INTERVIEW: Natalie Katz-Rogers

Natalie Rogers, former Ocean Beach mayor and the first woman to hold that office, celebrated her 100th birthday on Oct. 24, 2019. Over the summer, 120 friends and family gathered with her at Leonard’s Palazzo in Great Neck to celebrate this milestone. In addition, the Community House in OB, a building she was instrumental in rebuilding during her tenure, was dedicated in her honor this summer as the Natalie Katz-Rogers Community House on July 13, 2019. Fire Island News reached out to Rogers to discuss her tenure in Ocean Beach, as well as the many other accomplishments she achieved throughout her lifetime.

Fire Island News (FIN): Where were you born? Can you talk about your family?

Natalie Rogers (NR): I was born in the Bronx on Oct. 24, 1919. My mother, Leah Stamper, and my father, Oscar Probstein, were also born in New York City, as were my mother’s parents. I had one sister, Marilyn, four years my junior, who died in 2011 at the age of 87.

FIN: You were 10 years old during the Great Depression. Did this affect your family? What do you remember about it?

NR: During the Great Depression we suffered financially, along with millions of others. My father was an insurance agent for Metropolitan Life Insurance Company, and we barely got by. I graduated from Evander Childs High School before I was 16, and went to Hunter College part-time at night because I had to work.

FIN: When did you marry? Did you have children?

NR: After graduation, I married Leon Katz in 1942. I went with him to Washington, D.C., where I obtained a job with TWA Intercontinental Division, first as an assistant weight and balance engineer. I worked my way through to emergency equipment testing engineer, and finally for one year as chief aerodynamic engineer, conducting aircraft performance tests. I was told by my superiors that I was the second female aeronautical engineer in the country at that time, but never had this statement fully verified. I left TWA in August 1945, and returned to New York where my first daughter, Ronnie, was born in September of that year. I had two other daughters, Sandy, born in 1947, and Gail in 1949. In the intervening years, I became intensely involved in volunteer community work for Queens and New York Cerebral Palsy organizations, to which I am still committed. Leon and I spent 15 years developing and running several golf and country clubs. I was a pretty good amateur golfer during this time. I was also a real estate broker (commercial only) and an appraiser, testifying before the State Supreme Court and the NYC Board of Standards and Appeals. Leon died in 1976, and that year I was appointed by then NYC Mayor Abraham Beam to the newly formed NYC Civil Service Commission. I am not a lawyer, although I went to NYU Law School for one year, and I was surprised and pleased to be named first chairman of the Commission, which I chaired for two-and-a-half years, and was a member for seven years.

FIN: How did you come to be an OB resident?

NR: In 1981, I married Chuck Rogers, a well known Ocean Beach and Fire Island resident. I thought Ocean Beach was a lot of fun. I worked with Chuck to develop the Albatross building into seven condos, and to retain the Albatross as a restaurant and bar. This was subsequently sold to Jim Mallott. Six apartments were sold separately, and we kept the remaining one, Unit 7, as our OB residence.

FIN: I understand you were the owner of Fire Island Hotel.

NR: Yes, I was one of the owners of Fire Island Hotel in Ocean Bay Park, along with Chuck and a dozen others. After acquiring this property from the Flynns, we built an almost totally new facility complete with a swimming pool and some timeshare units. When managing it from Ocean Beach became more than we could handle, we sold our interest to one of the original partners, Ed Eschmann, who now owns and operates it.FIN: How did you become involved in local politics and what led you to run for mayor?

NR: In those years, Ocean Beach was also “The Land of No.” Around 1989, when Mike Youchah was mayor, the trustees wanted to close the beach to non-residents and make “The Land of No” more restrictive. I made a speech at a board meeting as to a possible method of working out this beach problem without closing us down. My viewpoint was so well received that several persons asked me to run for the board. These people – Andy Miller, Jim Mallott, Mike Taylor, Susie and Don Cafuoco, Alan Kahn, and others – formed the core of the Unity Party, which eventually ran in several elections, resulting in me being elected as trustee in 1991, and finally mayor in 1998, an office I kept for eight years.

FIN: Was being the first female mayor a challenge?

NR: As far as being the first, and so far only, female mayor in OB history, it didn’t faze me one bit. All of my life, from my engineering days until now, I have worked with men at jobs and on volunteer projects. I never considered myself a “female” engineer or a “female” mayor. I judged myself as I expected others to do, on ability and performance.

FIN: Tell me about the highs and lows of your mayoral tenure.

NR: My philosophy is, and always has been, that the world is not black or white – not alpha or omega. Real solutions include various shades of gray, where everyone feels he or she has achieved some benefits, if not everything desired. Acceptable compromise does not tear people – or communities – apart. I sought, but couldn’t always achieve, a balance between the homeowners and commercial interests, and naturally had some opposition from extremes at both ends. But I definitely turned this Village from “No” to “Welcome.”

FIN: The Ocean Beach Community House was renamed in your honor this past summer. How did the reconstruction come about during your mayoral term? How do you feel about this honor?

NR: I loved redoing the Community House because building was one of my areas of expertise. I regret that it was not fully air conditioned and that we didn’t incorporate a professional type movie theater during the renovation. The funds required were too extensive, and without grant or government monies, I did not want to propose the large tax increase required. But I did achieve the north deck facing the bay as a great sitting and walking area against much opposition. Naturally, when the building was renamed in my honor I was deeply gratified and humbled. I love it! This is the third building with my name on it, and each was done because of my intense involvement in the activities of each agency. (The other two are the Natalie Katz-Rogers Training and Treatment Center, Queens Center for Progress, in Jamaica, Queens; and the Natalie Katz-Rogers Residential Home for Developmentally Disabled Persons, Bronx, NY, both through her work with United Cerebral Palsy.)

FIN: Any reflections as you look back on your life?

NR: And now the sad part. I had three daughters as I mentioned. Ronnie, the oldest, developed juvenile diabetes at the age of 6, was hospitalized and required insulin injections the rest of her life. After getting her doctorate from Johns Hopkins University in theoretical chemistry, she became a whiz in the computer world. She lived in Baltimore, was married but never had children because of medical issues. She died this past year on Easter Sunday, at the age of 73, due to complications of her condition. Gail, my youngest daughter, also developed diabetes at age 6, although we could find no history of the disorder on either side of the family. She too required lifelong insulin injections. She went to Rutgers University, and finally got a double degree from Portland State University in electrical an mechanical engineering. She worked with power and light companies on the West and Northeast coasts of the U.S., and was considered an expert at electrical energy conservation. She never married. Gail died in 1990, at the age of 40, while awaiting a kidney transplant. My middle daughter, Sandy, was a lawyer specializing in marital law. She was an assistant district attorney in Queens, and was president of the Queens Women’s Bar Association and Women’s Bar Association of the State of New York. She also was co-founder of Judges and Lawyers Breast Cancer Association, and spearheaded major fund raising accordingly. She also never married because of the family history of juvenile diabetes. In 2008, Sandy was operated on for a massive brain tumor, which was never fully diagnosed. She was on the mend for many years with almost full function, until about five years ago when the tumor grew again. In spite of extensive treatment and therapy, she died on Labor Day of this year.They were three beautiful, accomplished girls. I have Chuck’s wonderful family with me now, and I thank God for them.