John W. Rogers Jr. stood behind his father’s wheelchair and pointed up to a plaque on the wall.
“Everyone’s here to honor you,” the prominent businessman told his father, John W. Rogers Sr., ’48. The plaque affixed to the wall in the main classroom hallway of the Law School features a photo and biographical information of both the elder Rogers and his first wife, the late Jewel C. Stradford Lafontant, ’46.
The Law School held a lunchtime banquet on October 19 to honor the family, after Rogers Jr., who is a University Trustee, made a significant donation to name the Director of Admissions Office after his parents. Rogers Jr. is the Founder, Chairman, and CEO of Ariel Investments, which manages assets of $4.7 billion, and Chair of the Board of Directors of the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools, which he attended through high school.
John Rogers Sr. was one of the original Tuskegee Airmen, the first squadron of African-American pilots in the U.S. military. As an Airman, he flew 120 successful combat missions. He is a retired Cook County Juvenile Court judge and founding partner of the law firm Rogers, Rogers and Strayhorn. He earned the Congressional Gold Medal in 2007.
Lafontant, who died in 1997, was the first black woman to graduate from the Law School and the first woman and the first African American to hold the post of U.S. Deputy Solicitor General. She held leadership positions in the Department of State, as Ambassador at Large and Coordinator for Refugee Affairs, and was U.S. representative to the United Nations in 1972. She was the first black woman on several corporate boards and lead attorney before the Supreme Court for Beatrice Lynum v. Illinois, which set the case law for the famous 1966 Miranda case. When she died, a New York Times obituary noted her leadership of civil rights groups like the Congress of Racial Equality and the sit-ins she participated in during the 1940s to fight racial discrimination at restaurants in the Loop.
Both Judge Rogers and Lafontant encountered racial discrimination throughout their careers, and the Law School was not always the easiest place for them in the 1940s, their son said, because of the attitudes of some professors and students. Even so, they loved the Law School and recognized its importance in their lives.
Lafontant was initially discouraged from attending the Law School by administrators, but would not take no for an answer, said her niece, Leslee Stradford, who flew in from California to attend the event.
“This is the school she wanted to go to, and this is where she was going.”
Stradford was one of several members of the Rogers extended family who came to the event. The head table included Judge Rogers, Rogers Jr., Judge Rogers's wife Gwendolyn Rogers, AM '53, who helped orchestrate the event, and Rogers Jr.’s daughter Victoria, a 2008 graduate of the Lab Schools.
“This is an honor, particularly because when I was growing up, we had so few individuals of African-American descent who were honored in any way, or even acknowledged,” Stradford said.
Besides relatives, the room was filled with various leaders and dignitaries who wanted to honor Judge Rogers and Lafontant. U.S. District Court Judge Rebecca Pallmeyer, '79, called Lafontant a personal hero.
Many years ago, “I learned she was a University of Chicago graduate,” Pallmeyer said. “That made me really proud.” As a public servant herself, Pallmeyer “loved the fact that she was a government official at a time when there were relatively few women of any race, especially African -Americans” in those positions.
The roster of attendees demonstrated how connected the family is to those who are in leadership positions today. For example, U.S. District Court Judge Sharon Johnson Coleman, who was in attendance, worked with Judge Rogers in juvenile court before he retired, met Lafontant in the early '90s, and in 2010 received the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Stradford Award, named for Lafontant’s father, a prominent attorney. She knows Rogers Jr. through mutual friends, including U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, and both are Leadership Greater Chicago fellows.
Many others in the Green Lounge on Friday knew the family much better, Coleman said, but “I’m equally sure my admiration for their achievements and service to the community is as high as anyone in the room.”
The program included a conversation between Rogers Jr. and Dean Michael Schill, who told the crowd that, “the more I’ve read about John Rogers's parents, I’m just in awe of their achievements.” It also featured a videotaped message from Secretary Duncan, who said, “Congratulations to my best friend, John Rogers.”
In the conversation between Schill and Rogers, Rogers explained that both his parents talked their way into the Law School, where they met on the first day of class.
“They wanted to go to the best school,” he said. “They knew this was one of the greatest institutions in the world.”
He remembered his mother as a world traveler and an optimist, someone who thought everything was possible and wanted to see what the world had to offer. His dad, he said, smiling at his father, seated just a few feet away, was respected as a “tough but fair” judge, one who taught him that “you show up on time, and you do what you say you’re going to do.”
Schill asked Rogers how institutions, both in education and business, can increase diversity. Rogers said these “anchor institutions” in a city – such as the University of Chicago – must go out of their way to do business with minority firms and suppliers, thereby creating wealth in those communities.
Schill even squeezed in a few questions about the upcoming presidential election. Rogers is a well-known friend of President Barack Obama. He predicted Obama will be reelected, and said he thought he’d face less opposition for his policies in his second term.
After the program and lunch concluded, the extended Rogers, Lafontant, and Stradford families lingered to spend time together and enjoy the moment. Now, whenever they’re near the Law School, they can come see the plaque honoring their loved ones, hung between two other very important plaques: one for Sophonisba Breckinridge, Class of 1904, the first female graduate, and another for Earl Dickerson, '20, the first African-American graduate.