Let me tell you a story about Hugh Rogers Hamilton, 86, who finished up a long and brilliant run on earth on Thursday, August 13, 2020, after a quick and mostly painless bout with lung cancer.
He was born in Portsmouth, Virginia on March 25, 1934, graduated from Newport News High School and The College of William and Mary, and lived most of his life in Yorktown, Virginia. In the 1950s, he moved to New York City to pursue his acting career.
One weekend, his father, Harry, came to visit him, and the two of them went to a house party with some friends, one of whom had just gotten a new sports car he couldn’t stop talking about. Intrigued after hearing so much about it, Rogers and Harry decided to take the car out for a test drive around Manhattan.
They did not, however, tell anyone about this plan, figuring they’d be gone and back before anyone could miss them. They drove the car from the Village up to Harlem, opening up on one of the northbound Avenues, and when they got back to the building, Harry hopped out and went inside the nearest bar while Rogers parked the car.
As he was parking, several police officers approached.
Turned out: The friend had noticed his car keys were missing, and he’d drunkenly panicked and called the cops. “Sir, is this your vehicle?” the cops asked Rogers as he finished parking the car.
Harry saw the cops talking to his son and hustled back outside.
Harry said, “What’s the problem here, officers?”
“Do you know this man?”
“Yes, he’s my son.”
The cops tried to verify it with Rogers: “Is that true? Is this your father?”
Rogers replied: “I’ve never seen this man before in my life.”
As Rogers loved to add whenever he told this story: “Because I knew where I was going!” So his dad was spared the night in city jail, where Rogers spent the night locked up on a hard bench. Harry bailed Rogers out the next morning, and father and son both got another great story to add to the repertoire.
Early on in life, Rogers received a coveted BB gun from his grandfather. One of his earliest memories was wandering alone through the backwood wilds of Yorktown where he grew up, swinging the gun around at random, firing it overhead. He described spending all afternoon aiming at rabbits, squirrels, and birds, and getting frustrated because he couldn’t hit anything.
On his way back home, he saw a large seagull flying overhead. Knowing he’d never hit it, he took a wild wind-up with his arm and fired one-handed.
“And don’t you know,” he said, “I hit that damn bird.”
He never fired another gun again.
Rogers survived a number of unlikely illnesses in his life — other cancers, a stroke, a splenectomy, three stomach surgeries and a triple bypass.
During one hospital stay after a heart attack, he removed all the electronic monitors from his chest in the middle of the night while his wife slept in the chair next to him. As monitoring machines beeped anxiously to life, Debbie woke up and a nurse rushed in to find Rogers playing dead with his tongue lolling out of his mouth.
In addition to an acting career that spanned 70 years and took him up and down the Eastern seaboard for roles in film, tv, and stage, Rogers was a computer programmer who got his first job working for Univac by telling the interviewers he’d studied math at William and Mary. He did graduate from the College, but his degree was in theater. He went on to work for IBM and as a civilian programmer on Fort Eustis, in addition to a stint with the U.S. army reserves. Rogers marvelled later in life about how the room-sized processors he worked on in those early years shrank in size as they expanded in capacity.
Rogers directed or acted in more than 50 plays and shows, including a few turns in Williamsburg’s “The Common Glory,” over the course of his career, bumping into Joe Don Baker, Alan Arkin, Robert Preston, and Linda Lavin along the way.
He was also a writer, carpenter, fisherman, cook, golfer, and poker player, and friend to animals and people. Everyone was welcome at his table, which more often than not held a large vat of chili, a pile of freshly steamed crabs, or a fondue pot.
He helped invent Trombone Time, wherein visiting friends, but always the people his daughter dated, were invited to play an old trombone they had lying around. If the person refused to play the trombone, they were assumed not to be fun. Fortunately, most everyone who saw the trombone wanted to play it.
An entertainer to the last, during his final days, Rogers unexpectedly started singing “Goodbye, My Coney Island Baby” to Debbie, his wife of 44 years. As he sang the line “farewell my own true love,” she hastened to accompany him with a soft-shoe, their last duet.
The home hospice doctor asked Rogers if his wife was a good dancer.
“Yes,” he replied.
Better than Ann Margaret? the doctor asked. Better than Gwen Verdon?
“No,” Rogers said. And everyone laughed.
“You rascal,” Debbie said.
Rogers was preceded in death by his parents, Harry Hugh Hamilton and Maude Walthall Hamilton of Yorktown, Va. He is survived by his wife, Debbie Powell Hamilton, son John Rogers Hamilton of Coatesville, Pa., and daughter Angela Lanier Hamilton and son-in-law Grant Philip Meek of Vancouver, Canada, and his brothers-in-law Oppie Powell of Yorktown, Va., and Dicky Powell of Toano, Va., and a bevy of loving nieces, nephews, grandkids, and friends.
It’s impossible to encapsulate the kindness, warmth, humor, generosity, authenticity, wisdom, intelligence, big-heartedness, grace, or even-temperedness of our beloved dad, husband, and friend in just a few words. He was a light in this weary world and saw the best in everyone. We will miss him wildly.
Special thanks to Hope Healthcare Hospice for all of their kind attention and service in the final two weeks at home.
A private remembrance of life will be held once Covid is over and the world is back to whatever will eventually pass for normal. In lieu of flowers or donations, the family encourages everyone to vote for Joe Biden.
In 1957, Rogers played the lead role in the very first play ever produced at the Williamsburg Players, “Teahouse of the August Moon,” and he returned to direct the same play for their 50th anniversary season opener. His favorite quote from that show, returned to as a constant throughout his life, was:
“Pain makes man think. Thought makes man wise. Wisdom makes life endurable.”
Though his run is over, Rogers Hamilton endures. From all who crossed paths with him: standing ovation.