Sig Rogich: Teachable Moments

THE HALLWAYS OF ROGICH COMMUNICATIONS GROUP in Las Vegas emanate confidence, mastery – not surprising given the political legend whose name the company bears. The furniture is dark wood. Framed poster-sized photographs of U.S. presidents, senators and state governors are everywhere. Bob Dylan’s music playing softly, almost imperceptibly, in the background. Mad Men’s Don Draper would be awed.

Sig Rogich, silver-haired and looking very much the gentleman, sits at a small mahogany desk on the day of our interview. He wears a brown suit, sidestepping the sartorial chestnut “no brown in town.” He’s a strategist, not a superficialist.

The co-creator of winning campaign public images for Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush tends to work on a grand scale. He’s also imaginative. He persuaded a pair of songwriters to pen a country tune for Randy Travis designed to bolster Bush’s idea that an army of volunteers could meet the needs of America’s downtrodden. “Point of Light” reached No. 3 on Billboard magazine’s country singles chart in the summer of 1991.

Rogich knows about life on the bottom rung. Born on the Westman Islands in Iceland, his family moved to Henderson in 1954. He grew up in Victory Village, a public housing tract at Lake Mead Boulevard and Boulder Highway, nestled between a little Hispanic community and the black neighborhood of Carver Park. “With a name like Rogich, I didn’t belong,” he laughs. “I wasn’t Hispanic or African-American, so I had to be reasonably fast to run away.”

He never thought of himself or the people around him as disadvantaged, but eventually his father became a neon-sign maker and was able to provide more financial security. As a youngster, Rogich rode his bike to Las Vegas and back, and hitchhiked on weekends to sing in the Optimist Club’s boys choir.

Rehearsals were downtown in the old Elks Hall where Four Queens is now located. (The choir was affiliated with Optimist International, a group that focuses on helping kids in the community through various service projects and programs.) Years later, going through old newspaper clippings, Rogich found a picture of himself singing. In the photo, next to him stood one of his best friends, Nevada real-estate mogul and former Regent Madison “Maddy” Graves who died in 2010.

Rogich attended Crestwood Elementary from sixth through eighth grades before attending John C. Fremont Junior High. From there he went to Las Vegas High School. He landed his first real job at 13 when the Horseshoe Club hired him as a busboy. And it was at the Horseshoe Club where Rogich received his first pink slip, after he was caught playing a keno ticket.

Examining his childhood and adolescence in Vegas is one way of explaining Rogich’s philanthropic commitment to the broader community of Southern Nevada. His mother and father always helped people. His dad was a Cub Scout Master and member of the local Optimist chapter. His mother routinely cooked dinner for the sick and elderly. It was a way of life.

“I read once that, at the end of the day, you’re measured by how much you spread the wealth,” he says. “Some people don’t have money, and they give of their time. That was my parents.”

Even as a kid, Rogich could see Vegas was ripe for success. In the ’50s, there were fewer than 50,000 people in the valley. It was a new city rife with possibility back then, and all the ingredients were in place for it to develop into a boomtown.

Casino jobs spurred him to find success. However, he didn’t want to work in a hotel. Rogich arrived at the University of Nevada, Reno with $200 in his pocket — money his mom had borrowed. He joined a fraternity, which gave him free lodging in exchange for washing dishes, and got a job as a milkman five mornings a week, 2 a.m. to 8 a.m. A journalism major, Rogich eventually dropped the dairy-delivery gig to edit the student newspaper, The Sagebrush. He says he put out more editions than any editor before or since: publishing during spring, summer and even winter breaks.

While majoring in journalism, Rogich kept his hand in music. He played folk guitar and sang with a frat song team that performed at the old Shakey’s Pizza Restaurant in Reno. “On Wednesdays we were paid to sing,” he says, chuckling at the memory. “We got all we could eat and drink. The place was loaded with girls. We should’ve been paying them.”

Rogich and his fellow troubadours would drive to San Francisco to sing in little coffeehouses. He later met his musical idols – Peter, Paul and Mary, the Kingston Trio. It wasn’t until years later that he encountered his songwriting hero, Bob Dylan.

“I love Dylan’s music,” he says. “He’s one of the extraordinary songwriters of our time. ‘Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right’ is among the finest pieces of music ever made. I grew up listening to his music and it had an impact.”

Rogich, whose younger sister later became a showgirl and toured with Sammy Davis Jr., witnessed Elvis Presley’s first performance at the Las Vegas International Hotel in 1969. As boxing became central to Vegas entertainment, he took in historic bouts at the Hilton and Caesars and later served as a member and Chairman of the Nevada State Athletic Commission for 12 years after being appointed by former Governor Mike O’Callaghan in 1974.

