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A Veteran of The Craft: An Interview with U.S. Mint Sculptor Thomas D. Rogers Sr.

Thomas D. Rogers Sr holding his original engraving of the Sacagawea Dollar reverse. Click to enlarge.

Few in the numismatic world have their artistic credits on as many coins, bullion issues, medals, and commemoratives as American sculptor and U.S. Navy veteran, Thomas D. Rogers, Sr. With a career spanning close to 50 years, Rogers left his brilliant mark on several recognizable coins in circulation today, such as the soaring eagle reverse on the inaugural Sacagawea Dollar and several State Quarters including the Revolutionary War Minuteman on the Massachusetts issue. His sculpting signature “TDR” can also be seen on the first 1 oz. U.S. Mint platinum release reverse from 1997.

Thomas D. Rogers, Sr. worked for the U.S. Mint as a sculptor and engraver from 1991 to 2001 and he continues to work for private mints today. In total, Rogers has sculpting and design credits on more than 30 different U.S. Mint coins and medals, and his traditionalist approach is what distinguishes his work from many artists today. His command of an age-old sculpting technique is increasingly rare as the coin making process moves digital. Throughout his career Rogers honed the tradition of engraving bespoke designs for coins, carving directly into negative plaster, and preparing final die cuts, the impact of which can be seen throughout his prolific numismatic works.

In addition to his U.S. Mint contributions, Rogers produced works for private mints, corporate clients, the ANA, the Inventors Hall of Fame, and over 90 of his sculpted portraits have been hung in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame – a true artist’s oeuvre! Rogers recently signed an exclusive agreement on an insert signature label series with PCGS and will be available starting in this summer. We had the chance to speak with Tom about his life sculpting, designing coins, Cheerios, and what working for the U.S. Mint is like.

As a young man it seems you were drawn to art and design taking classes in commercial art and advertising. At what point did sculpting become a focus, and how?

I grew up in the town of Wingdale, part of the township of Dover Plains, in upstate New York; we had no close neighbors, so a lot of my time was spent drawing for amusement, and our encyclopedia books were my reference materials. I remember carving figures of animals out of balsam wood at an early age, so I guess you could say the desire to sculpt was always there.

Were you into coins as a kid?

I did not collect coins as a child. My mother cleaned up an old Uncle’s room once that had been badly maintained, and when she scraped dirt out of the cracks in the floor, about thirty old Indian head pennies were revealed. She kept them in an eyeglass box, and for years I was fascinated by their antiquity. I still have that box today.

What were your first projects in sculpting, and how did the feedback you received at that point affect your career?

The first real sculpting I did was while working at Medallic Art Company in Danbury, Connecticut in 1972. It was started by the Weil brothers from France and was the largest medal manufacturer in the U.S.

I was hired as a sketch artist right out of college, and I was asked to work in the plaster room when I wasn’t busy designing medals. I was taught how to properly lay out the lettering on a circle and carve letters into plaster models that were submitted by outside sculptors. Medallic Art Co. used many great sculptors for the main elements of the medals, and many of them either couldn’t or did not like to do lettering. The smallest undercut on a letter will break it when casting.

I decided one day to do a sample sculpture of a design I did for the U.S. Mint Bicentennial Medal, which was coming up soon, and the President of the company liked it and adopted it as one of their stock medals. From that point on, I was given extra at-home sculpting work.

Rogers’ Centurion design was selected as the obverse for the ANA 100th Anniversary medal. Click to enlarge.

In 1990, I took a position as sculptor/engraver at Medalcraft Mint in Green Bay, WI. While there, I learned to cut steel dies on a pantograph machine (a tool used to enlarge designs). I had previously applied to the U.S. Mint but had not had an answer yet. Around this time, I entered a national competition to design the ANA’s 100th Anniversary medal, and my "Centurion" design was selected for the obverse. It depicted a Centurion ascending a staircase into the future, armed only with the lamp of knowledge, and the motto "De Profundis". No other words were necessary, it was purely a descriptive design.

Shortly after that, I got a call to interview at the U.S. Mint, and I’m sure that the experience of die cutting at Medalcraft, my 18 years in the field, and my ANA design selection contributed to the success of my application.

What are some of your favorite moments working for the U.S. Mint?

There were so many, but at the least, four of my favorite moments while working at the U.S. Mint were:

  1. Being given the task of redesigning the U.S. Mint Bicentennial Medal’s obverse, which contained 15 United States coins, all of which I carved backward on the plaster model. This was the first job I was given on my own at the Mint and was my "Trial by Fire" so to speak. No one had ever done anything like that before, and I was honored at the opportunity. I considered the job of Sculptor/Engraver at the U.S. Mint to be an honor and a privilege just to work on American medals and currency.
  2. Being chosen to have my "Soaring Eagle" design appear on the reverse of the 2000 Golden "Sacagawea" One Dollar and getting to share the edge of that coin with Glenna Goodacre, a fantastically talented American sculptor.
  3. Being able to have my wife, sister and both sons who were active U.S. Navy personnel, accompany me to the White House for the "Golden Dollar" ceremony on June 4, 2000.
  4. Being awarded the gold medal Lifetime Achievement Award for Medallic Sculpture by the American Numismatic Association at their summer Money Show in Philadelphia on August 12, 2000, which happened to be my birthday.

