The Theosophical Society in America

Memories of L. W. Rogers

Originally printed in the November - December 2004 issue of Quest magazine. 
Citation: Bonnell, Robert and Leatice. “Memories of L. W. Rogers.” Quest  92.6 (NOVEMBER - DECEMBER 2004):224-226

As related to us by his granddaughter, Virginia Roach, of Fallbrook, California and his son, Grayson Rogers of Ojai, California.

By Robert Bonnell and Leatrice Kreeger-Bonnell

On December 5, 2003, we motored down to Fallbrook, California, to interview Virginia Roach, granddaughter of L. W. Rogers—one of the first and most influential American theosophists. He was president of the TSA from 1920 to 1927. Fallbrook is a small community some fifty miles north of San Diego, famous as the avocado capital of the state, if not the entire nation. After driving aimlessly along the many byways and back roads of rural Fallbrook looking for the Roach residence, we finally had to call the Roaches for help. Virginia and her husband, Davis, a retired attorney, graciously drove out to rescue us, and we proceeded to their stately home, which they share with four dogs, one cat, and a panoramic view of the Temecula Valley. The home also includes a delightful swimming pool, which Virginia uses regularly despite her advancing years.

She began by informing us that her memories of her grandfather were not only sketchy but few. The time she spent with him was limited largely due to his ongoing speaking engagements the world over, which resulted in long absences from the family scene. Her recollections of her grandfather were as follows.

L. W. Rogers became a leader in the railway labor disputes of the early part of the twentieth century, favoring the worker’s cause against railroad management. In this struggle, he became closely aligned with Eugene Debs, the famous Socialist and labor enthusiast. In fact, their efforts on behalf of the infamous labor strike to establish unions at that time landed them in jail for six months. The imprisoned group also included the soon-to-be, well known unionist John Murray, who was Debs’s maternal grandfather. This arduous trial failed to discourage L. W. in any way, because of his dedication to the basic rights of human beings. He carried this deeply held humanistic belief into his subsequent theosophical work.

As the story unfolded, Debs gave L. W. a book on esoteric lore, to which he apparently had an intuitive response that culminated in his joining the Theosophical Society in 1903. This incident was followed by a lifelong commitment to the promulgation of theosophy, by the spoken and written word, throughout the world.

Virginia Roach vividly recalled L. W.’s relationship with Manly Hall, a world-renowned philosopher and esoteric. She pointed out that they were the closest of friends and spent many evenings exchanging views of lecturing locations pointed out on a world map spread before them. She also recalled the many Hall lectures, which L. W. enthusiastically attended. It was Manly Hall who officiated at her marriage to Davis in Los Angeles.

She remembers L. W. actively participating in the building of his house in the Echo Park area of Los Angeles, and then later moving to Ojai. How he was supported through a life of travel and family responsibility is somewhat unclear, but she recalls a generous benefactor (a great man, she remarks) who always looked after him. However, she could not recall his name.

Others with memories of L.W. Rogers include Manly Hall, who said, “L. W. gave the greatest of all contributions by freeing thousands of people from the bondage of illusion.” Sidney Perkins said, “He was the personage who had most to do with it (theosophy) . . . truly, the great old man of American theosophy.” And Annie Besant, said “L. W. Rogers interested more people in theosophy than any other person in the entire world.”

Virginia recalls other incidents in her life that, although not directly connected to L.W., would be of interest to theosophists, such as placing a garland around the neck of Annie Besant and Krishnamurti when they arrived at the train station in Los Angeles. She was nine years old at the time.

She lived at Old Krotona in her early life and can recall another residence in Hollywood where Charlie Chaplin was her next-door neighbor.

On April 13, 2004, we drove to Ojai to deliver a lecture and visit with Grayson Rogers, son of L. W. His home, amid the fruit groves of rural Ojai, also required considerable searching before we located it. Here again, we were disappointed by his limited recall of a father who traveled all over the world and was seldom at home.

Grayson’s early life was as colorful as his father’s. He worked as an actor and an assistant director in western movies and on the vaudeville circuit, in the course of which he lost a hand.

He remembers that in 1918 his father took the family to Australia. They stayed at the Leadbeater Quarters while L. W. was engaged in lecture tours throughout the country. In 1925, the fifieth anniversary of the Society, L. W. took him to India, where they stayed for two years. He recalls attending one of his father’s lectures without a chair. A tap came on his shoulder and it was Annie Besant offering him a seat. He recalls his father as a dynamic speaker whose whole life was theosophy. L. W. recognized it as his true calling, despite his early involvement with political and social causes.

L. W. Rogers spent his later life in Ojai, nearby to his son Grayson’s home. Grayson recalls going to his father’s house one day and finding him on the floor unable to assist himself. He placed his father in a nursing home in Santa Barbara, where he remained until his death at age ninety-four.

In closing, Grayson said that his father was a very serious sort of personality, probably because he had had a difficult life, especially during the Depression era. He added that he never talked theosophy to his family, as he felt that they were born into it and needed no further instructions. Grayson’s brother, Percy, observed that L. W. was a master of the practical application of universal brotherhood which must extend beyond what is between the covers of books. His humanism was shown by his passionate love of justice and his desire to change the world, thought by peaceful rather than violent means.

In recognition of the greatness of L. W. Rogers and as an addendum to the observations of Virginia Roach and Grayson Rogers, we point to some of the many progressive actions of the Theosophical Society in America that he initiated:

  • Moving Krotona from Hollywood to Ojai
  • Increasing membership from 3,000 to over 8,000 members
  • Increasing the number of lodges from 100 to 209
  • Establishing the American Section on a firm national basis
  • Being instrumental in founding the Theosophical Society headquarters at Wheaton, Illinois
  • Arranging the mass distribution of theosophical books
  • Founding the Book Gift Institute
  • Revising the national by-laws to a more democratic platform
  • Founding the Messenger newsletter

With such inspiring achievements, it is clearly appropriate that the main building at the headquarters of the Theosophical Society in America, in Wheaton, Illinois, should be named the L. W. Rogers Building in his honor.

Finally, we observed that the two members of the L. W. Rogers family with whom we spoke were individuals with vital and optimistic attitudes and strength of character, who are true representatives of the legacy of the theosophical perspective as embodied by their patriarch, L. W. Rogers.