John Roger remembered for having 'a very soft heart'

John Roger of New Milford, who co-founded Loaves & Fishes Hospitality House with his wife, Biddy, above, died earlier this month.

John Roger of New Milford, who co-founded Loaves & Fishes Hospitality House with his wife, Biddy, above, died earlier this month.

Courtesy of the Roger family

A cardinal made an appearance outside the window where John Roger spent his final days.

“We knew it was Mom,” said Molly Sherman, one of the three surviving children of Roger, who died April 10.

Roger, and his late wife, Biddy, founded Loaves and Fishes Hospitality House in New Milford. They operated it for more than 25 years and served more than 100,000 meals.

“Mom loved cardinals,” Sherman said. “We are pretty sure that Mom telling us it was all OK.”

Roger, 86, was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer in January. He hadn’t smoked in more than 60 years.

His late wife died three years ago, and one day apart, of the same illness. She had fought cancer for 10 years and had never been a smoker.

“He was missing her so much,” Sherman said of how her father felt after his wife of nearly 58 years died. “He was active and busy with things after she passed, but he missed her. They were each other’s reason for being.”

Roger, who was a member of one of the town’s founding families, was known throughout the community as a business owner, community advocate, and past member of several commissions and committees in town.

“John Roger was what I imagine the earliest European colonists on this continent must have been like: he personified the bedrock American virtues of independence, self-reliance, and duty to family, community, and country,” said Jack Gilpin, pastor at St. John’s Episcopal Church in town.

“He was at the same time a profoundly faithful Christian, and used to express those virtues in words I'll never forget: ‘For God so loved the world, that He did not send a committee.’” Gilpin said.

Nobert Lillis, who had known Roger since they were young children, described Roger as “good friend, a lifelong friend.”

“He was a wonderful man,” Lillis said, who recalled having long conversations with his friend about Roger’s time in the military, fishing and hunting.

“I miss him terribly,” he said.

Other friends and family members remember Roger as a kind, meticulous and thoughtful man.

“We’re still learning even now about quiet ways Dad helped somebody,” Sherman said.

Years ago, Roger built a non-permanent structure for one of the Loaves & Fishes guests.

“The fellow lived there for who knows how many winters?,” Sherman related. “He could build a fire but had no electricity or plumbing.”

Roger gave the coat off his back to many soup kitchen guests over the years, too.

“That was not at all out of character for Dad,” she said.

Over the years, the number of his jackets hung in the closet at his home shrunk, and when family asked what happened, Biddy answered, “Someone needed it.”

Roger lived a life with integrity.

Once, while working for the state, a reporter asked for copies of documents. Sherman said her father felt the reporter needed to pay for the copies, so he charged him for the copies and then “sent the money to DOT headquarters,” Sherman related.

“He was scrupulously honest,” she said.

Family members often teased him for his tough exterior shell and soft heart.

Sherman recalled a childhood memory of seeing her father “parked” on a lawn chair as he keenly watched a woodchuck poke around near his garden and fruit trees.

Yet she also remembers watching her father befriend a blind woodchuck living under the garden shed and feeding him by hand.

“What on the surface sometimes appeared in him as gruffness was in truth a profound humility,” Gilpin said. “John had a very soft heart, and was always ready with a helping hand, eager to do whatever was needed, quietly and without fanfare.”

An avid outdoorsman, Roger enjoyed fishing and hunting, and spending time in the woods of Maine.

“He loved animals, and even though he was a hunter and he took many deer, there were many times he had deer in his view but it was just so magnificent he just couldn’t’ shoot it, “Sherman said.

Roger attended New Milford schools and earned a bachelor’s degree in forestry and wildlife conservation.

He worked as a civil engineer for the State Department of Transportation for 34 years, retiring in 1989.

Roger and his father opened the Jolly Roger Sporting Goods on Route 202, a business he continued to run up until his death.

Sherman said the family will continue to operate the business.

Lillis described Roger as “knowledgeable,” having a knack for recall and being a good businessman.