Will Rogers died before I was born. I never saw any of his movies or heard his voice on the radio. But I feel as if I knew him because he was my dad’s favorite movie star. Dad talked about him a lot, especially on long car trips.
Most movie cowboys were city boys with pretty faces. Born in 1879 on the Dog Iron Ranch in Oklahoma’s Indian Territory, Will was the real thing. Both his parents were part Cherokee (Will once quipped that his ancestors didn’t come over on the Mayflower, but they met the boat). The youngest of eight children, Will quit school after the 10th grade. He was more interested in being a cowboy than in reading, writing and arithmetic. A freed slave taught him how to use a lasso to work Texas Longhorn cattle on the family ranch. As he grew older, Will’s roping skills were so remarkable that he was listed in the Guiness Book of Records for throwing three lassos at the same time: One rope caught the running horse’s neck, the other would loop around the rider and the third swooped up under the horse to loop all four legs.
After some early adventures abroad, will returned to America and went into show business as “The Cherokee Kid.” His skills won him jobs trick roping in wild west shows and on the vaudeville stages where, soon, he started telling small jokes. Quickly, his wisecracks and folksy observations became more prized by audiences than his expert roping. He became known as an informed philosopher, telling the truth in simple words so that everyone could understand. Here are some examples:
“A fool and his money are soon elected.”
“Advertising is the art of convincing people to spend money they don’t have for something they don’t need.”
“Buy land. They ain’t making any more of the stuff.”
“Even if you’re on the right track you’ll get run over if you just sit there.”
“If stupidity got us into this mess, then why can’t it get us out?”
And my favorite–“We will never have true civilization until we recognize the rights of others.”
Will starred on Broadway and in 71 movies and was also a radio broadcaster. He wrote more than 4,000 newspaper colums and six books. Presidents, senators and kings sought his opinions. Inside himself, Will Rogers remained a simple Oklahoma cowboy. “I never met a man I didn’t like,” was his credo of genuine love and respect for humanity and all people everywhere. He gave his own money to disaster victims and raised thousands for the Red Cross and Salvation Army.
Will was also a devoted husband and father of four. He married Betty Blake in 1908 after an 8 year courtship. He would say, “When I roped her, that was the star performance of my life.” In 1935, at the age of 55, Will took off on a flight around the world with a legendary pilot named Wiley Post. The plane crashed in Alaska. Both men lost their lives. The outpouring of national grief over Will Rogers’s passing is generally regarded to be the greatest such show of national mourning since the death of Lincoln some seventy years earlier. Will has been honored with postage stamps and monuments, including a statue in the U.S. Capitol building. And his wise, simple words are still with us.
Will Rogers was America’s cowboy for an earlier generation. Who would you nominate for the title today? Do you have a favorite Will Rogers saying?