Writer-journalist Damon Runyon summed him up best when he called Will Rogers "America's most accomplished human document. One-third humor. One-third humanitarian. One-third heart."
Rogers described himself more modestly: "My humor is not so hot, my philosophy don't philo, and my jokes are pre-war, but my feelings toward mankind is 100 per cent."
That was just the tonic Depression-weary Americans needed and why the much quoted Rogers remains a national icon.
Rogers was mighty proud of his Oklahoma roots, and said so at every opportunity. And Oklahoma is rightfully proud of him. The state has immortalized the cowboy philosopher at the Will Rogers Memorial in Claremore (20 miles northeast of Tulsa) and at his birthplace, the Dog Iron Ranch, in nearby Oologah.
Both sites, though quite different, capture the essence of the man and interpret for visitors a legacy that is as relevant today as it was 60 years ago.
On Aug. 15, 1935, when Rogers and aviator Wiley Post were killed in a plane crash near Point Barrow, Alaska, the humorist was on top of the world, both literally and professionally. As a Hollywood box-office draw, he was second only to Shirley Temple. Millions tuned in to his Sunday evening radio broadcasts, and more than 500 newspapers carried his syndicated column.
We are not as sentimental as we used to be, so it's difficult to fathom the outpouring of grief that attended his passing; theaters were darkened, airwaves were silenced, and tributes and condolences were offered from around the world. The loss was compared to that of Abraham Lincoln 70 years earlier.
While he was cozy with presidents and foreign heads of state, Rogers never lost his common touch.
"They may call me a rube and a hick," he liked to say, "but I'd a lot rather be the man who bought the Brooklyn Bridge than the man who sold it."
Monuments and memorials were erected throughout the nation. The family ranch at Santa Monica, Calif., became Will Rogers State Park. And in the Colorado Rockies, near Pikes Peak, a wealthy friend of Rogers financed the construction of a 100-foot granite tower dedicated as the Will Rogers Shrine of the Sun.
In 1938, on land donated by the Rogers family, Oklahomans honored their hero with the Will Rogers Memorial, a repository for loads of the writer's personal belongings and the lion's share of his letters and manuscripts, as well as commemorative artworks.
The memorial was complete when, in accordance with his family's wishes, Rogers' remains were transferred from a holding vault at Forest Lawn (in Glendale, Calif.) to the grounds of the memorial in 1944.
Where to begin a tour of the area is hard to say. My inclination was to first visit the ranch where Will was born in 1879. But knowing relatively little about him, I thought the birthplace would have more significance if I knew more about his life. And the best place to do that, I found, was at the Will Rogers Memorial.
Claremore today looks like any other tank town along the old Frisco railroad. Motorists traveling down former Route 66, which bisected the city, used to take note of the Will Rogers Hotel (now shuttered), and so did Will.
"I know now how proud Christopher Columbus must have felt when he heard they named Columbus, Ohio, after him," he once quipped.
The memorial is situated on a hilltop overlooking the Tiawah Valley on a 20-acre parcel that was purchased by Rogers in 1911 as a possible homesite for his retirement.
Included at the site is an eight-gallery museum and a sunken garden that contains the subterranean tomb of Rogers; his wife, Betty; infant son Freddie and daughter Mary.
(There were four children in all, including the late Will Jr., who portrayed his father in the 1952 film biography, "The Story of Will Rogers," and Jim, who serves on the memorial's board.)
As lovely as the place is, the grounds have the unmistakable aura of a cemetery. The entire complex is surrounded by a high iron fence, and the imposing limestone building that houses the museum has the appearance of a chapel, complete with stained-glass windows depicting Rogers' various careers.
Glad you're here
Once inside, the mood changes considerably. Just steps into the foyer, visitors encounter a larger-than-life oil rendition of Rogers by artist Charles Banks Wilson. And judging from the expression on Will's face, he looks as if he's genuinely glad you stopped in.
The background music is the soundtrack from the Tony Award-winning "Will Rogers Follies." The 1991 Broadway production, which has been touring the United States for the past four years, is heartily endorsed by the memorial and is credited with stimulating renewed interest in Oklahoma's favorite son.
