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Viola, 97, didn’t let limited education hold her back

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Viola Rogers with a photo of herself at a staff reunion at the Fairmont Southampton in 2016. In the picture she is holding a photo of when she started at the hotel in 1971 (Photograph by Jessie Moniz Hardy)
Viola Rogers was honoured for 15 years of service in 1986 by Chris Szembek (left) the regional vice president of the Southampton Princess and Ted Kleisner, the hotel’s general manager (Photograph supplied)

On a quiet afternoon, Viola Rogers loves going through her collection of certificates.

She has amassed quite a few over her 97 years of life.

Among them: a longtime service award from the First Church of God in Sandys, three from the Southampton Princess Hotel, where she was named employee of the month; one for winning the Glamorous Granny contest in 1999.

“I didn't have a top education but I would always try to better myself,” she said.

She grew up in Sandys, the middle child of five. Her mother, Mildred Dill Goins, was a homemaker; her father, Arthur David Symonds, created canvas art for theatrical shows and church services.

Ms Rogers left school at 13 to help her family. One of her first jobs was babysitting a difficult toddler who “would not obey anyone”.

“I would talk nice to him, and tell him that I loved him,” she said. “I would say, ‘You're a good boy, you know’ – even though he wasn't all that good. I made him feel that he could listen to me. They ended up hiring me permanently.”

In her 20s, she went to work making sandwiches at The Reefs. Her willingness to listen and do what she was told so impressed the head chef, Ranier Maier, that he had the hotel train her properly.

In 1971, when the Southampton Princess opened and he moved over there, she went with him.

“I was the first person to fry an egg on the grill in that hotel,” she said proudly.

She also supervised all of the chefs that came in after her.

She particularly remembers the hotel’s first Christmas.

“They wanted me to cook farine for 200 or so staff members,” she said. “I had never made that much pie before.”

She quickly figured out the necessary ingredient quantities but was a bit nervous about lighting the hotel’s enormous oven.

“I was not going to put the match to the gas in that thing,” she said. “I said to them ‘Look, I can do all the rest, but you will have to light the gas in the oven – and stay around in case something happens.’ I said, ‘I don’t want to be the first black woman in space.’ They thought that was the biggest joke. I tell it like it is.”

She retired in 1988. Before she left, the hotel commissioned a pencil portrait of her that was hung in the kitchen.

“It was there for a long time,” she said. “It is probably gone now. After I left they would sometimes call me and say a guest had come back to Bermuda and was asking for me. Then I would go up to the hotel and say hello to them.”

Having been a shop steward with the Bermuda Industrial Union, she became active with the Progressive Labour Party in her spare time. In November 2013 the party recognised her with a certificate and a gold pin for half a century of service.

She helped Walter Lister, Eugene Cox and Walter Roberts get elected.

“I remember one night there were four of us canvassing for the PLP in a white area,” she said. “We said our good evenings, then out came this big dog. The dog started to act up and he chased us.”

Terrified, she ran. Only later did she realise that she had left the others behind.

“I said, ‘If we are going to do a lecture on togetherness, this is not a good picture that I just drew,’” she laughed.

The others were amused that, as she ran away, she expressed surprise that she was being chased by a black dog.

“It was a big joke,” she said. “I can say I had some good times. Right now we have a very good, young leader who is trying his best. They are working together and I like that. It is the togetherness that we need. We can't get on in life if we are going to be divided.”

She was in her 60s when her daughter, Georgia Symonds, suggested they take an psychology course at the Bermuda College.

Ms Rogers was unsure, at first.

“I said, ‘Do you think those people will let me into that class without a secondary education?’ Would you know they let me in!”

Getting her certificate of completion of a college-level course was one of her proudest moments. In 1990 signed up as a volunteer at the Rape Crisis Centre with hopes of putting her knowledge to use.

After she passed a counselling course at the Mid Atlantic Wellness Institute, the police station patched through calls from women in crisis to her home phone number.

“It wasn’t difficult,” she said. “I just loved being able to help.”

She married the late Calypso singer, George Rogers, on June 21, 1945.

“We had always known each other,” she said. “But I never thought I would marry him, because he was kind of loud.”

They had four children – the late Anthea Earls, Ms Symonds, Jonathan Rogers and Mikail Abdur Rashid – before Mr Rogers died in 2013.

At 95 Ms Rogers was at home alone when, racing to answer the telephone, her foot got tangled in something and she fell.

“When I stood up my leg was wobbly and I couldn’t walk,” she said.

She managed to crawl to the door where she yelled, hoping her neighbour would hear.

“I called out three times before she heard me and came over to see what was wrong,” Ms Rogers said. “It was a good thing she was at home.”

Doctors at King Edward VII Memorial told her she would need major surgery to replace her right hip.

“I said, ‘At my age, no!’”

It struck her later that she wouldn’t be able to walk without the operation and so she swallowed her fear.

Ten days after surgery she returned home on her own two feet.

“That’s God at work,” she said.

Lifestyle profiles the island’s senior citizens every Wednesday. Contact Jessie Moniz Hardy on 278-0150 or jmhardy@royalgazette.com with the full name and contact details and the reason you are suggesting them

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Published March 10, 2021 at 8:00 am (Updated March 10, 2021 at 10:00 am)

Viola, 97, didn’t let limited education hold her back

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