OLYMPIC LEGACY: Cheering on the visionaries

Former arena tour guide shares 60-plus years of ‘Olympic legacy’ experience in Lake Placid

Lake Placid resident Jim Rogers gives a tour of the Olympic Center in 2009. (News file photo)

(Editor’s note: This story is part of an “Olympic Legacy” series to celebrate the 90th anniversary of the III Olympic Winter Games at Lake Placid in 1932. What happened that year led to this village hosting the XIII Olympic Winter Games in 1980 and the continuing legacy of training Olympic athletes, inspiring future Olympians and hosting international winter sports events.)

LAKE PLACID — It was Palm Sunday — March 20, 1932 — the first day of spring in AuSable Forks. James Rogers III — better known as Jim to his friends and family — decided it was his turn to enter the world.

No doubt he let everyone know of his arrival, with a booming voice that eventually served him well as a radio announcer.

“God gave me the voice, but my bride says I’ve overused it,” he said Tuesday, April 19.

Lake Placid resident Jim Rogers, right, gives a tour of the Olympic Center in 2009. (News file photo)

It was maple season, and people in AuSable Forks were talking about reorganizing the local baseball team for the summer. Two days later, an early spring snowstorm was the hot topic of conversation. Most were looking forward to warmer weather and preparing for Easter Sunday.

“Say what you will, but we seem to take on a new vigor when we see nature smiling all around us,” stated the March 24, 1932 editorial in the Adirondack Record-Elizabethtown Post. “It is much easier to look on the bright side of things when the robins are back, the buds are coming out, the trout are jumping in the streams and the sun shining on both sides of the fence. This is the promise of Easter — a promise we are always ready to see fulfilled.”

The sun was certainly shining in the Rogers household with their new arrival. The birth announcement was on page 4 of the Record-Post that week.

“Mr. and Mrs. James Rogers are receiving the congratulations of their many friends over the birth of a son (James 3d) who came to their home last Sunday, March 20.”

On page 1 was an announcement that the Olympic Arena in Lake Placid — recently built and used for the III Olympic Winter Games — would be open through April 1 for ice skating. It seems Jim Rogers arrived just as Lake Placid’s Olympic legacy was getting underway.

Jim Rogers, in the back, poses with his wife Keela, in the front, and their children, from left, Nip, Jamie and Kitty, on Sunday, March 20 at St. Eustace Episcopal Church in Lake Placid. It was Jim’s 90th birthday. (Provided photo — John Eldridge)

Jim was part of AuSable Forks royalty, if you can call it that. His great-great-grandfather, James Rogers, had co-founded the J. & J. Rogers Company, which first specialized in iron and then paper. Jim’s father was the superintendent of the company’s sulphite pulp mill in 1932.

But the family business wasn’t for Jim Rogers, and it took a while for him to find a career that fit his personality.

Road to Lake Placid

Jim Rogers was attending high school in AuSable Forks and then transferred to Northwood School in Lake Placid, graduating in 1949.

“My father didn’t think I was doing very well in high school,” Jim said. “He was in a little bit of money at the time, so he decided I ought to be at Northwood.”

In the fall of 1948, Jim’s father was named a trustee of the Northwood School board (Oct. 22, 1948, Lake Placid News). He had attended the school himself from 1918 to 1920 when it was called the Lake Placid School for Boys.

After graduation, Jim decided to attend his parents’ alma mater, Cornell University in Ithaca. His father graduated in 1925, and his mother, Margaret Humeston, had been in the class of 1928, and the couple married on Sept. 4, 1926; she was 20 years old.

“I went off to college and screwed that up,” Jim said. “Then I went off to the Army, came back, thought about going back to college, and did a semester at Cornell again and then I headed out on my own.”

In 1954, Jim traveled to New York City to take part in a testing institute exercise which would help him find a career.

“I decided I’d screwed around enough. Let’s find out what I’m supposed to be doing,” he said.

The best fit? Radio.

“And if they told you that you ought to be a ballet dancer, you wouldn’t have been any more surprised than I was when they told me I ought to be in radio,” he said.

Jim began his first radio job in 1954 at WICY in Malone. By January 1955, he was at WIRY in Plattsburgh, a chain company that operated other stations around the country. After he married Cornelia Messenger — better known as Keela to her friends and family — on June 16, 1956, soon after she graduated from Wells College, they lived in Potsdam, where Jim worked at WPDM. He was back at WIRY in 1958 and spent two years managing two of the company’s radio stations in Florida before moving back to Plattsburgh in March 1960.

