James Henry (Jimmy) Rogers passed away March 10; he was 83 years old. His Celebration of Life, held at Graeagle Fire Hall on Sunday, May 26, was packed with four generations of family, and friends old and new. In fact, Betty Townsend Hall said she and Jimmy had been friends since kindergarten.
Many friends and family members spoke, and what they said had two common themes: Rogers would help out anyone any time, and he was a Legend. This legendary status took many forms because, clearly, Rogers never did anything small.
He was “the best athlete Portola has ever seen,” according to many. He was a great trickster, dancer, and golfer with a temper and more than one story to prove it.
But, even these stories brought laughter, because in this case the joke was on him, and he was all in as usual. Some of these stories were told by numerous people — they’d become part of the local lore.
Rogers’ story started rougher than most. He was born in Colorado, in a house that sheltered 16 people, only three of whom worked. By the time Rogers was 2, his mother and father headed to California, leaving four children with an elderly, blind aunt. After some time, a social worker came for a visit and put Rogers and his 4-year-old sister, Rosie, in an orphanage. His infant sister, Mary, was placed in a foster home.
When his father heard this, he came back to Colorado and brought Jimmy and Rosie to Portola to live with him and his wife in a “two room hobo house,” according to Rogers’ son, Tim.
Rogers was 4 at the time; his sister Rosie was 6. The two siblings became “street kids,” as their mother often locked them out of the house while their father was working on the railroad. They’d run the streets, sleep in the baseball dugout and spend many days watching movies in the local theater. Apparently, people would let them into the theater so they could see the show.
When Rogers was 8, his mother left permanently, and he ended up back with his blind old aunt in Colorado once again. He and his younger sister, Mary, were put into Catholic school. It was there that Rogers learned how to box and was taught tumbling (gymnastics).
He was already honing his athletic ability, so that by the time he and Mary took the train back to Portola when he was 13, Rogers was an outstanding gymnast. He also joined the Portola High School varsity football team on first string as a freshman. He set many athletic records at PHS — in football, track, basketball, baseball, diving and gymnastics — graduating in 1954. Some of those records stood for decades and some, said his son Tim, may be standing still.
He married his high school sweetheart, Dixie Sarbach, straight out of high school, and they had three children: Boone, Sue and Tim. Right after high school, he also started working at the Graeagle and Sloat mills. When the mills closed down, he started on the railroad like his father before him. In addition, he joined the Marine Corps Reserves the year he graduated high school, serving from 1954 to 1961. And, he was a great marksman, winning an M-1 rifle at a Marine Corps competition. He also managed to go to college at Sacramento State in 1956, where he was a part of the boxing team, while continuing to work on the railroad.
Later, he coached Little League, taking his team to the championship in Portola and also coaching the All Star team. Mike Sanchez, now a Plumas County Supervisor, was the main pitcher on the team. At the celebration, he recalled knowing Rogers from the time he was 10 years old and, once he graduated high school, forming a life-long friendship with him.
Sanchez remembered Rogers’ incredible stunts on the trampoline, and noted how he always helped with the Portola High School Alumni Get Together. This year, said Sanchez, there will be a PHS scholarship dedicated to Rogers to support “PHS and the community he so loved.”
Rogers was inducted into the Portola High School Hall of Fame and given a lifetime pass to all events. But, he did more than that, and no one at his celebration, including one of the PHS coaches, Dave Rife, knew who gave him permission. Well into his 40s, Rogers would come out of the high school locker room during football season in only a helmet and sometimes shoulder pads and would play full contact football with the practicing varsity team.
At an Alumni football game against Quincy 50 years after he graduated, he suited up. He played running back and Rogers, in his 70s at the time, was handed the ball near the end zone where he made a quick cut to the right and ran it in.
Then, there was the time he was doing a headstand on the roof of a caboose going 25 mph as it passed the train station in Keddie right in front of his boss.
This was one of the many times, apparently, that he “had to see the super,” according to his son Tim. And, there was the time, in his 60s, when he did a handstand outside the Graeagle Meadows Restaurant and walked on his hands to the parking lot. There were many more stories told — all the stuff of legend.
In retirement, Rogers was introduced to golf, and he took it up the way he did every sport, becoming an avid golfer and winning many tournaments. But, it was his golf course antics that took on a mythical quality.
Tim told of the time Rogers hit his ball into the water on the third hole at Graeagle Meadows. “Walking over the bridge,” said Tim, “he got mad and threw all of his clubs in the water. Then, he remembered he was playing in a tournament.”
Bryan Hansen recalled this same escapade, adding that Rogers said, “‘I’m not going after that! The hell I’m not!’ and he dove right in.”
Another friend added that, “He was a character with character. Love makes the world go round, and the world spun a little faster when he was in it.”
Rogers’ second wife, Janice, always says “Jimmy is the love of my life,” and for the past 20 years, it was hard to find them apart, except when he was playing golf. They were spectacular dancers, and he ran the Graeagle Jazz Society, well known for the music and dancing they sponsored weekly every summer at the Graeagle Picnic Grounds. One friend said, “The way Jan was with Jimmy changed the way I thought about love.”
Finally, Chuck Davis, a lifelong friend of Rogers, wrote a poem about him, which Davis read at the celebration while choking back tears. It is worth quoting some of it here, as a loving tribute to an unforgettable man:
A Plumas County Legend
How does one pay tribute
To one who gave so much;
To his family, country, school and town,
And friends who knew his generous touch.
His body now has left us,
But he will always be quite near;
For all of us who loved him,
His spirit will never disappear.