John S. Rogers spent 26 years as a pilot in the U.S. Air Force, rising to the rank of colonel.
When his mother, Carnation heiress Mary Stuart Rogers, died in 1993, he suddenly found himself piloting a completely different type of vehicle: the philanthropic foundation she'd quietly established in 1985 to use her fortune to help others. Quietly, indeed.
"When they read the will, and it left Jim and John Rogers in charge of the Mary Stuart Rogers Foundation, it was the first I'd ever heard of it," John Rogers said. "She was a very gifted lady, but a very private person. She wanted not necessarily to be remembered, but to help people. That's why she set up the foundation."
His brother died a year later, leaving John and wife June as the keepers of the faith with the key to the foundation's vault.
They've lived a rich life of helping others and have been very involved in the community, including the development of the Gallo Center for the Arts, the main theater of which bears his mother's name. They also are part owners of Sky Trek Aviation at Modesto Airport.
Until recently, though, you probably needed to be a longtime and close personal friend to know much about John Rogers. His speech to the Modesto Rotary Club last week was a breakout of sorts, something he said would not have occurred had he not joined Toastmasters to overcome his reticence to speak publicly.
Some of what he shared:
That he flew reconnaissance missions over Vietnam for 364 days beginning in 1969
That he became a close personal friend of former President George H.W. Bush, flying him to Iwo Jima during one trip and to Milan, Italy, on another. He's also friends with Barbara Bush, who has flown with him as well.
"Wonderful, down-to-earth people," Rogers said.
He's an avid fisherman who flies to Alaska each year. It's a trip that nothing or nobody -- not even an ex-president -- can submarine.
"(Bush) wanted me to take him to Russia, but it was between the 9th and 17th of September," Rogers said. "Sorry, I'm fishing."
A Catholic, Rogers enjoyed private audiences with Pope John Paul II, including one during the trip to Italy with Bush in October 2001, about a month after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
That he has unprecedented access to a monastery in Lincoln, Neb., where cloistered Carmelite nuns pray 24-7.
"Nobody gets into the facility but the guy who built it for them, and that guy was me," Rogers said.
That he and June celebrated their 46th wedding anniversary Tuesday, which choked him up a bit when he talked about it.
Talking about himself is a departure for a man whose name is on a building at California State University, Stanislaus. Students might look at that name and wonder about its significance.
"Volunteering is what I do," Rogers said. "It's what I have done ever since I changed careers (taking over the foundation)."
Giving money away, he said, is serious business.
"It has its ups and downs," said Rogers, who is the foundation's president. June is the secretary, and there are three other board members. "It's very rewarding. On the other hand, we have to have confidence it will be used properly."
Many of the donations go to educational programs for minority students. The foundation generally restricts the money it gives for college scholarships to juniors, seniors and those in teaching credential programs, ensuring that the money goes to help students in need, but also to those who have shown they are serious about school.
"Helping people who help themselves, that's what we do," Rogers said.
When a gift bears your mother's and your family's name, it had better be used wisely, efficiently and for the intended purpose. That's why the foundation often offers matching funds instead of simply bankrolling a project or program.
"When (groups) come to us, I ask these questions," he said. "I will ask how much support does your board give the organization? And we'll challenge the board. We often do matching grants."
When Community Hospice wanted to build a combination hospice facility and senior complex, Rogers told Hospice Chief Executive Officer Harold Peterson, "If your organization will run Samaritan Village (the senior complex), we'll build the Hospice House."
The Rogers foundation contributed $3 million to the Alexander Cohen Hospice House, which opened in 2005. The foundation has given more than $35 million to organizations from here to Moscow. There's the Mary Stuart Rogers Theater at the Gallo Center for the Arts, a $5 million contribution. The Rogers name is on buildings at Cal State Stanislaus, where they've donated more than $10 million, at Modesto Junior College and at Turlock's Emanuel Medical Center, also recipients of multimillion- dollar donations.
The foundation gives to programs such as school lip-syncing contests, school science labs, private school tuition assistance, cancer centers, churches, the Modesto Symphony Orchestra, youth groups and food banks, among others.
The Rogers family donated more than $6.6 million in 2006 and it wasn't restricted to the valley. The foundation gave $2,500 to a women's martial arts group in Massachusetts; $250,000 to a school foundation in Victor, Mont.; and $500,000 to Lewis & Clark College in Oregon, from which Jim Rogers graduated in 1964.
To do all this, the foundation invests and reinvests to generate new income -- midair refueling, a pilot might call it. The success of its investments determines the amount of money the foundation can donate each year.
"We want to hang on there for the long haul," Rogers said. "I think it's important to give back in time, talent and treasure. It's your responsibility."
Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Local News. He can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2383.