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Remembering One Of The Greats

On this day eighty six years ago, newspapers around the U.S. carried a story that shocked the nation. People everywhere woke up to the news that one of the most beloved Americans and one of the most celebrated aviators had died.

Will Rogers and Wiley Post perished in a plane crash near Point Barrow Alaska.

Post was known for several aviation breakthroughs including the fastest flight from Los Angeles to Chicago (9:08:02) [1] and his solo flight around the world in 1933[2]Ibid. Can you imagine? Nine hours to fly from L.A. to The Windy City. We’ve come a long way in the last 90 years! But it was the passenger in Post’s pontoon plane on that foggy August day in 1935 for whom I mourn.

Does Will Rogers really need an introduction? I wish he were as widely known today as he was 86 years ago. Unfortunately, the collective memory of a nation has only so much room to hold events, dates and people. What and who do we remember? Stock market crashes, Shirley Temple, The Great Depression and Franklin D. Roosevelt? Even Pickford and Fairbanks are hardly known in this 21st century. They were as big an item as Jen and Brad. Or is it Brad and Angelina?

Bogart and Bacall? Who? Do we at least know who Groucho Marx is?

Buildings are often named after great historical figures, government or university buildings for example. Some city streets are named after notable persons. But there is only one “Oklahoma’s Native Son” as far as I know. An entire state proudly accepts that nickname bestowed on a man who made a positive difference in peoples’ lives; not just Americans. In Ft. Worth Texas there is a coliseum named after Will Rogers and an airport in Oklahoma City carries his name.

As far as movie stars go, Will Rogers was the top box office draw of 1934[3] putting him above recognizable names like Clark Gable, Joan Crawford and Bing Crosby. In 1935, the year of his death, he was second only to Shirley Temple[4]Ibid. Rogers’ acting career, however, is a tiny fraction of his value to a nation with a fresh memory of the first world war and deeply entrenched in an economy that had more functioning bread lines than assembly lines.

Regular folk who worked hard only to end up out of work in the early 1930s soaked up Rogers’ words of humor, wit, and perspective with each radio broadcast, newspaper column and film. Today those same words are just as pertinent as they were almost a century ago. Cutting through the fog of oratory statesmanship and big PR campaigns came easy to this Oklahoma cowboy turned entertainer turned unofficial diplomat. His was the gift of gab: he delivered messages about everything from fashion to foreign policy that you and I and everyone could understand. Our chair of the U.S. Federal Reserve Bank should take a lesson from Will Rogers.

“We’ll hold the distinction of being the only nation in the history of the world that ever went to the poorhouse in an automobile.” Will Rogers, 1931. “Bacon, Beans and Limousines” radio broadcast

Bacon, Beans and Limousines

Not a single politician with lofty ideals and big plans could escape the humor and wit that Americans loved to read each day in the papers. As early as December 1922, The New York Times began publishing some of the most famous ramblings which continued until that tragic August day in 1935. But if this humorist’s words poked at prominent men of the day, the poking was done with a finger and a smile. No harm was meant to anyone.

Where are those words today?

They’re around. Here and there. Mostly dim and twisted echos of what they were. Often not attributed to the Cowboy Philosopher who gave hope to the common folk of America. Oh Sure. Recordings are out there and volumes of his writings can be found if you know where to look. But the major cultural influence that was Will Rogers was laid to rest with the man who died in that plane crash. America was changing fast.

Dust was everywhere in the middle of the country. Farmers throughout the nation unhitched their mules and headed for better lives in the cities. Then that date which will live in infamy came and pulled the U.S. into another world war. Science quickly spread its objective form of democracy throughout the land and became the new savior of all things outside Sunday mass and the Sabbath. The honest and plain spoken words of a well traveled cowboy from Oologa, Oklahoma lost favor to political divisiveness, educated oratory and scientific explanation. That’s just my opinion. Nothing more.

I wonder how the junior tyrant senator from Wisconsin would have taken the words of America’s Cowboy Philosopher. Would McCarthyism have branded the beloved hero more red than white or blue?

Today, we don’t have anyone like Will Rogers to uplift us. Instead, we have politicians who lie to us and hide their real agendas from us. We have comedians who spew filthy language as a proxy for humor. We have self help gurus who want us to be the best version of ourselves possible… or so they say. We have fake news.

But hey. We have Dr. Phil. We should be fine, right?

Maybe this year, or the next, I will take a trip to the memorial in Claremore Oklahoma to see if the tale is true. To see if he will be sitting there proudly reading his own epitaph.

Until next time…


References ↑1 ↑2, ↑4 Ibid ↑3

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