Among West Virginia’s flamboyant politicos, hardly anyone (except maybe A. James Manchin) matched the off-the-wall career of H. John Rogers, who grabbed headlines as he ran unsuccessfully for nearly everything.
During a 1980 campaign appearance in Charleston in front of television cameras, he startled everyone by slugging WSAZ-TV reporter Loren Tobia.
Another time, at a Democratic national convention, he joked that he had a bomb, and was chased by security guards.
His quirky life ended at age 79 last weekend in Wheeling Hospital — and even his death was unusual. According to his brother, the New Martinsville ex-lawyer had been charged with “intimidating a public officer” and was held at the Moundsville regional jail, where he protested that he was denied crucial medication. He was transferred to the hospital and died Feb. 1.
I told his brother that the public officer shouldn’t have felt intimidated, because everything Rogers did was at least halfway whimsical.
Rogers grew up in my hometown of Reader in Wetzel County, where he lived over a store. Everyone called him Herbie. He sometimes said that three residents of that building attended Harvard.
He was a track star and attended WVU on a track scholarship. Highly intelligent, he was in Phi Beta Kappa and went to Harvard law school. One night he showed up at my Charleston home with a classmate, saying they had dropped out of Harvard and were hitchhiking to Mexico.
But he returned to Harvard, earned a law degree in 1966, and became a clerk for federal Judge Robert Maxwell of Elkins. With friends, he formed a troupe performing ancient medieval morality plays with characters wearing masks of God, Satan, archangels and the like. It upset some West Virginia church congregations.
Over the decades, he filed for governor, state Supreme Court, state Senate and county prosecutor. He also earned two divinity degrees and became a part-time minister specializing in Christian relationship to Jews. He made pilgrimages to the Holy Land.
Rogers often drew controversy. Years ago, he launched a cross-country Reader Marathon, which ended tragically when some runners died in extreme September heat. Retired newsman H. Ray Evans sent a note saying:
“I remember his catastrophic West Virginia marathon, his highly unusual return to Harvard to finish his law degree after working as a prison guard, and his deep dive into religion and philosophy. I also have vague memories of writing stories about his West Virginia Theater Corp. that traveled around putting on morality plays and scaring the bejeezus out of local folks up the hills and hollers.”
In 2009, Rogers was kicked out of a New Martinsville coffee shop. The next day, he filed a mental health complaint, and the coffee shop owner was hauled to a Wheeling psychiatric clinic — but quickly released. The Lawyer Disciplinary Board accused Rogers of abusing his legal authority, and the state Supreme Court disbarred him in 2013.
Now his wild life is over. West Virginia has lost an unquenchable character.