Palo Alto Weekly

Cover Story - April 30, 2010

Emery Rogers

Accomplished in physics and philanthropy, he prefers to give the spotlight to others

by Martin Sanchez

When retired physicist and philanthropy executive Emery Rogers talks about his life, he spends as much time complimenting the people he's worked with as he does describing his own experiences.

"Everywhere I've turned, I've met fascinating people," he said.

That statement is hard to deny. Rogers has, after all, worked with military scientists, Silicon Valley pioneers and even a Nobel Prize winner. Still, the breadth and depth of his charitable and professional accomplishments indicate an intelligence, work ethic and moral strength at least as influential as a group of successful colleagues.

Rogers grew up in Beverly Hills and enrolled at Stanford University in 1941. He originally planned to attend Harvard University but decided on Stanford after his stepfather, a Stanford alumnus, gave the school a glowing review, he said.

"I'd never even seen it," he said.

He planned to study philosophy but soon switched to physics and never looked back.

At the time, he was the university's only undergraduate physics student, he said.

The advent of America's involvement in World War II led Rogers and many of his classmates to graduate a year early to join the war effort, he said. During the war, Rogers put his physics knowledge to use in the Joint Army Navy Precipitation Static Project, which aimed to prevent airplanes from losing radio contact with their bases during storms.

The job involved "a lot of flying, but nobody was shooting at me," he said.

The project was successful, he said, and its results can be seen to this day.

"Whenever you get on an airplane now, look out the window to see the little wick dischargers on the wingtips," he said.

Rogers returned to Stanford in 1946 and found the once-barren physics department flush with hundreds of new undergraduates due to the post-atomic-bomb prominence of nuclear technology, he said. He completed his doctorate in physics in 1951 after researching an early form of MRI technology under the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Felix Bloch, Rogers said.

"I never dreamed that someday you could fit a human body into one of those. ... Whenever I will be wheeled into an MRI, I can say, 'I know you'," he said.

Rogers worked at Varian Associates from 1949 to 1967 and HP from 1967 to 1979, managing both of those companies' analytical instrument departments. The companies were "extremely exciting in those days," he said, and he developed a great respect for the companies' founders.

In 1979, William Hewlett and David Packard — whom Rogers called "the greatest managers of all time" — asked Rogers to start a charitable foundation for the company. He agreed and ended up running the foundation until 1986.

One of Rogers' ideas was to allow HP employees to champion charitable causes of their own choosing and to have them funded with company dollars.

Hundreds of employees got involved, he said.

He also wanted to fund projects that would "bridge the gap between the sciences and engineering and the arts," he said. Such initiatives included the development of subtitle technology for the San Francisco Opera and the donation of musical instruments to technical high schools, he said.

Rogers believes that this interdisciplinary knowledge is still extremely important.

"You see a lot of scientists at the front row at the opera, but I wish you would see more arts in people in the front row at science exhibitions."

The HP Company Foundation was not Rogers' only charitable effort. He has also served on the boards of the Palo Alto United Way (in the '50s), the Stanford Convalescent Hospital, the Children's Health Council and Castilleja School.

Rogers has been married to his wife, Nancy, for 47 years. She is "entirely capable of sitting here and receiving this award" given her own volunteer work, he said.

"I just cheer her on," he said.

Rogers receives time-consuming kidney dialysis treatments three times a week. Predictably, he described the people he sees during those sessions as "extraordinary people ... patients and attendants alike."

He surfs the Internet, "talking to the world" during dialysis sessions, he said. He advises other dialysis patients to "never spend your time watching the clock," he said, echoing his attitude toward life in general.

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