Former pilot, senior runner finishes strong

By Zach Warner | DFW Newsflash | May 2017

Orville Rogers has never been one to run from a challenge. On the contrary, Rogers’ service to his country, mission work for the church and his athletic involvement over the course of his storied life have proven quite the opposite.

Running toward challenges has only made him stronger.

In fact, competitive running is a big part of Rogers’ life, earning him numerous records and international fame. It’s not something the Dallas resident reflects on as a bygone activity of his youth, but is something at which he continues to excel, even at age 99.

Rogers, who served in World War II, flew missions during the Korean War and spent 31 years as a pilot for Braniff, took up running at age 50, mainly as a means of staying in shape. He went on to enter marathons a few years later, eventually entering national competitions in track events as a spry 90-year-old.

Since then, the former Air Force captain has set 16 world records, ranging in events from the 60 meters to 3,000 meters. He doesn’t intend to hang up his running shoes just yet, even as he approaches the century mark.

“I hope to go to [Landover, Md.] a year from now for the actual [National Masters] indoor track meet when I’m 100 years old,” Rogers said, speaking in Dallas to an audience at the Frontiers of Flight Museum in conjunction with the release of a book he wrote about his life titled The Running Man: Flying High for the Glory of God. “There are virtually no records in either track or field [for age 100] so who knows?

“If I’m still alive and kicking, I plan to enter about five running events and five field events in both the indoor championship and outdoor championship next year, so I could have 10, 15, 20 world records; who knows? That’s blue sky thinking, but why not have good objectives, good goals and endeavor to reach your challenges?”

There was a time in the early 1990s when he was in his 70s that his times inexplicably slowed down. He went from running a mile at a top speed of around 7 minutes and 30 seconds to times that dropped to 10, 11 and then 12 minutes.

His doctors tested him and tried different things in his running technique and conditions, but eventually found out through an EKG that Rogers had developed a serious coronary disease. Although he had never experienced chest pain across his many miles of running by the time he was in his mid-60s, he underwent six muscle bypass procedures in 1993.

“There’s nothing known to man totally protecting against coronary disease, whether it’s medicine, surgery or marathon running,” said Dr. Ken Cooper, who wrote the book Aerobics in the late 1960s and who has worked with Rogers in his training for many years. “But it does help you survive major problems, such as the stroke Rogers had in 2011. It only set him back for a short period of time.

“He recovered quite rapidly from that stroke. On and on, he’s made some amazing recoveries, done some amazing things. He’s now run over 42,000 miles.”

That love of running began the day after Rogers read Cooper’s book in 1968. He’s still competing, even pulling off comebacks in races against slightly younger runners. At the National Masters Indoor Championships this past February in Albuquerque, N.M., Rogers overcame a slow start in the 60-meter dash to beat out 92-year-old Dixon Hemphill by the narrowest of margins: 18 seconds flat to 18.05.

Rogers owns many records in the age groups 85-89, 90-94 and 95-99. His most memorable achievement was at age 90 when he broke the 1,600-meter time for his age group by a minute and a half, then beat the 800-meter record by 30 seconds.

“It was very gratifying to set a world record in the 800 meters by about 30 seconds or so, but I slaughtered the one mile world record,” Rogers said. “It’s still the world record for men over 90.”

The accomplishment came just two weeks after he lost his wife of 65 years, Esther Beth. All the plans were in place for him to compete in Boston, including hotel reservations for Rogers and his wife, when her untimely death occurred. It took some soul-searching, but family convinced him to go ahead with the competition.

“My world crashed,” Rogers said. “Some of you who’ve been through that; you know the experience. If you haven’t, there’s no way to describe it. I talked to my children and they said, ‘Yeah, go ahead and run if you want to, she would want you to do that.’ So I did.”

Training and preparation is a big key to success in running. Rogers received plenty of mental preparation when serving in the military. After World War II, Rogers stayed in the reserves and was called to duty in 1952 during the Korean War, stationed at Carswell Air Force Base in Fort Worth. He became commander of a B-36 for about a year. With a crew of 15 people, the aircraft is capable of carrying two atomic weapons.

“I was on a select crew for part of that tour of duty,” Rogers said. “A select crew was defined as a crew in the strategic air command that was trained, equipped and mentally, intellectually and morally prepared to drop an atom bomb on any foreign aggressor. My crew’s target was about five miles north of Moscow before we were broken up. I can’t tell you how grateful I was that that never happened.”

52 years later, Rogers had a different type of mission to that same area. He and his wife were part of a missionary group of 217 people who traveled by canals and rivers from St. Petersburg, Russia to Moscow, helping set up health clinics with doctors and nurses. The group also distributed Bibles to people in the area and Rogers helped administer preliminary checkups at the clinic.

On the last day of the trip, Rogers was part of a team that treated approximately 50 people at a clinic about five miles from the location of his crew’s bombing target 52 years earlier.

“I was very grateful to be a part of a group of people that was carrying in the Word of Life, eternal, abundant life on the horizontal plane rather than death and destruction from above,” he said.

It was not the first time Rogers and his wife were willing to travel to the other side of the world for a missionary cause. Rogers ferried 46 missionary planes, approximately 26 of those overseas. In 1990, the two set out in a plane to Indonesia. It took 72 hours of flying time and was over 10,000 miles. The first three legs of the trip were all more than 15 hours of straight flying.

The stretch from Hawaii to Tarawa was 17 hours with 20 hours worth of fuel, and they hit radio dead spots over the Pacific. Rogers kept trying to radio to various locations without a response, and he could sense his wife was getting anxious.

“I took my headset off, laid it down, laid down my microphone, and I reached over and gave her a great big hug,” Rogers said. “I said, ‘Honey, when you married me, did you ever think you’d be having this much fun?'”

The adventures have been a fun ride for Rogers, whether gliding through the air or running on the ground. He had the idea of writing a book about his life, and publishers like Cindy Burns were on board once they heard the content of his story.

“I thought, ‘We need to get a great writer for this,'” Burns said. She contacted writer Barbara Norris, who in turn wrote the book from interviews with Rogers. “She worked for months with Orville to get his story just right and she did a magnificent job.

“Dr. Ken Cooper took the time to contribute and write the book’s forward, which made it absolutely magic.”

Cooper, who has known Rogers for nearly 46 years, continues to be impressed with the man who took his book to heart and in the process showed how exercise bolsters quality of life even in the later years.

“I’ve met some amazing people over the last 60 years practicing medicine, but I can say Orville and Esther Beth Rogers are two of the most amazing people I’ve met,” Cooper said. “We’re doing studies on this man to determine what makes him run and why he’s slowed down immensely the aging process.”

Rogers said he does not know how many more years of life he has left, but he wants to make sure he makes the most of his remaining days.

“My concern now is that I finish well, that I finish strong,” he said. “I’ve run probably 50 to 75 races, and in finishing, I’ve noticed sometimes people falter at the end. I can’t understand that.

“I want to cross that goal line as fast as I started the race. That’s my hope and prayer to God that I not fail Him or my family and friends, and that I’ll be faithful all the way to the end.”