Culture shock for Rogers ’95
His friend’s parents offered Rogers a kiwi, and Rogers wasn’t quite sure what to do.
“I had never seen a kiwi before,” Rogers said in an email. “When we got back to our room, he tossed me one ... and I just bit right into it.”
Although their laughter made him realize he had done something wrong, he refused to concede that he didn’t know what to do.
“I said that the skin was the best part, and I like the tartness of it,” Rogers said.
After six years as the chief of staff to conservative Democrat Heath Shuler, Rogers is now the frontrunner in the race to succeed him. Yet Rogers’ rocky years at Princeton represent a contrast to the connection he has formed with the North Carolina area he grew up in and now seeks to represent in Congress. During his time at the University, he saw his athletic career came to an end due to an injury, took time off from his studies, witnessed his former roommate get arrested for murder and ended up graduating three years after he intended to.
From the onset, Rogers struggled to adjust to the New Jersey, Ivy League culture. The adjustment, he said, was initially “overwhelming.”
“It is hard to fully describe the dichotomy between Robbinsville, North Carolina — a town in one of the smallest, poorest and most rural counties in the state — and Princeton,” he explained.
Rogers entered the University as a member of the Class of 1992 but obtained his degree as a member of the Class of 1995. Friends noted that some of the time he took off was for personal reasons and related to a football injury, while reports in an article in The Daily Princetonian in 1990 suggest that Rogers was forced to serve a one-year suspension for disciplinary and academic reasons. Official University files related to academic and disciplinary suspensions are sealed until after the student is deceased.
Rogers declined to comment on the specific reasons why his graduation was delayed.
“My road to graduation from Princeton may not have been as direct as some, but it was the right road for me and helped shape me into the person I am today,” he said. “I am very fortunate to have had the opportunity to spend my college career at Princeton.”
Rogers explained that the wealth of supportive resources provided by the University played a large role in helping him succeed. He said he particularly benefited from the mentorship and advice he received from former Associate Dean of the College Richard Williams GS ’72.
“[Williams] took me under his wing and provided the guidance I needed to realize my potential and succeed at Princeton,” Rogers said.
Undeterred by the difficult acclimation, Rogers ran for the Class of 1992 president months into his freshman year, basing his campaign on his experience as both student body and senior class president of his high school. Rogers advanced to the runoff but ultimately finished in third place.
Rogers also found support through the close bonds he developed with his fellow students through the football team and other organizations. Rogers entered the University as a 6-foot-4-inch, 245-pound recruited defensive tackle for the freshman football team. But his playing days would be short-lived. A knee injury sustained during a game against Yale sidelined him for the rest of his time at Princeton.
He remained actively involved in athletics as the assistant football coach for Princeton High School and while playing softball for Pete’s Pipers, a local traveling team that was based in Princeton.
Rogers redirected himself to other pursuits, serving as the vice president of the Tiger Inn during his senior year. Patrick Grady ’95, a friend of Rogers and a fellow T.I. officer, said that being officers in the club brought them closer together and that the club was a major part of their life at Princeton.
“Tiger Inn was a special place to me ... [it] provided a sort of home away from home,” Rogers said.
But Rogers’ Princeton years are most notable for his association with Lyle Menendez who gained nationwide publicity during his trial for a high-profile murder. Rogers was Menendez’ roommate and business associate.
Menendez and his younger brother Erik were both found guilty for the 1989 shotgun murders of their parents in Beverly Hills, Calif. The murders by the Princeton alumnus and his brother gained notoriety due to the brutality of the crimes and the status of Menendez’ slain father, a wealthy entertainment executive.
While the murders were being investigated, Menendez withdrew from the University and in February 1990 purchased Chuck’s Spring Street Cafe in Princeton with money he inherited from his deceased parents. Menendez hired Rogers, who was taking a year off from the University, as a chief operating officer of the restaurant.
Soon thereafter, Menendez was arrested on March 8, 1990, in Beverly Hills, Calif. Rogers was in the car with him at the time.
“It was a pretty unusual situation to find yourself in, but we were with him on our way to eat lunch when he got arrested,” Rogers said in a March 8 interview with Roll Call. “It was quite dramatic: They hauled him off, hauled the jeep off and left us standing there in the road.”
Rogers was never taken in for questioning and was not called to testify in the trial.
Rogers told Roll Call that he does not expect his fleeting association with Menendez to be an issue in his congressional campaign, noting that the University randomly assigned them to be suitemates and explaining that he has never tried to hide his connection with Menendez.
“I do not believe it impeded my success throughout college or tainted the way I viewed the student body or my time at the University,” Rogers said.
Rogers, a politics major, capped off his time at the University with a senior thesis called, “Give ’em Hell, Jesse,” a profile of former Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina who was known for his uncompromising conservatism and staunch support of states’ rights during the civil rights movement. Helms once led a 14-day filibuster to block the adoption of Martin Luther King, Jr., Day as a national holiday.
“You cannot fully understand the political history of North Carolina, and to a larger degree the entire South, without looking at Senator Helms and what he represented to many people,” Rogers said. He explained that the title of his thesis was derived from a phrase Helms’ supporters often shouted at his rallies.
While he said he was intrigued by Helms’ ability to communicate and connect with voters on a very basic level, he was inspired more by some of Helms’ opponents, including southern politicians like former North Carolina Senator Sam Ervin and former Governor Jim Hunt, who championed education reform in North Carolina during his time in office.
Rogers says he sees Hunt, who he has met with on several occasions, as both an inspiration and mentor.
“[Hunt] saw the correlation between an educated workforce and being able to compete in an evolving global economy,” Rogers said, adding that education is the issue he feels most passionate about. “As the son of public-school teachers from a small town in the mountains of Western North Carolina who was given the extraordinary opportunity to attend Princeton, I am a fierce advocate for public education.”
Noting that his wife is the president of a local community college in North Carolina, he emphasized that education is important not just for the United States economy but for the success of future generations of young Americans.
At the age of 41, Rogers’ political career is possibly just getting started. He has won the endorsement of the Blue Dog Coalition, which supports conservative Democrats, as well as the support of numerous party leaders including Shuler, his longtime friend. Despite the endorsement, Rogers will face a tough challenge in the general election if he wins the nomination. Shuler won by just eight points in 2010 prior to redistricting that has made the district decidedly more conservative.
“Western North Carolina has a strong history of being independent,” Rogers said. “I believe that the combination of my profile and experience will be compelling to voters.”
While Rogers remains optimistic about his chances, his friends are even more confident.
“I’m not surprised to see him succeed in politics,” Grady said. “I definitely think he’ll win in a landslide.”
Correction: Due to a reporting error, a previous version of this article mischaracterized the association between Hayden Rogers '95 and convicted murderer Lyle Menendez. They were business associates, as opposed to business partners. The 'Prince' regrets the error.