Then WIRY opened a radio station in Lake Placid in the fall of 1961 — WIRD — and Jim’s life changed forever.

“This is where I got lucky,” he said.

On Oct. 21, 1961, Jim and his family moved to Lake Placid so he could manage WIRD, which launched in late November. He was glad to be home in the Adirondack Park.

“I just always wanted to live in the Adirondacks,” he said.

Jim was the “new kid in town,” but he successfully negotiated with town of North Elba officials to rent broadcasting space in the Olympic Arena. The rent was $100 a month, and North Elba signed a three-year lease agreement that included an advertising contract worth $1,200 a year (Dec. 13, 1961, Adirondack Daily Enterprise).

“In the process of negotiating with the town, I got to know some of these people,” he said. “And then I started selling on the street and got along well with the people of the community.”

A new radio station in Lake Placid was a big deal, according to Jim.

“You’ve got to realize that Saranac Lake was the important town, and Lake Placid was the sports community but it didn’t have a radio station. It had a weekly newspaper,” he said.

In June 1962, Jim left WIRD to work as a sales representative for WNBZ in Saranac Lake; he eventually bought WNBZ in 1963. But the Rogers family remained living in Lake Placid. Jim and Keela’s three children were all born by this time: 5-year-old James IV, 4-year-old Katherine and 2-year-old Robert — better known as Jamie, Kitty and Nip to their friends and family.

Community service

As soon as they moved to Lake Placid, Jim and Keela Rogers began to volunteer for community groups and projects. Keela was soon active in the Girl Scouts, the local Cancer Committee, Parent Teacher Association and St. Eustace Women’s Guild. Jim was on the front lines of Lake Placid’s Olympic legacy, joining the newly formed Lake Placid Winter Sports Council in December 1961 after an invitation to get involved with the group. He then served as chairman of the Lake Placid Sports Council from 1968 to 1970.

In the spring of 1961, North Elba town attorney Roland “Bob” Urfirer suggested the creation of a local Winter Sports Council, in part, to review sports events and their value to the community, recommend new programs, study existing sports facilities and needed improvements, raise funds and integrate advertising and publicity programs.

On Nov. 14, 1961, the North Elba Town Board approved the Lake Placid Winter Sports Council (Nov. 15, 1961, Adirondack Daily Enterprise). It’s initial members were: J. Bernard Fell, North Elba councilman; Stanley Benham, North Elba Park District manager; Mrs. Lloyd Sanderson, figure skating; Fred Fortune, bobsledding; James Sheffield, speedskating; Stanley Pelkey, school sports; Jack LaHart, skiing; Bud Colby, junior jumpers; Luke Patnode, chamber of commerce; Mayor Robert Peacock, village of Lake Placid; and Roland Urfirer, member at large. More members, including Jim Rogers, would soon join the Council’s movement to use the 1932 Olympic venues and Lake Placid’s winter sports reputation to increase tourism for the community and keep the Olympic legacy alive.

“We were on the world stage, but we were disorganized on the world stage,” Jim said.

The new group would change that. By the spring of 1962, the Lake Placid Winter Sports Council was lobbying the state for improvements to the Whiteface Mountain Ski Center, approving bids for speedskating, ski jumping, bobsledding and Alpine skiing events. But the group had even bigger ambitions.

By June 1962, the Lake Placid Winter Sports Council announced plans to bid for the 1968 Olympic Winter Games.

“Mayor Robert J. Peacock received the invitation to bid for the Games and passed it on to the Lake Placid Winter Sports Council,” the Lake Placid News reported on June 28, 1962.

Lake Placid lost the Olympic bid to Grenoble, France, in 1964, but Winter Sports Council members did not give up on other international sports events or the Winter Olympics. They created the Kennedy Games, held from 1969 to 1971; and landed the FISU Winter World University Games for 1972, the World Bobsled Championships and World Biathlon Championships for 1973, and the VIII World Winter Games for the Deaf in 1975.

“They were all precursors to the final deal with the International Olympic Committee,” Jim said. “All of it prepared us for 1980. Number one, it prepared us on an international level. But you have to remember, and you have to realize, that 1980 was a quantum jump for the Winter Olympics, a quantum jump.”

In 1974, members of the Lake Placid Sports Council finally succeeded in landing a second Winter Olympics for 1980.

