Sunday, June 15, 2014 | 6 p.m.
One of the last times I talked with Jim Rogers, he abruptly steered the conversation toward classic automobiles.
“Does your uncle still own that El Camino?” he asked during a conversation at a charity gala a while back.
“Sold it,” I said. “About seven years ago.”
“Finally,” he said. “How many miles?”
“A little more than 413,000,” I said. “It might be a record for El Caminos.”
“That’s what preventative maintenance will do for you,” he said, grinning.
The car Rogers asked about was a white 1967 El Camino owned by my uncle, James Katsilometes, who worked for Rogers for a time in Idaho in the early 2000s. Whenever Uncle James would scoop up Rogers from the airport, it was in that car, one that Rogers eventually claimed “had 340 million miles on it.”
Among his many holdings, Rogers owned an estate in a foothill suburb known as Indian Hills just outside Pocatello. The rolling, grassy ranch property looked like a scene out of an Old West movie, and those cowboy films also were a passion of Rogers.
I remembered all of this when I heard that Rogers, as charitable as he was wealthy, had died Saturday night of cancer at age 75. Rogers lived in Las Vegas since age 14. He founded the Sunbelt Communications media empire, which was later redubbed Intermountain West Communications, which owned Las Vegas NBC affiliate KSNV Channel 3.
He was a wealthy individual, famously so, serving as chancellor of the state Board of Regents from 2005-2009, donating his $23,000 salary back to the university system. For decades, Rogers used his position of prominence and wealth to support education.
He donated hundreds of millions of dollars to universities, including $28.5 million to UNLV’s College of Law and a staggering $137 million to the University of Arizona College of Law, subsequently named in his honor.
Another $20 million was given to the Idaho State University Foundation in Pocatello, a massively generous sum for that Big Sky Conference institution. He also made significant contributions to Carroll College in Helena, Mont., and the last time I tried to reach Rogers at his home in Las Vegas, last weekend, his family was planning one more trip to Montana.
Rogers and my family were connected by a shared affection of old vehicles and the restoration of such. My uncle was Rogers’ mechanic and property manager at that Indian Hills estate. Many of the cars in Rogers’ auto collection, which at the time numbered nearly 200, were stored in sheds on that big patch of dirt. Whenever you wanted to see Rogers’ eyes light up, you would ask about those cars.
“They made them beautiful,” he would say, “and they were unique."
If you could learn a lot about an individual by his or her hobbies, you gained an appreciation for Rogers as he talked of this collection. As a child in Los Alamos, N.M., where his father worked in the city’s nuclear laboratories, Rogers was already deeply fascinated by vehicles.
“When I was 7 years old, there wasn’t a car on the road I didn’t know. I don’t care whether it was the make, model, year, horsepower, transmission, anything,” Rogers said during an interview a decade ago in his Channel 3 office. “I was always fascinated by cars. And when I was 14, my dad bought me a 1940 Ford two-door sedan.”
That became the make and model of car to start the Sunbelt collection. In the years since, Rogers and the operations manager of Sun Belt Auto Museum, Michael Pratt, snapped up a mind-blowing array of vintage vehicles, including a 1926 REO bus, a ’31 Cadillac 452A V-16 convertible, a ’40 Ford Woodie station wagon, a ’41 Cadillac convertible, a ’49 Chrysler Town & Country convertible, a ’51 Mercury Convertible, a ’53 Buick Skylark, a ’53 Oldsmobile Fiesta, a ’53 Chevrolet Corvette (one of only 314 ever built and one of approximately 100 still in existence), a ’57 Chevrolet Bel Air and a ’72 Rolls Royce Corniche convertible.
It might seem a mere list of old cars to the uninitiated, but run those models’ makes and years by a classic-car buff. “Wow,” or some variation, would be the response.
Rogers’ collection was fueled by nostalgia.
“After you get that first car, you bought the cars that your parents couldn’t afford but that you always wanted and envied,” he said. “I love the ’49 Buick Roadmaster Riviera, but I always wished we could have owned a ’49 Cadillac Coupe de Ville, which has the same body exactly except it had the fins on it. So I bought one of those.”
The Sunbelt Museum is still in operation, on Gragson Avenue just south of Channel 3 studios. For years, the collection has not been open to the public. Rogers allowed special events to be held inside the buildings that housed the vehicles.
But this year, he did say that he had an idea to somehow move that museum forward and make it more available to the public. Around that time, in January, he made a ripple in the classic-car culture by offering 14 fully restored, classic vehicles for sale.
Rogers and Pratt spend a lot of time wheeling and dealing these wheels in a collection that was estimated to be worth $5 million to $6 million.
In a conversation I’ll always remember, I once asked Rogers which car he’d take for a spin if given the choice.
He paused and said, “I don’t drive any of them. I don’t have the time. I wish I did have the time. But what I do enjoy is bringing people down here, running tours. What is really interesting is to invite people who are my age or even a few years younger to come through and say, ‘My father had this, or my grandfather had that, and it was a beautiful car.’ ”
I said that one day we’d cruise up and down the Strip, just once, in a vintage car. “Pick one!” Rogers said.
He really liked the ’40 Ford, but I might have fired up that ’67 El Camino.