The Way We Were: Henry Darwin Rogers

The Way We Were: Henry Darwin Rogers
Henry Dawson Rogers

Dashing. Daring. Dapper and Debonair. Ian Fleming of James Bond fame would have found new inspiration for novels based on the incredible adventures of Henry Rogers, a man who has tangoed, samba-ed and passo dobled his way around the world as easily as he has navigated the stage of First Coast Nutcracker for 41 years.

Pick a country from A to Z and Rogers has probably had some wild adventure there. And that was his goal. From the Andes, Argentina, Bogota, Ecuador, Peru to Japan, Uruguay and all points in between, Rogers has narrowly escaped mishaps with armed rebels, suspicious armed guards, risked his life exploring the heights and depths of mountains, gorges, canyons and winding roads with drops in elevation of thousands of feet, all the while finding fabulous dining experiences, meeting beautiful women and living to tell the tale.

Born at Riverside Hospital, Rogers grew up at 2950 St. John’s Avenue in the beautiful house that was the original Florida Yacht Club and like many historic homes in Riverside torn down in 1966. He grew up with his brother Walter, now 98, whose survival of five major battles in World War II is reflective of the danger and daring of the brothers, as well as his twin siblings, the late Minerva Mason and John, who is also deceased.

In the summer the Rogers children spent time in Murfreesboro, Tenn., on their maternal grandparent’s farm where Rogers said they “did what you do when you’re 7, 8, 9 or 10 – chop cotton, pitch hay, and milk cows.”

Henry with his siblings, Walter, Minerva and her twin, John, around 1933
Henry with his siblings, Walter, Minerva and her twin, John, around 1933

He attended West Riverside Elementary, John Gorrie Junior High and Robert E. Lee High School then graduated with an AB in Physics from Harvard in 1954. He’d wanted to go to Duke or Georgia Tech to become a civil engineer, but his father, a Harvard graduate, wanted him to go to his alma mater. “I hope you enjoy working,” is what his father told him, if he chose to attend another school.

After graduation from Harvard, Rogers desired to travel and to attend graduate school in Singapore, but riots were going on there and his mother “had a hissy fit.” During his time at college he was in naval ROTC and served during the summers in the Merchant Marines. He related that one of the most terrifying moments of his life was in 1951 when he was on battle watch going through the Florida Straits between Florida and Cuba. “Stalin said if the US didn’t pull back, they would retaliate. I saw a glow about 50 – 100 yards away in the water and I thought it was a Russian torpedo. I dropped behind the bow thinking I would die any second,” he laughed. “It was a dolphin leaping and playing about and the glow was the phosphorescence in the water.”

Henry Darwin Rogers in 1954
Henry Darwin Rogers in 1954

His later adventures while in the Navy on the USS Wiltsie destroyer make the playful dolphin episode comical by degree and pale in his recount of a journey as a top- secret military courier in 1954. “Two armed marines escorted me to an airplane to go to Sasebo, Japan. About 10 or 15 minutes out of Tokyo we experienced engine failure and glided down into a dry rice patty. The U.S. was no longer occupying Japan, but it was illegal for anyone to have a handgun. I had a 45 automatic with shells in the chamber, and documents more valuable than my life. I was afraid someone would take me down. After 16 hours of trying to get to Sasebo by walking, various trains and avoiding policemen, I finally arrived. But the guards would not let me in with the gun and I wasn’t going to let go of it or the papers until someone came and signed for it. Finally, around midnight a high-ranking officer came to take over and relieve me,” he said.

In 1959 Rogers married Beverly Baggs at the Church of the Good Shepherd on Stockton Street. Beverly was the daughter of Thelma Johnston Baggs of Baggs Studio of Ballet fame. The dance studio has been an institution in Jacksonville for over 60 years. Rogers explained that when his mother-in-law died in 1977, his daughter, Katherine, then 16 years old, and Debra Rankin (then Peters), a student of Thelma Baggs, ran the studio until Rankin purchased it in 1978. Thelma Baggs presented the first full length Nutcracker with the Jacksonville Symphony in 1972 at the Civic Auditorium, now the Times Union Center for Performing Arts. Henry Rogers and Debra Rankin performed in those productions until Rankin, with Dulce Anaya and Mark Spivak formed the Community Nutcracker Ballet 28 years ago. Rogers continues to dance in what is now the First Coast Nutcracker. Thelma Baggs’ dance legacy lives on in both productions through her son-in-law and her former student.

Henry Darwin Rogers and his daughters, Amelia and Katherine
Henry Darwin Rogers and his daughters, Amelia and Katherine

Beverly and Henry divorced after 21 years of marriage, and Beverly passed on five years ago. Rogers said this was one of the most significant relationships of his life because of his children – Katherine, who lives in Jacksonville, and Amelia Rogers who lives in Atlanta with her husband Douglas Green and son Elia. Rogers recently lost his beloved sister, Minerva. “It was my good fortune to be the little brother of Minerva Mason. Because of her, I got invited to great parties with senators and ambassadors. She was seven years older than I am and protected me from my brother John when we were kids. It is a great sadness to lose her,” he said.

