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story.lead_photo.caption Gary Rogers of Benton holds a copy of the children’s book that his daughter, Jamille Thomas of Conway, wrote about his life. She dedicated Be Kind. Be Brave. Be A Hero. to him, calling him “the best dad in the world.” - Photo by Staci Vandagriff

Jamille Thomas, the media specialist at a Conway elementary school, long lamented the lack of good books for boys.

The award-winning librarian decided to write about “the most important boy in my life,” her father, Gary Rogers of Benton. “Dad was the most influential person in my life,” she said.

Thomas published Be Kind. Be Brave. Be A Hero. on July 16, his 70th birthday. The book is dedicated to him.

“I was totally shocked,” Rogers said. “She talks about everything — how my mom, my dad were wonderful people and how hard they worked to try to raise a family back then. My whole life has been dedicated to trying to help young people.”

His daughter seems to be following in his footsteps.

In 2016, she was one of 10 national winners of the I Love My Librarian Award, an initiative of the American Library Association. Her platform was “boys and books” and the Distinguished Gentleman’s Club, which she started at Marguerite Vann Elementary School to help improve the achievement gap among boys and girls.

The book is geared toward children ages 8 to 12. It’s considered fiction, but it is the true story of her dad’s life with some names and places changed. He is called William Thomas Rogers in the book.

She said the themes of the book are kindness, racial integration, how to handle bullying and strong family values. She always considered her father to be a hero, but Thomas said that when she wrote the book, she found out more about her father’s life.

Growing up, Rogers was bullied, primarily by white children, Thomas said, and he faced integration in the first grade. He didn’t want to go to an integrated school because he was afraid, and his parents didn’t make him, she said.

“Throughout the book, kindness is showcased,” Thomas said. “[My father’s] siblings are kind to each other; his teacher is kind.”

When Rogers was a teenager, he got a job at a downtown Little Rock drive-in restaurant where his brothers had worked before him. Rogers was bullied every night by white teenagers in a yellow car, a scene that’s depicted in the book.

“I had to work in high school because it was eight of us in our family. I started to work at 14 at the drive-in. Every night, I had to walk to the bus station,” he said, and the car would follow him.

“They’d be calling me all kinds of names, basically, and then get out of their car.” They would threaten to kick him with their cowboy boots, he said. “They never touched me because I ran.”

As his daughter wrote in the book, one day Rogers bought a small pocket knife. When the bullies started yelling at him and following him, he stopped, said a prayer for protection and put his hand in his pocket.

That scared the bullies, and they left, Thomas said.

She said her father continued to work in that situation because he was saving money for college. He graduated with a degree in sociology and a minor in history from Arkansas Agricultural, Mechanical & Normal College, now the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff.

Rogers didn’t tell his children about his negative experiences until they were adults, Thomas said.

“He didn’t want us to judge people,” Thomas said. “He didn’t want it to influence our decisions.”

Rogers said he was “totally shocked” and touched when he received the book.

“She had been asking me questions about my growing up,” Rogers said. “I never talked about it a lot. A lot of it wasn’t worth talking about. When you go through some rough stuff growing up, you want your kids to have it better. I thought, ‘Why is she asking all this now?’”

Thomas said she spent more than a year gathering information about her father. Her mother, an elementary teacher, died of breast cancer in 1999, when Rogers was a teenager, and Thomas’ grandmother, “who knew everything,” died the year before Thomas published the book.

Thomas said she could find only one childhood photo of her father. She found out that he was self-conscious because he was more dark-skinned than his six siblings, and he was the only one who wore glasses.

She said one of her goals was to create a book in which boys could see a professional black role model, not another athlete or superhero.

“I’m sure [basketball star] LeBron James wears a tie, but in the books, he’s not,” she said. “A lot of our boys don’t have males in the home.”

Rogers worked at the Wrightsville Boys Training School, then the Alexander Youth Services Center, where he said he became the first black superintendent.

“I tried to do a lot of things to make a positive impact, but also to make it safe and secure for them and clean,” he said.

He later opened a youth center in North Little Rock and retired in 2005 as director of personnel for the Department of Human Services in Little Rock.

While her father was working in Alexander, he met a young man, named Sydney in the book, who was there for stealing.

The teenager had been a student in Thomas’ mother’s fifth-grade class “and used to steal from her desk,” Thomas said.

She said her father counseled the young man, and more than 30 years later, Sydney wrote Rogers and told him, “You changed my life,” and told Rogers he’d graduated from college.

Rogers remembered the young man.

“It was inspiring to hear from one, but then again, I always liked the kids. He wasn’t the only one; lots you pour out your heart to and try to get them to correct how they live,” Rogers said.

Thomas asked Monica Garcia, a kindergarten teacher at Marguerite Vann Elementary, to do the illustrations for the book. Thomas had noticed the drawings in Garcia’s classroom, asked who did them and found out Garcia was the artist, albeit a reluctant one.

“I said I’d never illustrate,” Garcia said, sitting on the couch in the elementary library. “It’s a lot of work, and I’m slow.”

But when Thomas told her about the focus of the book, Garcia changed her mind.

“She told me the story, and it hit my heart, and I knew I could not say no to it,” Garcia said.

The self-taught artist used family photographs that Thomas gave her to create the detailed illustrations throughout the book.

“My favorite part about it was I got to have all her old family photos,” Garcia said. “I felt like I was part of her family. I was fully invested. My heart was in it.”

Garcia said working on the book with Thomas “made me a better artist, and now we’re friends.”

Although Garcia is critical of her drawings, “Overall, it portrayed what Jamille was trying to get at, and her dad loved it.”

Rogers said he was impressed with Garcia’s artwork.

“Yes, that was wonderful,” he said. “Monica, she did a wonderful job; she did.”

Thomas said all the elementary school libraries in Conway will receive a copy of the book.

Rogers said he hopes the book will make a difference.

“I’m hoping that people who work with kids will read it and be inspired to do all they can to help kids,” Rogers said. “We live in a time when kids are not getting the conversations they need, the instruction they need, and I’m hoping we can go back to doing that. They are our future, no matter what we think, so we need to do all we can to inspire them.”

Senior writer Tammy Keith can be reached at (501) 327-0370 or tkeith@arkansasonline.com.

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