Published Sunday, June 15, 2014 | 12:16 a.m.
Updated Sunday, June 15, 2014 | 2:46 p.m.
The staunchest supporters and most outspoken critics of Jim Rogers undoubtedly would agree that so often it seemed that Rogers’ tongue dripped with acid — as did his pen — while he had a heart of gold that overflowed with generosity.
Rogers long offered biting opinions through various means: first as editorial writer for Las Vegas High School’s newspaper in the 1950s, later as longtime owner of Intermountain West Communications (operator of KSNV-TV’s Las Vegas NBC affiliate, Channel 3) and finally as chancellor of the Nevada System of Higher Education from 2005 to 2009.
But, during his lifetime, Rogers gave away an estimated $4 of every $10 he earned — $200 million to nonprofit organizations and educational institutions, including the law school from which he graduated, which was renamed for him. In 2000, Rogers was named one of the nation’s top 12 philanthropists by Time magazine.
James Earl “Jim” Rogers, a longtime conscientious media mogul, dedicated education crusader, hard-nosed lawyer, frugal banker and devoted philanthropist widely known for his piercing wit, keen intelligence and brutal candor, died Saturday. He was 75.
The cause was cancer, his family said, which in the months before his death, Rogers announced to his staff at Channel 3.
Services for the Las Vegas resident of 61 years are pending. In addition to his longtime Nevada residency, Rogers maintained a family home in Montana.
“With the passing of Jim Rogers, Nevada has lost one of its most outspoken and fearless advocates,” Gov. Brian Sandoval said in a written statement Sunday. “Jim was nationally recognized as a successful philanthropist and business leader. In the state of Nevada, he was so much more. Jim dedicated his time and resources to advancing our education system and, as chancellor of higher education, was fierce in his commitment to make sure our students had the resources they needed to succeed.”
KSNV Executive Vice President of News Robert Stoldal said his longtime friend was a leader in the crusade for local education and was “on the cutting edge” of instituting local TV news programing.
“The one word to sum up Jim and his life’s work was education. Whether it was at UNLV or the Clark County School District, it was his key focus,” Stoldal said. “He gave so much of his time and his money to education, which is his legacy. To the very end, he had an energy that he used to energize others about improving education and making it their focus as well as his.”
Stoldal said that Rogers, who had initiated a lot of changes to boost local news coverage since 2009, was chatting by phone with Stoldal about new local TV news shows less than 24 hours before his death.
Among his latest ideas, Rogers proposed a morning talk show featuring local women discussing vital issues of the day and a stimulating afternoon show featuring community business and labor leaders debating management-union topics.
“Some people have said that Jim was difficult to work with, but not really,” Stoldal said. “Sure, Jim got angry when changes he tried to initiate did not happen quickly enough. But Jim had no hidden agendas. He was open and truthful, and that openness made him easy to work with.”
In the past five years, Rogers and Stoldal have added Jon Ralston’s political TV show to their daily lineup, extended the 4 p.m. news by a half-hour, replaced popular early evening game shows with an hour-long 7 p.m. newscast, added the political debate show “What’s Your Point” and added an 11 a.m. newscast.
Richard Morgan, who retired in 2007 as dean of the UNLV Boyd School of Law, told the Sun in 2009 that Rogers was “big on efficiency, short on patience, aggressive, hard-charging and ambitious.”
Former Nevada Gov. and U.S. Sen. Richard Bryan, a classmate of Rogers at Las Vegas High, said Rogers’ demanding standards are part of the reason he was so successful as a lawyer, businessman, banker and chancellor.
Upon his retirement as chancellor in 2009, Rogers summed up his oft-times abrasive personality as that of an individual who simply sought the best from himself and from others around him.
“I’m very demanding of other people, and myself,” Rogers told the Sun. “I’ve got one shot going through this life. I want to make sure I do as much as I can.”
In response to that quote, Congressman Steven Horsford, D-Nev., said Sunday: “There is no doubt that he surpassed even his highest expectations. He had a huge impact on Nevada, and he will be missed.”
Despite Rogers’ many contributions to charities and his longevity in the electronic media, law and banking businesses, he is perhaps most familiar to Southern Nevadans for his often-headline-making actions as chancellor.
“(Jim will) go down in history as one of Nevada’s best and strongest chancellors ever,” said Rogers’ predecessor as chancellor, Jane Nichols, whom Rogers later hired as a vice chancellor. She told the Sun in a 2009 interview that Rogers had raised Nevadans’ consciousness of higher education.
“We are more focused, we are more strategic, we are more innovative,” then-Regent Chairman James Dean Leavitt said of the lasting results of Rogers’ service in 2009. “I think higher education has a higher profile because of who Jim Rogers is, and the message he preached.”
