Sunday, November 29 , 2015, 6:55 pm | Fair 54º

Randy Weiss: Tom Rogers Remembered

On a somber anniversary of a death, a friend and neighbor's joy of life still shines bright

Proud dad Tom Rogers with his beautiful daughters, Clare and Caroline, at the 2002 Father-Daughter Dance at Marymount of Santa Barbara.
Proud dad Tom Rogers with his beautiful daughters, Clare and Caroline, at the 2002 Father-Daughter Dance at Marymount of Santa Barbara.  (Rogers family photo)

By Randy Weiss |

“Every day’s your birthday.”     

Eight years ago, on Jan. 18, 2005 ...

How long it’s been since Tom Rogers — a former Santa Barbara city councilman, two-term Santa Barbara County 2nd District supervisor, New Jersey transplant and almost native Santa Barbara son, passionate environmentalist, Yale grad, proud Irishman with Kennedy-esque good looks, rugby player, son, brother, dedicated dad, family man and great guy — died after a courageous 12-year battle with ALS, aka Lou Gehrig’s disease.

Tom Rogers was many things but more than anything else, he was my friend.

                                                                  •        •        •

‘Tom was my campaign manager in 1981. With his youthful enthusiasm, he charmed everyone into voting for me! He became a terrific political leader but his real passion was being a great father.” — Hal Conklin, Santa Barbara city councilman and mayor (1977-1994)

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In his public political life, Tom’s face often graced the local newspapers’ front pages.

While action shots of his private life caught both the society pages and the sports sections.

                                                                  •        •        •

“Tom was a giant in the local political world. If there was a Mount Rushmore for local elected officials, Tom would be up there with Harriet Miller, Naomi Schwartz and Bill Wallace.” — Gregg Hart, former Santa Barbara city councilman (1996-2004)

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I only got to know him when he and his beautiful young family moved in down the street in the 1990s and we lived in “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.”

By then, ALS had ravaged his body, but certainly not his spirit.

And certainly not his will to live.

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“Tom used to say that he witnessed a miracle every day. And that if we all look in the right direction, we can see them every day, too.” — Nancy Rogers Bontempo Ph.D., Tom’s sister

                                                                  •        •        •

Already wheelchair-bound and his speech slowed by disease to the point of being challenging (for me) to understand, he and his family would often cruise the ‘hood after dinner during summer’s long days.

                                                                  •        •        •

“Tom remembered everyone, loved everyone, loved being a city council member and supervisor. He was a ’rising star’ who would have gone far politically — he could have been president — if he lived! What I learned from Tom: There is nothing more important than friends and family.” — Karen Feeney, Santa Barbara environmentalist and longtime friend of Tom’s

                                                                  •        •        •

Once he learned of my writing dreams, I was soon trekking to his home, after kids were asleep, once or twice weekly with laptop computer in hand trying to capture everything!

                                                                  •        •        •

“Tom understood that a large part of friendship is ‘showing up.’ Until he couldn’t do it any more, he always had a way of being there. I was shocked when he showed up at my 50th birthday party less than a couple of years before his passing — the effort that it took! He would have had to start getting ready the day before to make it happen!” — Pat McElroy, longtime Santa Barbara firefighter and interim fire chief

                                                                  •        •        •

Late at night is when he had the most energy and we used a letter board to communicate.

To be honest, following his “spirited” right index finger quickly sliding from letter to letter to spell words during our many meetings was often sleepy hypnotic, but it was all in hopes of writing his autobiography.

We never got there ...

During one of his last summers, we did, however, launch his “coming out” story about his living with ALS, in celebration of his August birthday.

Just when I thought we’d never finish in time and I could no longer take writing and working with this perfectionist, he flashed a big smile and his famous “thumbs-up” sign to signal approval after one last 3 a.m. re-read (our third one) of our draft.

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“Through it all, Tom never complained and never blamed anyone. His faith kept him going and he thanked God every day he woke up alive. For him, the disease was not about dying but about living.“ — Liam Rogers, Tom’s younger brother

                                                                  •        •        •

We slipped it in just before the 8 a.m. deadline.

(Scroll down the page for Tom Roger’s full story, A Life Worth Living)

And when published in Sunday’s opinion pages three days later, it was something very special we had accomplished together.

Tom, you see, wouldn’t settle for anything less than my best.

That’s exactly what he got.

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“He had an uncanny ability to recognize a person’s positive attributes better than they knew them themselves, and would focus on those positives and help bring that out.” — Matt Rogers, Tom’s brother

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Over his last years, we shared many things over many, many hours.

And then there was that time never to be forgotten ...

It was in late 2004 at his care facility when his right index finger slowed to craft his goodbye letter to his beloved daughters, Clare and Caroline, telling them that he was soon going to a better place. It was one of the most intense, heartwarming and saddest moments I would ever know.

I managed to catch every single letter through the tears.

                                                                  •        •        •

“Tom is always in my heart. He was my friend, my patient and my teacher.” — Antonio Sierra, Tom’s longtime devoted caregiver

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My biggest wish — beyond a cure for all disease — was that the dynamics of our friendship had been different.

But had he been healthy, I never would have experienced this high-octane friendship.

                                                                  •        •        •

“I have so many fond memories of Tom and his family. He was an amazing leader and his life continues to be an inspiration to me.” — Rep. Lois Capps, D-Santa Barbara

                                                                  •        •        •

Tom Rogers
Tom Rogers

Tom taught all of us who knew him a very powerful passion for living.

To never take life or health for granted. To be grateful.

To live every day like it’s your birthday.

And, perhaps, the most striking, inspirational and amazing thing about his truly remarkable journey was his steadfast refusal to let ALS color his life. He insisted on presenting himself not as a victim but as a conqueror.

                                                                  •        •        •

“The entire Rogers family expresses our sincere gratitude and love for the Santa Barbara community for all their support for Tom over the years of his health and his illness.” — Jim Rogers, 91, Tom’s dad

                                                                  •        •        •

With everything that Thomas Ambrose Rogers was known for in his too-short span of 53 years, well, I will forever miss that smile, him flashing his famous “thumbs-up” sign and, of course, our special friendship that lasted to the very end ...

Eight years ago today.

— Randy Weiss is local freelance writer and longtime Noozhawk contributor. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

  Tom Rogers: A Life Worth Living by  

comments powered by Disqus

» on 01.19.13 @ 11:57 AM

Beautifully put, Randy.
Thank you for reminding us all of this wonderful person!

» on 01.21.13 @ 03:32 PM

Thanks for a phenomenal tribute to a really special man, and a devoted dad.

Hard to believe it’s eight years that Rogers is gone.

His meteoric public career wasn’t that much longer than his battle against his crippling illness. But what an indelible impression he made on people.

How many public servants are there who are so honest that when they’re struck down after two terms on city council and two as a county supervisor, had such a modest amount in the bank?

How many so well respected that the whole community bought, and burned, the
mortgage on his house, so he would not lose it?

How many so tenacious and determined that a disease like ALS, which often kills
in 2-3 years took over a dozen to wrestle him down?

Father Virgil used to call Tom Rogers “one of bravest, brightest believers I have
ever known.” As with so many other things, Father Virgil may have been right.

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