In the museum's first gallery, visitors get acquainted with Will Rogers the cowboy. Murals, sculptures, dioramas, vintage photos and show bills recount Will's early years and how he was transformed from a young cowpuncher on the ranges of Oklahoma and Texas to the international celebrity he later became.
Also on exhibit here is his wall-to-wall collection of lariats and exquisite saddles, evidence of Rogers' fondness for horses.
"A man that don't love a horse," he once remarked, "there is something the matter with him."
Show business career
Displays tell of Will's show business apprenticeship. At 23, he joined Texas Jack's Circus, where he was billed as "The Cherokee Kid, World's Champion Lassoer." The next year, 1904, found him at the St. Louis World's Fair as a trick rider and roper in Col. Zack Mulhall's Wild West show.
After touring on the vaudeville circuit with his horse Teddy, he finally hit the big time in 1916 as a headliner with the Ziegfeld Follies. Sharing the bill with such sensations as W.C. Fields, Eddie Cantor and Fanny Brice, Rogers expanded his old lariat routine to include the comical and topical banter that became his trademark.
It wasn't long before Hollywood beckoned, and, like many popular stage performers of his day, the Ziegfeld star headed west to try his luck in the movies. In his 17-year film career, Rogers appeared in some 70 motion pictures.
A pleasant detour from the museum's static displays is a 178-seat, nickelodeon-style theater that screens a number of these gems. The flickering images of Will Rogers performing hilarious bits of lasso artistry in the 1922 silent classic "The Ropin' Fool" are delightful. And though he doesn't utter a word, the actor's charisma is as plain as day.
Near the portrait gallery is a map that charts Rogers' ramblings around the world. He was addicted to travel, and when aviation was in its infancy, he circled the globe three times, gathering material for his newspaper articles and raising hundreds of thousands of dollars to aid victims of fires, floods and earthquakes.
In August 1935, it was announced that Will Rogers would accompany pioneering airman Wiley Post on an extended tour of Alaska, supposedly to locate a polar mail route to Siberia.
Their nine-day jaunt included stops at Juneau, Fairbanks and Anchorage, where Rogers filed his last column. The pair then headed north, crossing the Arctic Circle.
Post made a brief stop at a fishing camp about 15 miles south of Point Barrow to ask directions. On takeoff, according to Eskimos at the scene, the single-engine plane's motor sputtered, then died, and the craft nose-dived into a shallow lagoon, killing both men instantly. Will Rogers was 55.
A number of years earlier, Rogers had written, almost prophetically: "It looks like the only way you can get any publicity on your death is to be killed in a plane. It's no novelty to be killed in an auto anymore."
It was never determined what caused the plane's engine to fail, but there was speculation that Post had simply run out of gas.
In a small, dimly lighted alcove is a diorama of the crash site -- an icy death scene that's striking in its simplicity. Also here are Rogers' personal effects that were retrieved from the wreck: a watch, a pocket knife, eyeglasses, a suit of clothes and his mangled portable typewriter.
Thoroughly impressed with my self-guided tour, I stopped at the office of Joe Carter, who, since 1989, has served as director of the Will Rogers Memorial Commission, which oversees both the memorial and birthplace.
The author of "Never Met a Man I Didn't Like: The Life and Writings of Will Rogers," Mr. Carter is versed in his subject, and is a bit of a cracker-barrel philosopher himself.
When he learned that I hadn't yet visited Will Rogers' birthplace, and having business there himself, he insisted that I join him. It was a breezy 12-mile drive to Oologah and the old home ranch. Along the way, Mr. Carter provided a running commentary on the family's history.
Today we call this the heartland, but when Clem Rogers, Will's father, ranched here in the 1870s it was the frontier known as Indian Territory.
"My ancestors didn't come over on the Mayflower," Will liked to joke, "but they met 'em at the boat." Will's parents were indeed part Indian, and he himself was 9/32nds Cherokee. But in fact, with intermarriages having been so common, Will Rogers was probably more Irish than anything else.