Rogers’ role in education was not limited to his effective deeds for Nevada’s colleges and universities, but for his work in the ranks of K-12, where, among other things, he attempted to play a major role in the process of selecting a superintendent.
His time as chancellor likely will best be remembered for UNLV’s Boyd Law School being named one of the top 100 programs in the nation and for Rogers’ relentless advocacy that protected higher education from a potentially devastating 36 percent budget cut in 2009 that had been proposed by then-Gov. Jim Gibbons.
In response to that attempted major slashing of funds, Rogers wrote detailed weekly memos outlining the devastation on education as well as other critical services throughout the state had Gibbons got his way.
Gibbons was not the only one to feel the blade of Rogers’ sharp rapier. His criticisms of — and clashes with — then-UNLV President Carol Harter and then-UNR President John Lilley was credited with causing both of them to quit their jobs.
Rogers eventually mended the fences with Harter and the two worked closely and amicably during her next post in Nevada education as executive director of UNLV’s Black Mountain Institute for Literary and Cross-Cultural Dialogue.
“No matter how much criticism is heaped on him relative to his advocacy for funding education, he continues on,” Harter previously told the Sun. “We need that kind of champion — someone who has nothing to lose personally, who is in a position to be a strong advocate for both higher and lower education.”
Rogers was also perhaps the strongest force behind the appointment of Harter’s replacement for the top spot at UNLV, David Ashley. But just before Rogers stepped down, he recommended that Ashley be fired or, in the alternative, quit before his contract expired in 2010.
On July 10, 2009, two months after Rogers left his post, Ashley was fired as president by the Regents. Executive Vice President and Provost Neal Smatresk became acting president. A month later, Smatresk became president. (Smatresk left to become the president of the University of North Texas in February.)
A similar thing happened after Rogers hired Richard Carpenter as president of the College of Southern Nevada. After questions were raised about Carpenter’s performance, he took a similar post at a Texas community college system, and Rogers was glad to let him go.
The message soon became clear: Don’t get on Rogers’ bad side, for he oozed the confidence — some would argue, pure arrogance — that he knew how to run things much better than anyone else possibly could, and would gladly tell people so even when his opinion was not sought.
Rogers would not hesitate to go into tirades against not only the governor and university and college heads, but also the elected board of University Regents — his bosses — regardless of whether observers perceived his actions to be more of a showboating tactic than a sincere effort to raise the level of higher education standards in Nevada.
Still, when Rogers stepped down from his post, a number of college and university faculty members gave him high praise, saying that he was a true friend and supporter of the efforts and rights of the educators.
“Jim Rogers was a tireless advocate for quality schools in a state that desperately needed an outspoken champion of education,” Horsford said. “As chancellor and beyond, he demonstrated an unending commitment to improving the lives of students and children in Nevada. The depth of his charity was unmatched.”
And Rogers indeed was a fighter — a scrapper unafraid to take on so-called giants in any field.
Such was the case in the 1970s, when Rogers led a group of Las Vegas businessmen and residents in the takeover of the local NBC affiliate from a powerful media company.
Rogers began that effort in 1971 and gained steam seven years later when the Donrey Media Group — then owners of Channel 3, KORK radio and the Review-Journal — began a campaign to preempt NBC programming so the station could sell more local advertising.
That action angered Las Vegas viewers, a number of whom made complaints to the Federal Communications Commission, which looked into the matter. As a result, Donrey was pressured in 1979 to sell the station to Rogers and his holding group, the Valley Broadcasting Company.
Later, Rogers’ company, renamed Sunbelt Broadcasting (today Intermountain West Communications Company) would grow to operate at its peak 16 TV stations in six states, plus radio stations.
Rogers maintained 98 percent of stock ownership in Intermountain West, operating NBC affiliates in Las Vegas, Reno and Elko; Yuma, Ariz.; El Centro, Calif.; Helena, Mont.; Casper, Wyo.; and Pocatello/Idaho Falls, Ida.; and the Fox affiliate in Twin Falls, Ida.
In the 1980s and ’90s, Rogers went into banking, serving on the board of Nevada National Bank from 1981-87 and the board of Security Pacific Bank of California in 1989; founding the Community Bank of Nevada in 1995 and serving as its loan committee chairman; and founding Nevada First Bank (now Bank of Nevada) in 1998 and serving as a longtime board member and chairman.
Rogers’ deeds as a philanthropist are legendary.
