing his master’s in economics. The two married later that same year, and three years later boarded a boat for Alaska, where George had been offered a job with the Office of Price Administration. A temporary position turned into more than six decades of Alaska residency and George went on to play a vital role in Alaska’s statehood, helping to devise a new tax system for the state and working as a consultant for the Alaska Constitutional Convention, among other roles.
Jean Rogers’ focus on writing was put to the side for many years while she concentrated on raising her six adopted children, but she kept her volunteer work and social life active, taking part in a women’s group called the Libra Ladies and volunteering at Harborview Elementary School, where her kids were students, as well as serving on the board of many local organizations, including the Alaska Public Offices Commission, the Public Broadcasting Commission and KTOO.
In 1983, with two kids still at home, she published her first book, “Goodbye My Island,” based on Muñoz experiences in the 1950s and illustrated by Muñoz. Two years later, she published “King Island Christmas,” also based on Muñoz. Those two books, along with “Runaway Mittens,” have recently been reprinted in paperback, a fact that Rogers took great pleasure in, Fadaoff said.
“She wasn’t one to toot her own horn but she was very proud of all of her books, and the fact that they were being reprinted,” she said.
At one point, Rogers and Muñoz went on a book tour of Alaska villages, taking their books into classrooms around the state, Fadaoff said.
In 2002 Rogers was awarded an honorary doctorate of humane letters at the University of Alaska Southeast in recognition of her contributions to children’s literature.
Rogers’ other books were “The Secret Moose,” illustrated by Jim Fowler; “Dinosaurs are 568” and “Raymond’s Best Summer,” both illustrated by Marilyn Hafner; and “Left Field Bear,” illustrated by Julianna Humphreys. She also wrote many other books that were never published, Fadaoff said, including a few that were illustrated by George Rogers.
“King Island Christmas” is her best known work; in the 1990s it was adapted into an oratorio by Deborah Brevoort with composer David Friedman, premiering at Perseverance Theatre before being performed across the country. In 2010, the production was revived by Gaiptman, Deborah Smith and Missouri Smyth, as a tribute to Rogers and Muñoz, and in August it will be performed by the Juneau cast at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in Scotland.
A few weeks ago, past and present members of the cast from “King Island” visited Jean at home to sing the entire score to her, with Rogers joining in at times.
“Jean remembered the melody,” Torgerson said. “In the last year she told me many times, ‘I can still sing!’ and she’d even go, ‘Laaa laaa la!’”
“She’d be down here singing to herself and whistling to herself,“ Fadaoff added.
“And that day there was one especially powerful moment where Cheryl Crawford sings the solo “The Gift of Trouble,” and it was all a capella, there were no instruments, and she sang it so beautifully and Jean sang along. It was like a duet. It was very, very moving.”
When the singing was over, Jean applauded excitedly, a huge smile on her face.
She said ‘Thank you! thank you!’ and Sharon (Gaiptman) said, ‘Thank you, Jean. Without your story this would never have happened,’ and she said, ‘Hey, you’re right. You’re welcome!’” Torgerson recalled with a laugh.
Rogers was aware of plans to take “King Island” to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in August, and was excited about the idea. Gaiptman said there are also plans to perform a sing-along version of King Island locally this spring during the Alaska Folk Festival, as a tribute to Rogers.
Gaiptman met Jean Rogers in 1978, when she came to Juneau to help sign on KTOO-TV; at that time Rogers was chairman of the board. Meeting Rogers and her husband made quite an impression on Gaiptman.
“They were just amazing and so inspirational, Peter (Freer) and I used to say, ‘We just want to be Jean and George when we grow up.’”
The couple faced life as a team, Gaiptman said, weathering the tragedy of losing their son, Gavin, and the misfortune of losing their home of 60 years to a fire.
“All that adversity and they were still strong,” she said.
Fadaoff said the fact that they had to rebuild the house ultimately worked in their favor; the construction of an attached apartment with wide hallways, purposefully designed to accommodate wheelchairs, allowed them both to remain in the home until their deaths, under Fadaoff’s care.
“I was able to keep them here,” she said. “They wanted to die in this house and that made it possible. If it had been the old house, the modifications would have been too huge. So there was a blessing to that fire.”
Walking through the living room of the Rogers’ family home last week, Fadaoff pointed out various pieces of art, including some intricate cut-paper collages her mother took great pleasure in creating in her final years, showing some at the Canvas during an exhibit in 2007. Art is everywhere in the house, including pieces by Rie Muñoz and Jim Fowler, as well as pieces that were made for Jean Rogers by friends -- a branch with delicate cut paper cherry blossoms, a row of tiny, brightly colored folded paper cranes hanging from string -- and a kimono-style colored-blocked robe Jean Rogers made herself. In the kitchen hangs a drawing George Rogers did of a tree in black ink. Fadaoff said the tree stands right near the house, and is a special spot.
“This tree is actually that willow down here, and that’s where we spread his ashes and that’s where we’ll spread mom’s ashes too,” she said. “‘Waiting for spring’ he named that.”
A memorial service for Rogers will be announced this summer.