Forty-six years ago, Army Air Corps veteran Orville Rogers picked up and read a copy of the then-controversial book “Aerobics” by medical doctor Kenneth Cooper. So motivated by Cooper, Rogers started running the next day and hasn’t stopped.
Now 96, he averages 10 miles of roadwork a week. Rogers said he is an example of Cooper’s adage that as people age they don’t wear out; they rust out. Nearly half a century of running and maintaining a steady level of physical activity has him all the more convinced that people “don’t stop running because they get old; they get old because they stop running.”
Needless to say, he has no plans to stop—taking his fellow University of Oklahoma graduate Cooper’s advice as a lifelong habit.
Having already set nine world records in track and field events, Rogers will travel from his Dallas home to Winston Salem, N.C. this July to compete in the National Outdoor Masters Championship.
Yet it’s all worthless to him, he said, unless he can glorify the Lord in his efforts. He told as much to a church group of about 500 people recently as he held eight of his medals in his outstretched hands.
The most important race
“‘If I can’t serve God well, if I cannot finish strong, then all of these achievements are worth nothing,’ I told them. And I dropped the medals on the floor,” Rogers said.
Serving the Lord is Rogers’ bottom line. Saved at age 10, Rogers said he got serious about his faith as a senior at the University of Oklahoma. He had a love for airplanes and said he had wanted to be a pilot ever since he learned what an airplane was, but he also felt drawn to ministry. So in the fall of 1940, after earning his degree in mechanical engineering from OU, Rogers enrolled at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.
Three weeks in, Rogers received a draft notice.
“I enrolled in the U.S. Army Air Corps and served four-and-a-half years in World War II, almost all of it as an instructor,” Rogers said. “I figured that was God’s way of telling me I didn’t need to be in vocational ministry.”
Prepared for God’s plans
But God’s placing a heart for ministry in Rogers was not misplaced, nor was it an accident, the pilot said. Instead, the Lord used the training Rogers received in the Air Corps to allow him to serve in ways he otherwise would never have been able to.
During his 31-year-career with Braniff Airways, Rogers would often use vacation time to fly airplanes for Wycliffe Bible Translators and for Southern Baptists to locations around the world, facilitating the spread of the gospel. He also volunteered to fill in for other missionary pilots while they went home on furlough.
Rogers said he thinks the Lord may have been able to use him more as a ministry-minded pilot than if he had become a vocational minister—a message he shares with fellow retirees and veterans.
“There is a place to fit in,” Rogers said. “That’s particularly true of veterans. They can use their job skills in mission work somewhere in the world either on a short-term basis or for a year or more.”
Rogers, who has served as a deacon at First Baptist Dallas since 1953, started the church’s first young marrieds Sunday School class one month after he and his late wife Esther Beth joined the church in 1946—three years into their marriage. Rogers didn’t miss a beat in answering just how long he and Esther Beth were married before her death: 64 years, nine months and five days, he said with a serene smile. That same smile returned when, standing in the parking lot beside his red Camaro, Rogers explained the significance of the “10” on the license plate, which reads “BETH 10.”
“My wife asked me that,” he said, chuckling. “’What’s the 10 for?’ she wanted to know. I told her I picked 10 because she’s a ‘10.’”
Rogers’ commitment to gospel expansion stretches beyond his local church and his missionary service. A library in the MacGorman Chapel and Performing Arts Center on the campus of Southwestern Seminary bears Orville’s and Esther Beth’s name and honors their missionary service and support of the institution, especially highlighting the way flying boosted the ability to get the Bible to other nations. Rogers said he and Esther Beth gladly chose to support and partner with Southwestern because the school consistently turns out graduates who are firmly rooted in the “effective, inerrant Word of God.”
Rogers serves on the Board of Visitors at the seminary. He also served on the Criswell College board when it selected Paige Patterson as its president in 1975.
A bomb, the gospel and Moscow
Rogers’ flying career and life-long ministry service collided in 2004 in a palpable moment of gravity, for which the pilot says he simply has no words.
In 1951, Rogers was called out of the reserves to fly in Europe after tension and conflict had risen in Korea and Russia. For 21 months, Rogers flew a B-36—the largest and most advanced aircraft in the military at the time—armed with an atom bomb comparable to the one dropped in Japan just six years earlier.
“I was on a select crew with an assigned target in Moscow,” Rogers recalled, going on to talk about his great relief at never having to drop the bomb his plane carried. The bomb his plane was prepared to drop, he said, would have decimated an area of about 10 miles.
Fifty-two years later in 2004, Rogers found himself on a mission trip to Russia where he and about 230 other people traveling by ship stopped and witnessed on the streets in three cities on the way to Moscow, handing out English and Russian Bibles. When they docked in Moscow where they set up a medical clinic inside a school building, Rogers realized with great heaviness that he had come full-circle—to a place that had once been his potential target.
“We were within five miles of where my target was in 1952,” Rogers said. Staring off into the distance for a moment, he said there was just no way to express the emotion he felt that day when his mission trip brought him to an unobliterated Moscow.
“Instead of bringing death and destruction from above, we were bringing the Word of God which promises abundant life and eternal life on the horizontal plane,” Rogers said.
Rogers said he logged more than 38,000 hours flying millions of miles. Recently, he rolled over 40,000 miles in running. Both have given him opportunities to serve the Lord and share the gospel, he said. Though he retired from flying at age 79, Rogers said he has no plans to stop running or even days when he’d like to give up. He said he encourages others to “finish strong” and wants to do the same.
“I intend to run as long as the Lord gives me the ability,” Rogers said. “I’m looking forward to 100 so that I can enter a new age bracket, God willing.”
This article first appeared June 24, 2014 in the Southern Baptist Texan, the news journal of the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention. Orville Rogers died Nov. 14, 2019 at the age of 101.