Dawn Baumgartner Vaughan: DPAC’s VIP Jay Rogers

Feb. 16, 2013 @ 08:14 PM

I settled into my seat for “Mary Poppins” on press night at the Durham Performing Arts Center last week, and flipped through the program. I saw a full-page house ad with a photograph of Jay Rogers, one of the event staff. Oh, that’s nice, I thought. DPAC often recognizes the people who greet and seat folks on show nights. Then I read the accompanying words: “Jay Rogers: June 20, 1940 – January 5, 2013.”
The lights dimmed and the show started, and I tried to compartmentalize the news for later, but I still thought about Rogers and how I had wondered why he wasn’t there at the door on the orchestra side of the first floor, where you walk up the ramp into the theater. The DPAC program stated the performance was dedicated to Rogers, and that he “… had a smile and kind word for everyone who had the pleasure to interact with him. Jay was an accomplished man throughout his life and proud member of the DPAC team.”
No kidding. I’ve interviewed Rogers, not for a DPAC story, but for a story about African-American women who were the real “Help,” a perspective popularized by the novel and subsequent film. Rogers had some important things to say about old Durham. His mother worked for several prominent white Durham families during segregation.
“I learned about their personal business because they talked around the help. We learned a great deal about them, more than they learned about us because they weren’t interested,” he told me a year ago this week. Rogers said that African-Americans had to use a certain demeanor as to not appear “above their station.” His parents told him how to behave when he went downtown.
Rogers said those white families still around have selective memory. “They don’t want to sully themselves. They’ll think, ‘We weren’t like them with our maid.’ They assume it was all very nice – this is the way things were,” he said. “There was no rhyme or reason to segregation. Never has, never will be,” Rogers said.
He also mentioned that he spent his career as an educator. And what an educator he was. Locally, he taught history at Durham High School from 1970-76. Rogers was the first African-American to receive the National Teacher of the Year Award, in 1972. I’m sure it was an advantage to be in Rogers’ class, taught by a man who gave it to you straight.
Months after that interview, I did a double take at DPAC. I meet dozens of people each week and only see a few of them again. But I remembered Rogers, and realized later how I knew him. Next time at DPAC, I greeted him with a friendly hello as I shuffled up the ramp with the rest of the theater-going crowd. It became another cross connection in Durham, which can be a small town sometimes for a mid-sized city.
The DPAC in memoriam also states: “The staff of DPAC will miss Jay terribly. He was an integral and beloved part of our family. His absence will be felt every night he is not here with us.” The DPAC staff isn’t alone. Jay Rogers was an important person not just in Durham, but of Durham and to Durham. There was more to him than just what I’ve written here. To read his obituary, go to http://www.heraldsun.com/obituaries/x1506653839/January-9-2013. It appeared in the Jan. 9 edition of The Herald-Sun.
Dawn Baumgartner Vaughan may be reached at: dvaughan@heraldsun.com or 919-419-6563.