It is difficult to write a tribute for John Rogers, the Brighton area icon who died Saturday night. On the one hand, I have known, admired and respected the man for nearly 40 years, during many of which we lived across Woodland Lake from each other (where he claimed he could keep tabs on us through binoculars.)
On the other hand, there are hundreds who are better equipped to tell John’s stories. In truth, I should be contacting them for their remembrances. I have neither the time nor talent for that. But I can’t turn down the request to praise this remarkable man.
It is too easy to describe John as an irascible curmudgeon with a growling demeanor but a heart of gold. Easy, but accurate. He was blunt, funny, straight-talking and genuine.
My earliest memory of John was at the Brighton Big Boy. I was the relatively new and young editor of the Brighton Argus and had stopped there for a quick meal before covering an evening meeting. He and his wife, Joyce – the revered and imposing leader of the Brighton chamber of commerce, justifiably named the county’s most powerful person – were having dinner. The Ann Arbor News had just announced one of its frequent forays into the Brighton area (and, I must proudly say, it was another of a series of spectacular failures), and Joyce wanted to know if I was concerned. Before I could answer, John huffed, “It’s about time we got a decent newspaper in this town.” Joyce feigned horror at his comment, but I was laughing. That was John being John.
Later, when John was supervisor of Brighton Township, I heard a story of a trustee venturing into his office to ask why John seemed to be often unkind to him. “Because I don’t like you very much, “John was reported to say. I never asked him if the story was true, because I desperately wanted it to be a fact.
Those stories, and a legion of others, make people laugh. And they should. John’s humor and straight-shooting were a lot different than the attack-dog tactics that dominate today’s political landscape. You knew where he stood, but he also recognized the humanity of those who disagreed with him. If he disliked you, you likely earned it. I was good friends with two of his sons, but because they were elected officials, our newspaper at times pointedly criticized them. John never took me to task for that. In fact, I was told, he sometimes verbally cuffed his boys for doing something that gave the paper fodder for critical coverage.
John was never supposed to make it this long. About a quarter of a century ago, he has critically ill with cancer. But, as even his closest friends say, he was too ornery to die. It’s not like heaven was waiting for him. Clearly, the powers that be thought Brighton could deal with him a bit longer.
A teacher, coach and principal from a blue-collar Detroit suburb, John moved his family – including five remarkable sons who referred to John as Big Daddy – to a cottage on Woodland Lake. He told me once that people who didn’t have to paid the taxes necessary to build the highway that allowed him to commute from Redford Township to Brighton Township. He felt an obligation to make the same payment – pay it forward, if you will – to the next generation.
At the same time, he never wanted to unnecessarily take money from the paychecks of young people struggling to provide for their families. Tax dollars needed to be spent, but they must be spent wisely. It’s a message missed by both the progressive left and the Tea Party right. It’s a philosophy John carried during two terms as Brighton Township supervisor and another as a township trustee. It’s a value system he passed on to a son who served in Congress and another who served in the state House. He also had a son who was a general in the U.S. Army. You think that maybe there was some positive parenting going on in that house?
Nothing was stronger than family for John Rogers. He could tell you details of critical times in each boy’s life that led to the men they became. I would have paid most any price to have listened in to the family gatherings held regularly at the Rogers home across the lake. At the end of the day, the story was the same: What was good for the family, what was good for the community?
Years ago, I was asked to say a few words when the Brighton Post Office was renamed in Joyce’s honor. What I said that day about Joyce is as true for John. They would scoff at the notion, but they were clearly Brighton’s premier power couple. They stood alone as Brighton’s first family. They were clearly a family to be reckoned with. People knew that successful ventures had to pass through the Rogers’ doorway. But it was never for personal gain. John and Joyce were at the focal point of power, but it was never leveraged into monetary gain. There was no quid pro quo where Rogers’ support came with a financial price tag.
Instead, the Rogers political strength — and it was impressive — was exchanged for currency that improved the Brighton community; for measures that made their adopted hometown a better place to live, a better place for people like me to raise two sons. There was a time when Brighton didn’t have much in the way of medical facilities, hotels or even a good place to eat after 6 p.m. Now we do. John and Joyce had a lot to do with that.
When I heard of John’s death Sunday morning, my first reaction was that the Brighton community will never again see the like of John Rogers. That is true. But we will long see the benefits of the legacy of John and Joyce Rogers. And we will forever be in their debt.