A Tribute to Will Rogers
Nov. 4, 1879 – Aug. 15, 1935
By Jennifer Rogers-Etcheverry and Steve Gragert
August 15th, 1935. Miles from Point Barrow, Alaska, a nose-heavy Lockheed airplane took off and immediately crashed into the shallow end of the water. One of the two men in the plane was the most trusted and revered man of the time: Will Rogers.
When the world received word of Will’s death, it stopped. People wandered out on to the streets, pulled their cars over to get out and weep. The next edition of the New York Times devoted thirteen pages to Will Rogers’ life and death. It was the only time Hollywood has gone dark and silent. Millionaires, celebrities, politicians and influential people attended his funeral, alongside 51,000 of his fans who walked two miles to the Hollywood Bowl in order to pay their respects.
By the time of Will’s death:
● His newspaper columns had a potential reach of over 40 million readers
● He drew in 30 million people at the box office (#2 behind Shirley Temple)
● There was a greater and unmeasurable reach for his radio program. It was so popular that politicians from both sides listened in and did everything they could to get on his show and earn his approval. It is rumored that men of the cloth timed their Sunday night sermons around Will’s show.
Best known for saying: “I never met a man I didn’t like,” Will used this expression more than once. Not as some folksy proverb promoting friendliness as an end unto itself, the quotes came as Will used his columns and radio shows to be the voice of the people, injecting common sense into the turbulent political rhetoric of the day. America was suffocating under its debts from the first World War and unemployment during the Great Depression. The quote was Will’s way of showing respect to politicians and foreign dignitaries with opposing views.
At the start of his show biz career, Will referred to himself as an “Injun Cowboy.” Technically Will’s father managed sixty-thousand acres within the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma, that included their family ranch. Will watched his father become a judge, then senator. The Cherokees had to deal with the inner turmoil that came up among its people, as well as the increasing sprawl of white settlers moving in around them. This was where Will learned to respect the viewpoints of the people who didn’t agree with him. It also fueled Will’s curiosity.
Will set off to see the world when he was eighteen. His formidable roping skills helped pay his way, forging his path to greatness, eventually landing him in the biggest show on Broadway: The Ziegfeld Follies. At first Will’s rope act was silent, no words necessary, his rope filled up the theatre, soaring sixty-feet over the audience leaving them breathless.
No one could have predicted the moment that he made his first off-handed comment would lead to his observations about things he read in the newspaper. Will drew in crowds who wanted to hear from this cowboy philosopher. This is what led to his syndicated newspaper columns, magazine articles and radio show, his common-sense philosophies, his consideration of opposing viewpoints, and a deep sensitivity to the plight of the starving and poor.
The world was Will’s muse. He had to explore it even beyond the bounds of entertainment and outlook on current events:
● Will made a few international journeys before he realized the potential of aviation. Initially he was reluctant to try it, but after his first couple flights, he was a fan. He traveled more, and even paid his weight to fly on airmail planes. He was a huge advocate for flying safety and the establishment of the first commercial airlines. It also made his following contributions possible...
● Will was one of the first celebrities using his influence via fundraising events in towns across the country. He helped people harmed by natural disasters, the Depression, and polio, to name a few. In fact, he’d do his research on the politics and opposing politicians in any given town he was traveling to for an event. He’d use that knowledge to playfully shame them. While laughing at themselves, the politicians contributed money to the cause.
● To the delight of two Presidents, Will made himself an unofficial diplomat to heads of state all over Europe, the Far East and Mexico, reporting to the White House upon his return.
Eighty years later, as we observe the anniversary of Will’s untimely death, our country is facing many of the same challenges it faced during his life; 1) conflicts overseas with a struggling U.S. diplomacy and, 2) economic hardship and an explosive political arena here in the U.S. We are in need of Will Rogers' influence, and his knack for cutting through the distracting disrespect of opposing political viewpoints with his refreshing common sense solutions.
Jennifer Rogers-Etcheverry is the great granddaughter of Will Rogers.
Steve Gragert is a former executive director of the Will Rogers Memorial Museum at Claremore, OK.
For more information about Will Rogers go to www.willrogers.com.