Rogers with his two sons. Click to enlarge.

Any other anecdotes you care to share?

Several of my favorite moments while at the U.S. Mint came from the comments of the people involved closest to the work. For example, I designed and sculpted the Gerald and Betty Ford Congressional Medal’s obverse and at the ceremony held at the U.S. Capitol Rotunda, he commented to me, "Hey, I look even better in gold."

I finalized Robert F. Kennedy’s plaster portrait for his commemorative coin with Ethel pointing out some details over my shoulder. Afterward, she sent me a letter which read "Now I know how the Pope felt when he told Michelangelo to mess up David’s hair!"

As Father Theodore Hesburgh, 35-year President of the University of Notre Dame was holding his Congressional Gold Medal at the ceremony in the rotunda, his parting words to me were, "Do Well." I replied, "Considering the subject matter of the medal you’re holding, I hope I have already done well." The medal reverse read, "In recognition of outstanding and enduring contributions."

The 2000 Sacagawea reverse has its own footnote in numismatic history with two versions released, one with an unconventional method of distribution–via a box of Cheerios. Care to comment on which of these designs was meant to be the "true" design or why were there two designs at all?

Sacagawea Dollar obverse and reverse (Version 1). Click to enlarge.

As I recall, the reason behind two designs was due to the quickly approaching deadline for the January 2000 release, and there had been no successful trial strikes on the new dollar yet. I believe it was sometime in October, and there were concentric reduction lies appearing in all the reductions, stemming from, and going through the eagle’s tail feathers. Not being able to successfully stone out the lines, and still retain a patterned feather texture, a manufacturing decision was made to smooth the feathers, and sink the center feather rachis (spine). The subsequent die, cut with the smoother tail feathers, passed the trial strike and became the new master die. At that time, I had no knowledge of a deal made with Cheerios, and before the new master die was cut, the 5000 Sacagawea dollars were struck using the previous die with textured feathers, packaged, and shipped to Cheerios.

To date, what is your favorite personal work for the U.S. Mint, and favorite work by a contemporary (made during your lifetime)?

1993 WWII 52th Anniversary of D-Day $1 commemorative coin. Click to enlarge.

Being a Veteran, some of my favorite works for the U.S. Mint were the military issues, including the obverse of the Persian Gulf National Medal, the reverses of the 1994 Women in the Military $1 commemorative, the 1994 Vietnam $1 commemorative, the 2016 Native American $1 "Code Talker" reverse.

I would have to say that the 1993 WWII 50th Anniversary of D-Day commemorative $1 coin was my absolute favorite. I designed and sculpted both the obverse and reverse and was humbled to be given the responsibility of honoring so many heroes.

My favorite metallic work by a contemporary would be John Mercanti’s Silver Bullion $1 reverse – simply because of its clarity of composition, and the sheer magnitude of its mintage and popularity.

In 1991, you left the Mint to pursue freelance opportunities, at that point in your career, how were your goals and aspirations different than when you first started your career?

When I left the U.S. Mint in 2001, I felt that I had reached the pinnacle of my career. In the year 2000, four out of the six circulating coin’s reverse designs that the U.S. Mint had in its proof sets were mine. I had spent 10 years of my life commuting to work in Philadelphia on a train, and it was time for a change of scenery. The goal of supporting my family by being a freelance designer/sculptor remained the same.

Thomas D. Rogers Sr. PCGS Signature Label in a PCGS holder. Click to enlarge.

You took a long respite from the U.S. Mint, but then in 2016 one of your designs appears on the Native American dollar reverse. How did that come about?

I was contacted by a representative of the U.S. Mint in 2014 to do some supplemental design work and one of the projects was the reverse of the 2016 Native American $1 coin paying homage to the Code Talkers of WWI and WWII. It was an unexpected honor to have my design chosen to appear again as a reverse of a coin that I had worked on 16 years ago. Although my "Soaring Eagle" reverse was ultimately changed in 2008, it remains one of only five flying eagles to appear on U.S. circulated coins. With all due respect to Frank Gasparro, I included his eagle landing on the moon in the five, although it was not actually flying, per se.

After a long day’s work in the studio, what is Thomas D. Rogers typically doing?

I am pleased that I found my niche in life and was able to create works of art that everyone can carry around in their pockets. At the end of the day, I remain a man who loves his family and still wonders at the mysteries of nature. I believe strongly in destiny and feel blessed to walk in the open desert and find a piece of petrified wood that has been waiting there for millions of years.

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