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N.H. man searching for new heights after the death of his wife

  • —Courtesy

  • —Courtesy

  • Ray Duckler—Monitor staff

  • Bill Rogers gives a thumbs-up during a tandem skydive in honor of his late wife, Natalie, last week in Pepperell, Mass. Courtesy

Monitor columnist
Published: 8/12/2018 9:58:21 PM

Bill Rogers felt safe when he jumped from 10,500 feet earlier this month, as though his late wife, Natalie, had everything under control.

“When I jumped, it felt great,” said Rogers, a lifelong Manchester resident. “I had her on my mind. Just beautiful every year.”

They met 69 years ago and were married for 65. Rogers knows he’s fortunate he found his best friend, but he’s sad these days because Natalie died last year, the diabetes that had surfaced three decades prior taking its toll.

In tribute to Natalie, Rogers now annually skydives in Pepperell, Mass. He’s done it twice, in front of family and friends, about 30 spectators in all. He’s 84, with snow-white hair, glasses and guts.

How smitten was Rogers? Since Natalie died, on March 27, 2017, he’s gotten a pair of tattoos in her honor, one on each arm. The left one shows a plane and a parachute and says, “Natalie, always in her arms.” The one on his right arm shows sunshine and a plant and says, “In memory of Natalie.”

He’s zip-lined in Gilford and – buckle your seatbelt – plans to zip-line over Niagara Falls later this month. He’s already paid his $119 registration fee.

All to honor Natalie.

“I’m going to do it, no doubt,” Rogers told me. “It helps me. It really does.”

Rogers’s voiced cracked a few times during our interview. He apologized each time he grew emotional. Such is the life of a former ironworker who still works full time, now for Easter Seals, training others. He says it keeps his mind occupied, an important function these days.

“Got to keep going,” Rogers said.

He first saw Natalie in the late 1940s, at a Manchester Central High School football game. He was 13, she was 14.

“I couldn’t keep my eyes off her,” he said. “She finally looked over. I couldn’t tell you the score.”

He walked her home that day. They held hands. They knew.

They did homework together at the library. They would hang out at the PD, short for the Palace Drug store. They’d split a Coke – two straws of course, which Rogers said allowed him to move closer, to look deeper into her eyes.

Rogers served in Korea, a Navy corpsman who saw men die. He returned to Manchester, and the couple married on Oct. 3, 1953. He’s from a long line of ironworkers, and he helped build bridges and skyscrapers in Boston and New York City, until a crane accident forced his retirement at age 51.

But he had Natalie, the woman with jet-black hair and soft touch, who treated everyone the same, from the most educated person to the dishwasher at the Backroom, their favorite restaurant.

“She loved everyone,” Rogers said. “She set a foundation of love for our whole family.”

Natalie was diagnosed with diabetes at about age 50. There was discomfort through the years, sure, but that didn’t stop the couple from camping or going to the beach or taking a walk.

She died 17 months ago, with her husband holding her hand “like we did 69 years ago walking (her) home,” Rogers wrote in an email to me.

“I have been with my fiance for two years and their relationship is something I hope mine can blossom into,” said 30-year-old Tyler Brown, an account manager and one of Rogers’s four grandchildren. “In all honesty, it was truly remarkable to see them together.”

Since her death, Rogers, who said Natalie wrote him every day during his 15 months in Korea, has found a few letters he’d never seen. He hasn’t opened them yet, telling me, “It’s too soon.”

Also, the ex-ironworker, never afraid of heights, has created a bucket list of adventure. Gene Brown, Tyler’s brother, had skydived a few years ago and his grandfather liked the idea.

“My grandmother was against him going,” Gene said, “and when she passed he felt it was his best way to keep her memory alive, in his mind.”

The sky was clear that day, Aug. 5. Rogers said he could see the Boston skyline.

The skydiving program in Pepperell provided a video, and it shows Rogers in a blue suit and straps, the instructor who jumped with him attached tightly behind him.

It shows Rogers giving a thumbs-up, saying he’s ready to go. It shows the door closing, the light turning from yellow to green, his goggles on, his arms tucked across his chest.

It shows him and the instructor leaning and then dropping out the door as one, then Rogers’s arms stretching forward like Superman, traveling at 120 mph. It shows the parachute opening violently, Rogers giving another thumbs-up, twirling high above the green landscape and winding roads.

And it shows Rogers skidding on his butt, the end of another tribute.

“Awesome, beautiful,” he tells the camera.

Rogers said he’ll keep jumping out of planes until he can’t physically do it. In fact, he’d like to go solo next summer.

“When the chute comes out, it’s like she’s saying, ‘You’re okay, you’re okay,’ ” Rogers told me. “I’m a lucky man.”

(Ray Duckler can be reached at 369-3304, or on Twitter @rayduckler.)

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