Uncovering ‘Jerry Engels’: Retired PSU prof finds his work in the lighlight once again

Editor’s note: This story was originally published in the Centre Daily Times on July 10, 2005.

STATE COLLEGE — Retired Penn State professor Thomas Rogers drew on his own past when he created the title character in his book “Jerry Engels,” but the protagonist isn’t a body double. “The background is autobiographical, but the central figure is completely different from myself,” Rogers said. He jokingly described Engels, who appeared in print in 1980 in “At the Shores,” as the “anti-Rogers.” Engels, for example, doesn't read or study. The same isn’t true of Rogers, who taught English at Penn State until he retired in December 1992.

Instead, Rogers said, the character is “sort of imagining the childhood and adolescence I didn’t have.” Rogers, 78, started teaching at Penn State in 1960 after working at the University of Chicago. He still lives in his East Foster Avenue house, which has a corner yard spilling over with flowers. Rogers said his house’s proximity to fraternities has given him exposure to Greek life, but he said this book took longer to write than the first one starring Engels.

“I hear them boistering around,” Rogers said. “But I didn’t have the kind of intimate understanding of the place, the time. That took me quite a while to make it sound true.”

Rogers said he began writing “Jerry Engels” in the 1980s and finished it seven or eight years later. In 2002, Rogers had self-published it with Xlibris.

Handsel Books published the 248-page book this year. Since its recent printing by a commercial publisher, along with the paperback printing of “At the Shores,” Rogers has seen his works garnering national attention again.

“There are few writers who have the tact and the heart and the humor, not to mention the interest, to write such intelligently playful novels about boys — real boys, as Peter Pan would say — familiar, flawed, and human,” reads the review in The New York Review of Books.

Rogers said the book is meant to be funny and tender but not sentimental. The book, he said, is about Jerry’s love. “At the end of the novel, he’s taking a midterm exam in a psychology course, and he hasn’t done any studying,” Rogers said. “So he just writes a letter to the professor (and ends up) telling the professor all about love.” Engels gets an F, but that doesn’t matter. “One of the things I like about him is that he’s not embarrassed and ashamed of what he is,” Rogers said. Rogers’ first novel, “The Pursuit of Happiness,” came out in 1968, followed by “The Confession of a Child of the Century” in 1972. Both were finalists for the National Book Award.

Now, Rogers said, Engels has taken over writing the book about the next chapter in his life. “He’s now an older man,” Rogers said. “He’s looking back on his life here in State College.”

Anne Danahy can be reached at 231-4648.