1980 and beyond

Jim Rogers played an active role in the Lake Placid Sports Council, helping with the bid committees and the international games the community attracted. He was the chairman of ceremonies for the 1972 FISU Games and chairman of the Division of Protocol for the 1980 Lake Placid Olympic Organizing Committee.

Asked if there was one memory from the 1980 Olympics that stood out, he said CBS News correspondent Jim Axelrod asked him the same question in 2014 for a segment on “60 Minutes Sports.”

“And I said I couldn’t remember any specific event,” Jim said. “I mean I remember being turned away from the door at the Soviet Union game because, by then, even though I had a pass, they were past what was legal to be in there.”

There were a few thousand more people in the Fieldhouse for the U.S.-Soviet Union hockey game on Feb. 22, 1980, than was technically allowed. It became known as the “Miracle on Ice” after a young U.S. squad beat the heavily-favored Soviets 4-3.

Despite a desire not to attend the game with U.S. Vice President Walter Mondale, LPOOC President J. Bernard Fell took Jim’s advice and went to the game.

“He was not going to sit next to the Democrat vice president of the United States,” Jim said. “I said, ‘You’ve got to go. You cannot insult the president or the vice president.’ He said, ‘And when it was over, I found my arms wrapped around the Democrat vice president of the United States, his arms wrapped around me, and we’re jumping up and down like a couple of kids.’ He thanked me for making sure he went.”

For Jim Rogers, the biggest memory of the 1980 Winter Olympics was working with the community members that made up the Lake Placid Olympic Organizing Committee.

“I had a relationship with some of the finest people I’ve ever known for a number of years,” Jim said. “Nobody could beat the quality of Bernie Fell or Ron MacKenzie or Norm Hess.”

By the early 2000s, Jim was using his vast experience in Lake Placid’s sports world, including the 1980 Games, to tell stories about the community’s Olympic legacy. He began giving tours of the Olympic Center with David Heim, who operated a virtual reality concession in the building, and Howard Riley, a former newspaper editor who also worked for the LPOOC in 1980. The tour included the 1932 and 1980 rinks and looking out the window of the Herb Brooks Arena to see the speedskating oval where Eric Heiden won five gold medals in 1980, the ski jumps and the Olympic Sports Complex and Mount Van Hoevenberg, home of cross-country skiing and biathlon courses and the sliding sports track for bobsled and luge.

“The first thing I did was brag about me,” Jim said about the tour. “And I always started it out with, ‘My name is Jim Rogers. I prefer to be Jim because Mr. Rogers is dead. But this is my neighborhood.’ And it would go on from there. That always got a smile.”

The tour included watching the last 2 minutes of “the hockey game” on Feb. 22, 1980.

“And then I’d remind them that wasn’t the game that decided who got the gold medal,” Jim said.

After beating the Soviets, the U.S. team played Finland in the gold medal game, winning 4-2.

Asked how his life would be different if Lake Placid never hosted the Olympics, Jim said, “I haven’t a clue. I’ve often thought that there were places that I passed up before then. It never occurred to me that there would be anything but Lake Placid once I got here.

“And I probably think I would have stayed in radio like I did. I might even not have been so busy with Lake Placid that I could have made some money in the radio business and ended up not having to sell because I couldn’t handle the debt anymore.”

Jim and Keela sold WNBZ in 1998. Over the years, he’s been active in local government, serving as a village trustee and town justice, and a number of community service groups. He was inducted into the Lake Placid Hall of Fame in 1992, and Keela was inducted in 1994. As for Jim’s part in Lake Placid’s Olympic legacy, he doesn’t see himself as one who chooses a vision for the village’s future. Rather, he sees himself as a team player rather than a coach.

“I am not much of a visionary. Most of what I was doing was going along for the ride and being a part of it. Yes, part of the planning and even vision, but I was more somebody they floated the vision by. I think my leadership, if it’s ever been called leadership, is mostly as a cheerleader, encourage people who are really excited about doing something. … Even Ron MacKenzie needed cheering up sometimes.”

Jim turned 90 years old on Sunday, March 20, the first day of spring, and his birthday was celebrated at St. Eustace Episcopal Church. Wearing a white sash that said, “90 YEARS LOVED!”, he was joined by friends and family: Keela, Jamie, Kitty and Nip.

“It’s been a wonderful ride, and I am eternally grateful for the opportunities,” Jim said. “And thank God I had a woman who would put up with it. … I was never home. Our kids are wonderful and for some reason they think I was a pretty good dad.”

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