His largest gift was $137 million in 1998 to his alma mater, the University of Arizona College of Law, which was renamed the James E. Rogers College of Law. The donation was the largest gift to the University of Arizona, and it is said to be the largest gift ever by a single donor to any one law school in the United States.
Others to benefit from Rogers’ generosity in the form of both pledges and cash donations include UNLV College of Law ($28.5 million) and Idaho State University Foundation ($20 million).
Born Sept., 15, 1938, Rogers as a teenager moved with his family to Las Vegas from Los Alamos, N.M., in 1953.
As a senior at Las Vegas High School, Rogers got his first real forum as an editorial writer for the campus newspaper, the Desert Breeze. In a 1956 editorial, Rogers lashed out at inequities in the school’s grading system.
“I was 17 years old and a crusader in those days,” Rogers told the Sun for a story published July 5, 2009. “I came from a family of Methodist ministers who were always on one crusade or another.”
Rogers graduated from LVHS in 1956. Six years later, he earned degrees from the University of Arizona in accounting and law. Rogers earned his masters of law from the University of Southern California in 1963 and his doctorate of law from the University of Arizona in 1998. Over the years, Rogers also has received honorary degrees from UNLV, the University of Arizona, Idaho State University, Kentucky Wesleyan College and Carroll College.
Rogers briefly taught legal writing at the University of Illinois Law School in 1964. But teaching was not his true calling and he returned to Las Vegas that year and practiced law for 24 years.
Rogers stopped practicing law in 1988 to focus full time on his radio and television holdings.
The first indication that Rogers had an interest in running schools came in 2000, when he volunteered to be Clark County superintendent following the retirement of Brian Cram. Instead, Carlos Garcia was hired.
When Garcia left five years later, Rogers led a group of Southern Nevada business leaders in an effort to recruit New York City Public Schools administrator Eric Nadelstern. The Clark County School Board instead went with in-house candidate (the former chief financial officer and interim superintendent) Walt Rulffes as superintendent.
Rogers years later admitted that Rulffes was the best man for the job, and over the years, he and Rulffes worked closely to reduce the remediation rate among local high school students who went on to state colleges and universities. Rogers also vowed that when he sought more money for colleges, it would not come at the expense of K-12.
Rogers’ efforts to improve higher education started a couple of years before he was chancellor. Early in 2002, Rogers met with Don Snyder, then-president of Boyd Gaming and now UNLV president, to explore the possibility of UNLV mounting its first-ever capital campaign.
“Jim Rogers was passionate about education because he knew an investment in education was an investment in the future,” Snyder said in a statement Sunday. “Jim was one of the first individuals I met when arriving in Nevada more than 25 years ago. We partnered on numerous community projects, including UNLV’s first-ever comprehensive capital campaign. We spoke Friday and celebrated a long history of mutual respect and collaboration.”
Consultants who were hired to access the university’s probability of successfully completing a $250 million drive found that UNLV lacked the ability to mount such huge multiyear project and that the school lacked the community’s support.
Undaunted, Rogers instead went forward with a $500 million goal. It would take more than eight years, but the campaign, bolstered by donations from such major benefactors as the Engelstad Family Foundation and the Lincy Foundation, raised $537 million.
“The university and higher education have lost a friend and an advocate. We are grateful for his support and dedication over the years,” Snyder said. “It was an honor to know Jim and call him my friend.”
In May 2004, after then-Chancellor Nichols stepped down because of health reasons, Rogers became the volunteer interim chancellor. Rogers almost immediately asserted his authority. He banned campus presidents from hiring lobbyists for the 2005 legislative session in favor of one system-wide lobbyist to represent their collective interests.
He was appointed permanent chancellor — the ninth in the system’s history — by the Regents in May 2005. In June 2006, Rogers’ contract was extended to 2009 following a positive public evaluation.
By 2007, it was clear that despite the progress higher education was making under Rogers, his relationship with the Regents was going to be rocky at best. In January of that year, Rogers resigned his position, but three days later, he changed his mind and resumed his chancellor duties.
In March, Rogers got the goat of several Regents by telling state lawmakers he would support a state constitutional amendment to have his bosses appointed instead of elected. In June 2009, Rogers stepped down; the Regents appointed Dan Klaich as Rogers’ successor and Rogers went back to running his media empire full time.
His hobbies included collecting classic cars. Rogers boasted a collection of more than 160 vintage automobiles.
Rogers is survived by his wife, Beverly (formerly Barlow); three children from a prior marriage, Suzanne Rogers Plant, Kimberly Rogers Cell, and Perry Rogers; and eight grandchildren.
Ed Koch is a former longtime Sun reporter. Las Vegas Sun librarian Rebecca Clifford-Cruz contributed research to this report.