Their forebears, sometimes called "white Indians," had been driven to Oklahoma after President Andrew Jackson ordered the Cherokees off their homelands in the Southeast. At the outbreak of the Civil War, animosity toward the government in Washington was so fierce that many of the Cherokees, including Clem Rogers, sided with the Confederacy.
After the war, Clem returned to what is now eastern Oklahoma and prospered. Under Cherokee code, he was entitled to all the land he could sufficiently manage.
His holdings rapidly grew to include 60,000 acres of range land on which he ran 10,000 head of Texas Longhorn cattle. When Will was born, on Nov. 4, 1879, Clem was one of the richest men in the territory.
For its time, Will's birthplace was considered a mansion. Constructed of logs and covered with wood siding, it was known as the "White House on the Verdigris" (for the river that flowed nearby).
With wealth came power, and Clem Rogers was a dominant force in Cherokee politics. His home was a capital of sorts for the sparsely settled Cooweescoowee District and was the scene of many a political and social gathering.
It was in this atmosphere that Will spent his childhood, but his most enduring memories of that period were of his mother, Mary America Schrimsher Rogers. Years later, reflecting on motherhood, he said: "My own mother died when I was 10 years old. My folks have told me that what little humor I have comes from her. I can't remember her humor, but I can remember her love and understanding of me."
Working cattle on his father's Dog Iron Ranch, Will came to love the cowboy life, but he was restless, and, at 18, after attending a succession of boarding schools, he told his family goodbye and headed for Texas.
Though he never really came back to stay, throughout his life he returned for frequent visits and was always keenly interested in the Dog Iron Ranch. When his father died in 1911, Will acquired the property and, with his nephew as foreman, kept the ranch operational.
The Rogers family maintained the ranch until 1958, when the Army Corps of Engineers condemned 1,600 acres of the land to make way for the construction of the Oologah Dam and Reservoir. As a shrine to their father, his children offered the state of Oklahoma a remaining 100-acre parcel, provided that the state would move the ranch house to a hilltop that would overlook the soon-to-be-created Lake Oologah.
Appearing very much as it did in 1879, the old ranch headquarters sparkles. There is a faithful duplicate, built in 1993 by Amish carpenters, of the original barn.
The living history theme is further enhanced by a magnificent herd of docile Texas Longhorns, which graze on 400 acres of bluestem grass.
Oologah being restored
Twenty years ago, when Wanda Sanders moved to Oologah, the downtown's turn-of-the-century storefronts were occupied mostly by pigeons. Motivated by the fact that Will Rogers walked these streets, she initiated a series of restoration projects, including the 1906 bank building and a former general store, which now houses a museum.
Today, the block appears just as it would have when Will would come home to visit at age 25. What the town is sorely missing is the old railroad station where he first met Betty Blake, his future wife and lifelong partner. The building was moved from its trackside location years ago and remodeled beyond recognition, but if Ms. Sanders has her way, that too will be set right.
Back in Claremore, I couldn't help but wonder about how much thought Will Rogers put into his most quoted remark. He was 50 years old when he said it, and it's hard to believe that in all that time he hadn't encountered at least one scoundrel he didn't like. But it was vintage Rogers.
"When I die, my epitaph, or whatever you call those signs on gravestones, is going to read, 'I joked about every prominent man in my time but I never met a man I didn't like.' I am just so proud of that. I can hardly wait to die so it can be carved. And when you come around my grave, you'll probably find me sitting there proudly reading it."
That's exactly what's inscribed on his granite marker, but. so far, he hasn't made a reappearance.
If you go . . .
Will Rogers Memorial in Claremore, Okla., is open every day of the year (8 a.m. to 5 p.m.) as is Rogers' birthplace in Oologah (dawn to dusk). Admission to both sites is free, but donations are welcome.
0 Lodging: Lodging in Claremore is of the tourist-court variety ($35- $50 for a room), but deluxe accommodations are plentiful in Tulsa, 35 minutes away.
Accessibility: Both the ranch and memorial are completely wheelchair-accessible.
Information: Will Rogers Memorial and Birthplace, P.O. Box 157, Claremore, Okla. 74018; (800) 828-9643.