Interview with Orville Rogers

This 99-year-old runner explains how his Christian faith moved him to serve in the military and donate upwards of $34 million

Charitable giving in America is not just the province of the super-wealthy. Gifts from successful individuals who are far from the top 1 percent are crucial. And an important chunk of our total giving comes from donors who give staggering percentages of their personal income to causes dear to their heart.

One such donor is Orville Rogers, a 99-year-old Texan who grew up on a farm in rural Oklahoma after being abandoned by his father at the age of six. He learned to fly in World War II, and he became a commercial pilot for Braniff Airways. A thrifty liver, and aggressive and astute investor, he translated modest salaries into millions in stocks and land. Motivated by his deep Baptist faith, he then quietly became a heavy donor. He has given away at least $34 million, with more to come.

Rogers is also a marvel of physical fitness. He started running at age 50 and now holds 11 age-group world records. He has his eyes on records in the 100-104-year-old category—including field events like the high jump, shotput, and javelin.

At his Dallas home, Philanthropy spoke with Rogers about his military experience, his investments, the reasons for exercising, why he gives, and his faith in God, whom he credits for all the good in his long, adventurous life.

Philanthropy: When were you born?

Rogers: November 28, 1917, so this year I’ll be 100, good Lord willing. I asked God for a lot in life. I wanted a beautiful wife, and a wonderful family, and a good occupation. But I never asked God for a long life, or fame, or riches, and I’ve gotten all three.

Philanthropy: You spent your career as an airline pilot. How did that come about?

Rogers: I’d wanted to be a pilot since I knew what an airplane was. I was named for Orville Wright, after all. But in college I decided that God wanted me in some kind of religious work, so I went to seminary planning to enter church or missionary service. But just after I enrolled, the U.S. government held the first draft preceding World War II. So help me, my number was the seventh one drawn out of the big fishbowl. I asked if I could get in the Air Corps instead of the walking Army, and they said sure. That did two things: it gave me a free education in flying, and it was God’s way of turning me around from a Christian vocation to service through a layman’s career.

Philanthropy: When you were drafted, the Air Force wasn’t around yet.

Rogers: The Air Force came at the end of World War II. I was in the Army Air Corps training command, instructing other pilots. I stayed in the Reserve, and in 1952 they recalled me for active duty during the Korean conflict. I was assigned to Carswell Air Force Base in Fort Worth where they were flying the biggest airplane in the world—the B-36 bomber. It had ten engines, six reciprocating and four jets. I loved that airplane.

I went from copilot to pilot to airplane commander in about a year, and wound up in charge of a B-36 with atomic-bomb capabilities. We could carry 84,000 pounds of explosives at one time. We were prepared emotionally, physically, in every way to drop an atom bomb on a target if war required that. We were on call 24/7, and I’m very grateful that I never had to answer that call. If I had, my crew’s assigned target would have been on the north side of Moscow.

The sequel to that story is that in 2004, my wife and I were with a party of about 230 people on a mission trip to Russia. We did street witnessing and helped in medical and eyeglass clinics, within five miles of where my target was 52 years before. So instead of death and destruction from above, we were bringing the abundant life found in our Lord.

Philanthropy: What did you think of ­President Harry Truman’s decision to use the atomic bomb?

Rogers: I’m very grateful. In July 1945 when they dropped the atom bomb, I was assigned to a B-17 base for training. In another two months, I would’ve been on my way to the Pacific theater. It probably saved thousands of lives, because the ­Japanese would’ve bitterly fought any conquest of their homeland. They had proved that in their defense of the island chains, which we took only gradually from them at terrible cost. Both sides would’ve had tremendous casualties if we had to invade Japan. I’m convinced the atomic bomb saved lives, on net, instead of taking them. It may have saved my life.

Philanthropy: How did you and your wife Esther Beth approach giving?

Rogers: We had talked about it before we were married. We were both Baptist, and thought tithing was a good idea. We started out. Within a few years, we made a conscious decision to increase that level of giving. We heard an industrialist, R. G. LeTourneau, speak at a church in Dallas, and he described how he and his wife had started out tithing but rapidly increased it to the point where they were living on 10 percent of their income and giving 90 percent to God. We talked this over and decided we could do a lot better than our tithe. We gradually increased it to the point where we were giving a great deal of money to the Lord’s work.

The only reason I’m comfortable telling you this is because Jesus said in his sermon on the mount, “Let your light so shine before men that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.” I’m willing to let my giving be known to people who might be interested, in the hopes that it might inspire them to do good works themselves.

Philanthropy: How did $1.5 million you made during your 40 working years in the military and then Braniff Airways multiply to the point where you could give away $34 million?

Rogers: Being a pilot was a precarious existence. I had to take two physicals and three flying checks every year, and if I failed any of those I was out of a job. So I and most of the other pilots started to invest heavily for a rainy day, plowing as much surplus income as we could into savings. After studying the Wall Street Journal for about six months I opened a stock-market account in 1953. Later I got into land investing, which led to the oil and gas business, and God just blessed it all.

