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Back and Forth: Remembering Will Rogers, an American icon

Will Rogers, Piolets Seppla, pilot Wiley Post, and Joe Crosson in the last photo taken of Will Rogers before his fatal flight on Aug. 15, 1935, in Fairbanks, Alaska.

He was sort of a homespun Oklahoma cowboy, a humorist, a stage performer, movie star and ambassador. That was Will Rogers. His on-the-spot sayings were quoted by thousands in a day before television and today's modern-held iPads and iPhones. One of his most famous quips was "I only know what I read in the papers." Another was "I never met a man I didn't like."

Born on Indian territory near Oolagah, Okla., in 1879 by parents with Cherokee Indian blood, he often joked "My parents didn't come over on the Mayflower but they were there to meet the boat." Will was a cowboy philosopher, famous for his homespun humor and shrewd timely comments on current events. He started life as a cowboy and still is regarded as one of the greatest ropers of all time. It was his on-the spot witticisms he made while performing on stage acts that made him fame and fortune.

After starting in 1905 on a New York stage he really won fame in the 1916 Ziegfeld Follies. Two years later, he starred in a motion picture singing in Eugene O'Neill's "Ah Wilderness." Rogers also was a very talented writer using short comments on the news of the world. His columns appeared in 350 daily newspapers. President Calvin Coolidge appointed Rogers in 1926 as an "Ambassador of Goodwill" when the entertainer toured Europe. His admirers all chuckled over his letters to the President in 1927 "as a self-made Diplomat to the President."

His full name was William Penn Adair Rogers. In his young years, he attended Kemper Military Academy in Boonville, Missouri for two years. He referred to that as "one year in the Guard House and one year in the fourth grade." At age 18, he left school for the Texas Panhandle to become a cowboy but soon drifted off to Argentina where he turned up as "Texas Jack in Texas Jack's Wildwest Circus. In 1908, back in the U.S., he married Betty Blake, a school teacher in Arkansas. They had 4 children.

America mourned when reading the newspaper headlines in 1935, and I remember them at age 4, "Will Rogers, American humorist dies in plane crash." He and his pilot Wiley Post were on a trip to the Orient when the plane went down near Point Barrow, Alaska. He was 56 years old.


The world had lost a friend through the movies, newspapers and on radio. He was a household word, an icon. Statues of the famous cowboy are in the Will Rogers Museum at Claremore, Okla., and in Washington D.C. Statuary Hall in the nation's Capitol. I thank Paul Mathiso, of Preston, for lending this picture from his family's collection a few months prior to Will's death.

Next week: Christmas in Rochester, my hometown and KFAN Christmas choirs.

Harley Flathers is a longtime Rochester-area broadcaster and historian. Got a comment for Harley? Send it to news@postbulletin.com or to Harley at Post-Bulletin, P.O. Box 6118, Rochester, MN 55903. His column runs on Thursdays.

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