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The Jim Rogers wasn’t afraid to share his fortune or his opinions

Let me tell you something about Las Vegas. It’s positively festooned with flimsy philanthropy.

For every Engelstad Family and Lincy foundation that quietly cut big checks, a dozen cardboard characters talk a good game about charity, but are seldom seen prying open their purses. That phenomenon isn’t unique to Las Vegas, but the casino industry’s audacious display of wealth as a marketing concept accentuates the disparity.

With remarkable and laudatory exceptions, many Vegas super swells are afflicted with what my old boxing pal Irving Rudd liked to call “deep pockets, short arms.” They’re noted for announcing generous gifts, then reconsidering, then yanking back their donation.

Jim Rogers made certain no one would be able to say that about him.

There were plenty of reasons to disagree with James E. Rogers during his life, and there’s no shortage of folks who were enraged by his politics and the deafening volume of his considered opinions, but no one can say he failed to put his money where his mouth is.

That’s one of several saving graces of the late Rogers’ just-pressed autobiography, “Now, Let Me Tell You Something…” You know how the story ends, not with Rogers’ death last June after a battle with cancer, but with the knowledge that Nevada’s curmudgeonly education champion didn’t take it with him. He gave, and that generous legacy continues through the efforts of his widow Beverly Rogers and The Rogers Foundation.

Published by the College Law Association of the University of Arizona and organized and edited by UNLV English professor Heather Lusty, the book is a nicely structured melange of memoir from Rogers and tributes from many of those who crossed paths with him in the law, politics, education, and business.

Those who wondered where Rogers picked up his no-nonsense style will learn it began with his father, Reynolds Electrical and Engineering Co. executive Frank Rogers, who was “distant, stoic, tough as nails, yet very kind. The hundreds of employees who worked for him had great respect for him, and he always seemed to care about his employees’ professional and personal lives. I’m not sure of all the effects the distance between my father and me caused, but I do know that early on I had a need and desire to go into my own business, to be my own man, and make as much money as I could for myself.”

He did just that. From working as a gas pump jockey with future gaming attorney legend Bob Faiss to being the teenage owner of the JR Janitorial and Lawn Service Co., Rogers hurled himself into business, college, the law, and eventually the public eye.

Although the book takes a pass on several controversies in Rogers’ personal life, and gives a nodding acknowledgment of his bruising legal and business style, it also contains plenty of candor and a decided lack of sentimentality. “I’ve never felt the problems I had were caused by anyone other than me,” he writes. “I’ve spent a lot of time recently thinking about the mistakes I’ve made over the years, and the bad things that have happened to me. I can’t remember any one of those bad results I didn’t cause. Every mistake I’ve made, I’ve paid for in some way.”

There’s ample insight into Rogers’ mentors and legal and business influences, an admission of his own unquenchable desire to get ahead rather than just practice law, tales of acquiring the local NBC affiliate and eventually using it as a bully pulpit for his obsession with news and editorial commentary.

But it’s when Rogers turned his formidable intellect and fiery personalty toward Nevada’s higher education system, at first as a booster and eventually as a major donor and the chancellor of the entire system, that it becomes clear he was more than just another agenda-driven player here.

“I don’t believe in doing things in half measures, and I never ask someone for money if I haven’t got my own skin in the game,” he writes.

Among many contributions:

Rogers gave $135 million to the law school at the University of Arizona that bears his name. It’s the largest gift to a law school in American history.

He gave or pledged $28.5 million to UNLV’s Boyd School of Law, donated another $20 million to Idaho State University.

A few months before his death, Jim and Beverly announced a $10 million gift to UNLV’s Black Mountain Institute. Another big contribution will be announced next week.

Just this past week, auction proceeds from Rogers’ car collection generated $9.5 million to benefit their education foundation.

The money will end up paying for scholarships that will change the lives of students and their families.

That’s part of what separates Rogers from so many who have done half as much with twice the bankroll: He could be a real SOB when it came to defending a client or cutting his piece of the pie in a growing Las Vegas, but when he said he was going to give back to the community that had been so good to him, he sure meant it.

Jim Rogers fought to improve the quality of education in the state. His generosity, and the dedication of his wife Beverly to the cause, ensures that fight will continue.

That’s a legacy worth remembering, and at the heart of what makes “Now, Let Me Tell You Something…” well worth reading.

John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday. Email him at Smith@reviewjournal.com or call 702-383-0295. Follow him on Twitter @jlnevadasmith.

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