For a gentleman who celebrated his 87th birthday on Oct. 5, Rogers is in no hurry to slow down. He walks a mile and a half every day – many of those up and down stairs – and continues his work as a Broker Associate at First Coast Sotheby’s International Realty, where he wears a three-piece suit every day except Sunday. He also goes to social dances every Friday evening, hosts dinner parties several times a year, and enjoys cooking, noting that he specializes in several dishes where he is “famous for including rum cake.” He can also be seen leaping about entertaining the crowd as The Jester at the annual ball given by Ye Mystic Revellers.

Rogers is active in the Unitarian Universalist Church, the Friars’ Club, the Sheriff’s Advisory Council, the Word Affairs Club, the “Billy Boys,” a group founded by William Ketchem consisting of old pals from Lee High School who meet once a month, as well as the Harvard Business Club and other organizations too numerous to mention.

His past accomplishments are many and varied. He was elected to two terms on the Jacksonville Civil Service Board serving with former Mayor Hans Tanzler and worked to unify Jacksonville with consolidation. Toss in the fact that he works with the Jacksonville Historical Society, Jacksonville Mental Health, Southeast Community Planning Advisory Council, is a founding member of the Jacksonville Ski Club, Past President of Jax Board of Realtors, where he was awarded Florida Land Realtor of the year in 2014, and one gets a picture of the indefatigable Rogers.

Although a less energetic person would be exhausted and ready for retirement, Rogers is still globe-trotting. One of the most fun trips he has made was with his daughter, Katherine, hiking in Turkey, he said. When asked which was his favorite trip he said, “It depends on which side of the bed I got out on. I love the Far East. I really enjoyed Toyoko. Last year, I went to Morocco.”

Henry Dawson Rogers dressed as the Jester at 2017 Reveller’s Ball
Henry Dawson Rogers dressed as the Jester at 2017 Reveller’s Ball

He recalled of chatting with his friend, Dale Orr Taylor, after church. As former captains in Revellers, Taylor’s dad, husband and son were associates of Rogers. The conversation turned to traveling, and they decided to go to Katmandu, but only if they would get there by crossing the Atlantic, since Rogers had already crossed the Pacific.

In earlier travels, Rogers carried a .38 special in Columbia and wielded a bolo knife to chop two canine teeth from a dead mountain cat presented for sale by an Indian carrying a muzzle-loading gun. The teeth, which were to be made into earrings, were later presented to a young lady he’d met at the airport, who accompanied him to the bull fights and danced the paso boble, an energetic dance where the gentleman mimics the matador and the lady, the bull, into the wee hours.

His recent trips have been tame compared to the time a machine gun was pointed at his stomach or when he rode a mule along a perilously steep mountain path. However, these exciting adventures almost did not come to fruition.

Not everything has been rosy for the self-proclaimed “Wild Man,” who with his closest friend and college roommate, Peter van Thiel, had decided to live life to the edge. Unfortunately, in 1957, Rogers landed in St. Vincent’s Hospital where he was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes three weeks before he was scheduled to fly to Baghdad to begin a job with an engineering company near the Iraq border. He said he felt his life of adventure was doomed to failure. How to travel and make sure he had insulin in the wilds of the world was mind boggling, and he felt defeated in his dreams of the adventurous life, which he and Peter had vowed to embrace.

Although Rogers life has been filled with joyful exuberance and fascinating travels, his dear friend Peter, who was with the CIA, did not live to keep that promise or enjoy the wild adventures they had pledged to pursue. He was killed on a mission in 1965.

The combination of struggling to control his diabetes, the loss of his dream job, and Peter’s death, pushed Rogers into a deep depression. Not caring if he lived or died, he embarked on a journey which tested his survival skills to the max before he experienced a turning point.

Having separated himself from the travel guide at Machu Picchu so he could explore on his own, he found himself looking down a 2,000-foot drop as clouds darkened the sky. Unable to find the return path with, ironically, only half a pack of Lifesaver candies to sustain his blood-sugar level, he proceeded down a steep, narrow pathway, most of which had been washed away by a landslide. He then maneuvered a terrifying balancing act, worthy of the famous trapeze artist, Karl Wallenda, crossing over a 300-foot deep gorge on an unsteady, decaying log to survive and make it back to the lodge.

The near brush with death was a pivotal moment in his thinking, he said. Surviving this ordeal inspired him to live and to continue his quest for life and for other dangerous adventures.

Edgar Allan Poe’s poem, “El Dorado,” where the knight’s search for the city of gold is illusive, has always inspired him, he said. The last stanza reads: “Over the mountains of the Moon, Down the valley of the shadow/ Ride boldly ride, if you seek Eldorado.”

Rogers has certainly ridden, hiked, climbed, and danced in over 40 countries, not including exploits in his own. His travels have been both exhilarating and frequently fraught with danger. His pledge in college with his old pal to seek adventure has been fulfilled. He has been in the valley, yet survived, and continues to seek the next thrill “over the mountains of the moon” as he tangos, rumbas and rides boldly through life. And he loves to tell the tales.

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