Philanthropy: I heard you were an early investor in Walmart.

Rogers: God doesn’t just shovel out benefits; he expects you to use your brains. I studied Walmart, then invested in it against the advice of my broker, who said it was overpriced. I decided it had huge promise. I accumulated quite a big block of stock in Walmart that I bought for less than a dollar a share; it was worth $70 or $75 a share when I gave it away.

Some Braniff friends and I invested in real estate in northwestern Fort Worth. When we bought about 6,000 acres of farm property up there we didn’t know there was gas under it. Along came the Barnett Shale boom, where they learned how to fracture the limestone to the point where it would economically produce natural gas.

Philanthropy: You say you have given money away “for the Lord’s work.”

Rogers: We were very interested in ­Christian education, and so we supported our church academy, a small seminary called Criswell College, Dallas Baptist University, and Southwestern Seminary. I got interested in Wycliffe in 1965, and we have been large contributors to Bible translators like Wycliffe, JAARS, the Seed Company, and the International Linguistics Center.

Philanthropy: You also got personally involved in Bible translation.

Rogers: I started ferrying airplanes for Wycliffe long before I retired from Braniff, in my off-days and vacation time. In 1965 I met Wycliffe founder Cam Townsend, and he challenged me to raise the money to pay off an airplane that was going to Bogota, Colombia, for missionary work. I did, then delivered it to Bogota. That was the first of some 45 or so ferry flights I did delivering airplanes to South America, the southwest Pacific, and Africa. That was pure joy. Finding I could serve the Lord by flying airplanes was a delightful revelation to me.

Philanthropy: How did you start running?

Rogers: When I was 50 years old I picked up a book called Aerobics written by an Air Force officer named Kenneth Cooper. It sold millions of copies and helped spark today’s exercise revolution. It told of his experience training Air Force recruits in San Antonio, and how exercise helped them to live a better, healthier, and longer life. I started running the next day.

I’ve logged over 42,000 miles. And if you think that’s a lot, let me tell you about two friends of mine. Frank Shorter and Bill Rodgers are both famous marathoners. They came to Dallas about two years ago, and I talked to them at length. At that time they had run 180,000 miles, and were still going. I’m sure they must be over 200,000 by now.

People ask me, “How do your knees hold up?” Dr. Cooper of the Cooper Clinic says it’s commoner to rust out than to wear out. A peer-reviewed study at Stanford University a few years ago found that those who exercised had fewer joint problems than the ones who did not.

Philanthropy: How did you transition to competitive running?

Rogers: I ran locally with the Cross-­Country Club of Dallas for a long time, until I outgrew them. I got interested in national competitive running nine years ago, when I was approaching 90. I looked up the records, and I thought, “Maybe I can do that.” So I had a talk with God, and said, “Lord, I want this. I’ll try to give you all the glory if I’m successful.” Well, I went to ­Boston and set two world records. Subsequently I’ve set a dozen more.

These days I run about eight or ten miles a week. I usually go to the Cooper Clinic Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, and I’ll run two or three miles total, and include a few wind sprints in there to try and keep my speed up. And then I lift weights for about 35 minutes, at Dr. ­Cooper’s strong suggestion.

Philanthropy: I heard you recently discovered a new sibling.

Rogers: It was very dramatic. My father left us when I was young, and my mother took us back to live on her parents’ farm. So for 90 years, I never heard anything from or about my father.

Three years ago, I was sitting at my computer and the phone rang. It said “Bend, Oregon.” I didn’t know anybody from there, so I thought about not answering it. But I did, and this nice lady’s voice came on and asked, “Is this Orville ­Rogers?” I said, “Yes, ma’am.” And she stated right out of the blue, “My name is Sandra, and I am your sister.”

I had no idea that my father had remarried. They had one daughter, and she has three children. We visited each other and just hit it off wonderfully well. She and her family are believers, that’s the icing on the cake.

Her son-in-law is Tom Clarke, who was president of Nike from 1994 to 2000. He took me through Nike headquarters and gave me two or three sets of running gear, shoes, and a jacket. So I’m a proud supporter of Nike now.

Philanthropy: What are some of your goals as you turn 100?

Rogers: I’ve been thinking about that. I’ve never been 100 before, I need to get prepared. I hope to set more running records. And I continue to invest in the stock market. I want to return to God all the assets I can to further his work on earth. We are just stewards for a while, and then we leave. In the sermon on the mount, Jesus said, “Lay up yourselves treasures in heaven, not on earth.” 

Philanthropy: Have you tried to teach giving to others?

Rogers: We taught our children at a very early age that God owns it all, and we just return to him as much as we can given the circumstances and expenses of life. They got the idea.

I determined early on that I was capable of donating more by investing rather than giving all of my earnings away immediately. Young people should not hesitate to accumulate wealth, if they are doing it for God’s work.