Rogich got involved in politics as a UNR student. He worked on campaigns for local, state and federal politicians, including Paul Laxalt’s 1966 governor race and 1974 senate campaign. His support of Laxalt resulted in an enduring friendship that pushed Rogich into presidential politics.

In 1973, Rogich co-founded R&R Advertising (now R&R Partners), which was originally a three-man shop. It grew into a Southwest juggernaut, the largest advertising and public relations agency in Nevada, thanks to R&R’s accounts with the LVCVA and Nevada State Tourism board. Over time Rogich’s clients included Frank Sinatra, Donald Trump, Mike Tyson, Steve Wynn, Kirk Kerkorian and Sheldon Adelson.

By 1984, Senator Laxalt was chairman of Reagan’s presidential campaigns. Rogich was named co-director of the Tuesday Team, an agency created to produce Reagan’s re-election ads. Rogich speaks fondly of the Gipper, calling him gracious, mannerly and caring. “I never saw him lose his cool, even when I made mistakes,” he says.

One time, he was filming a Reagan message with only 30 minutes to spare in the president’s hectic schedule. Rogich cleared out the Oval Office and set up a camera. Twenty-five minutes in, sunlight shifted in the windows and a pall fell over the President’s face. Rogich had to apologize and admit he failed to plan for a change in lighting. The spot needed to be done over, from the beginning. Reagan’s staff was less than pleased.

“The President said, ‘Well, OK, Sig. Let’s do it again,’” recalls Rogich. “‘Can I borrow your comb?’”

Rogich was also close to Bush 41. The image of Michael Dukakis cruising in a tank at a General Dynamics plant in Michigan is credited to Rogich, as is the “I Remember You” spot, a video collage of the Jimmy Carter years that helped crush Dukakis’ lead in the polls. In ’92, Bush appointed Rogich, by then a naturalized citizen and Assistant to the President since 1988, ambassador to Iceland. He had traveled to 45 countries and all 50 states with the President before he left Washington. His White House office was later occupied by First Lady, Hillary Clinton, and later Karl Rove.

Rogich transferred his interest in R&R Partners to his employees in 1994 to go in a different direction with the Rogich Communications Group. The new company would specialize in business development and crisis communications. It was a bold move at the time as there was much money to made from Vegas’ re-branding of itself from a family-friendly destination to an upscale dining and lavish entertainment destination.

Equally bold is Rogich’s refusal to tow the hardcore GOP or Tea Party line on anti-immigration. He doesn’t believe in outlawing gay marriage, either. It’s because of his enlightened, open-minded positions that his ideological adversaries – Democrats and liberals – admire him. They know he always stands on principle.

Not many know or remember this, says LVRJ political columnist Steve Sebelius, but in 2002, Question 2, a ballot measure amending the Nevada Constitution to prevent same-sex marriages in the Silver State, was up for a second time. The measure was super-popular, but Rogich came out publicly against it. “It impressed me because Sig’s not stupid,” says Sebelius. “It could’ve been a threat to his business. His clients included the Roman Catholic Diocese of Las Vegas. It was something he didn’t have to do. That he came out against it is a big deal and one of the things I’ll always remember about him.”

Rogich has his contradictions. He helped install Nevada’s best governor, Kenny Guinn, and its worst, Jim Gibbons. His advocacy of DesertXpress, a high-speed passenger rail that would connect Vegas to Victorville, is a source of humor for liberals and conservatives alike. However, after talking to him for 10 minutes, the project makes sense from a technical and technological standpoint. He’s thought through everything, having weighed pros and cons carefully.

Rogich remains a GOP consultant, but his primary focus is now on philanthropy. From his tireless support and fundraising for Opportunity Village to his involvement with the school that bears his name, he’s always bringing attention to organizations and educational institutions that improve the community. He provides instruments for Sig Rogich Middle School, and feels so connected to the music program that he arranged for his mother’s grand piano to be delivered to the Pavilion Center Drive campus after she passed away. “It’s an old Knabe, and it sounds great,” he says.

He is also chairman of the board for The Public Education Foundation, which has raised $70 million to fund various educational programs and provide scholarships.

Rogich’s voice betrays emotion when he talks about the Foundation and the difference it makes in the lives of students. When he was given an Education Hero Award in September, more than one journalist who attended the event noted that Rogich was visibly touched by the honor. For a guy who has always quietly sent money to children in need of operations when he reads about them in newspapers, it had to be awkward to stand in the spotlight for a change.

“I believe every child in this country deserves the best education,” says Rogich. “I know that education has the greatest singular effect on our country’s future.”

Previously published in diamondcake. Updated by smallTALK. Archived for Sig Rogich.