Thursday, September 10, 2015

Will Rogers – Oklahoma’s Native Son

By Vickie McDonough

Will Rogers’ famous tag line: “I never met a man I didn’t like.”
William Penn Adair Rogers was born on his family’s ranch in Oologah, Oklahoma on November 4, 1879. He was the youngest of eight children. Both of his parents were of Cherokee descent. 

As a youth, Will worked cattle on the family ranch. He learned to ride and lasso from a young age and grew highly skilled at roping. He even earned a place in the Guinness Book of World Records for throwing three lassos at once. One went around a horse's neck, another circled around a rider, and the third flew under the horse, looping all four legs together. That must have been a sight to see.

“Everything is funny, as long as it's happening to somebody else.”

Though Will attended several schools, he dropped out in tenth grade to become a cowboy. He traveled to South Africa with Texas Jack's Wild West Show, where he played "The Cherokee Kid" and did roping tricks. Then he traveled to Australia and New Zealand with the Wirth Brothers Circus. He returned to the United States in 1904, where he did trick roping at the World's Fairs in St. Louis and New York City. He continued his career in entertainment, touring vaudeville circuits in America, Canada and Europe from 1905-1915. 

Will married Betty Blake on November 1908. They had four children: Will Jr., Mary, Jim and Fred. Betty was a loving and supportive wife to Will until his death.

“Good judgment comes from experience, and a lot of that comes from bad judgment.”

During his years in the vaudeville circuits, as well as his time with Ziegfeld Follies, Will's act evolved from the exhibition of his lasso skills to the development of his own unique style of humorous monologues. Will had always regretted quitting school, and enjoyed talking to people and reading. These two interests became the basis for his humor, which focused on intelligent and amusing observations about people, life, the country and the government in simple language that his audience could understand. Before long, audiences hankered for Will's humor more than his roping feats.

In 1918, Will began acting in silent films, including Laughing Bill Hyde (1918) and The Ropin' Fool (1921). When "talkies" came in, Will Rogers became a national star. His “talkie” film credits include such titles as They Had to See Paris (1929) and State Fair (1934). His humble way of talking and country roots appealed to audiences. Throughout his career, Will starred in 71 films and several Broadway productions. In 1934, he was voted the most popular male actor in Hollywood.

“Even if you're on the right track, you'll get run over if you just sit there.”

Will's career soon moved beyond the realm of show business. He wrote 4,000 syndicated columns and six books, and became a prominent radio broadcaster and political commentator. He called politics "the best show in the world" and described Congress as the "national joke factory." His folksy humor and honest, intelligent observations about the government and America earned the respect of the nation. 

Eventually, Will roped in some nominations of his own. He declined a nomination to be governor of Oklahoma but he did become honorary mayor of Beverly Hills in 1925. For the 1928 election, Life magazine formed the Anti Bunk Party, in the hope that their nominee for the Presidency of the United States would not talk "bunk," as other politicians did. Will's no-nonsense spin on the political "show" made him the obvious candidate for the spoof campaign. Will promised that he would resign if he won. He wrote his observations on the election in Life and became one of the country's foremost opinion leaders. As a result of his status as a nationally beloved figure and powerful political pundit, Will also had the good fortune to meet many world leaders. He was a guest at the White House and a friend of Presidents Calvin Coolidge and Franklin Roosevelt

“Too many people spend money they haven't earned to buy things they don't want to impress people they don't like.”

Will's life was cut short at the age of 55 in 1935. He planned a vacation with aviator Wiley Post, flying to Alaska with some stops along the way. Will had already flown all over the world as a reporter, visiting London, Manchuria, Java, Egypt, South America, Japan, Moscow and destinations all over America. The ill-fated flight to Alaska, however, took the life of America's most beloved celebrity. Tragically, on August 15, 1935, Will and Wiley's flight crashed near Point Barrow, Alaska, taking both of their lives. Will's untimely death shocked and saddened the nation. Initially, Will was buried in Los Angeles. However, his wife Betty built the Will Rogers Memorial in Claremore, Oklahoma, which was dedicated in 1938 by President Franklin Roosevelt. In 1944, Will's body and the body of his son Fred, who died at the age of two, were moved to rest there. Betty died that same year, and rests beside her husband and son.

Will Rogers' political writings and sayings continue to remain relevant to politics today, and his wit and humor continue to endear him to audiences everywhere. Let me close with a word of advice from Will Rogers: “Live in such a way that you would not be ashamed to sell your parrot to the town gossip.”

Click here to see a video of Will's fancy roping:

Bestselling author Vickie McDonough grew up wanting to marry a rancher, but instead married a computer geek who is scared of horses. She now lives out her dreams penning fictional romance stories about ranchers, cowboys, lawmen, and others living in the Old West. Vickie is an award-winning author of 37 published books and novellas. Her novels include the fun and feisty Texas Boardinghouse Brides series, and End of the Trail, which was the OWFI 2013 Best Fiction Novel winner. Whispers on the Prairie was a Romantic Times Recommended Inspirational Book for July 2013. Song of the Prairie won the 2015 Inspirational Readers Choice Award. Her latest series, Land Rush Dreams, focuses on the Oklahoma land runs.

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  1. Vickie, I never knew much about Will Rogers but have enjoyed hearing his quotes. Thanks for the bio. He was so interesting! Is he the guy who said he never met a man he didn't like?

    1. Yes, Will Rogers said that. He was an interesting man.

  2. Good overview of Will Rogers' life, Vickie! I never knew anything about his family. I'm glad he stayed married to the same woman, unlike so many famous people.

    1. Me too, Donna. He was of the era when married people tended to stay married.

  3. I loved learning more about Will Rogers! Thank you for sharing this great post, Vickie!

    texaggs2000 at gmail dot com

    1. You're welcome, Britney. As a native Oklahoman, I grew up hearing about Will Rogers, but I still learned some news things as I researched this article.