“I was born on Nov. 4,” he said, “which is election day … my birthday has made more men and sent more back to honest work than any other days in the year.” His name was William Penn Adair Rogers. He was a Cherokee citizen born in Oklahoma in Cherokee Nation, Indian Territory. And he didn’t need a DNA test to prove it. He was 9/32 (just over 1/4) Cherokee and quipped that his ancestors did not come over on the Mayflower: They “met the boat”.
For you younger readers, Will Rogers was an American stage and motion picture actor, vaudeville performer, American cowboy, humorist, newspaper columnist, social commentator, and Oklahoma’s favorite son. As a youth, he was interested in cowboys and horses, became skilled with a rope and lariat, and started his early 20th Century career on stage with a vaudeville cowboy rope act which eventually led to spot in the Ziegfeld Follies. Historians sum up his career in this nutshell: Rogers traveled around the world three times, made 71 films (50 silent films and 21 “talkies”), and wrote more than 4,000 nationally syndicated newspaper columns.
Most importantly though, Rogers is best remembered for his political wit and wisdom. He spoke to and for the common man (and woman). Of himself, he said with characteristic self-deprecation: “I was a poor student as a youth. I studied the Fourth Reader for ten years.” As for politics, “I am not a member of an organized political party. I am a Democrat.” Yet, all politicians of all parties, and the government in general, suffered (enjoyed) his homespun humor. Here are some samples of the humorous epigrams that made him an endeared figure across America and around the world in the early to mid-1900’s:
“I don’t make jokes. I just watch the government and report the facts.”
“Finding things to tax is becoming quite a problem. You see when taxes first started (who started ‘em anyhow?), Noah must have taken into the ark two taxes, one male and one female, and did they multiply bountifully! Next to guinea pigs, taxes must have been the most prolific of animals.”
“The best doctor in the world is a veterinarian. He can’t ask his patients what’s the matter. He’s just got to know.”
“There is nothing as easy as denouncing … It don’t take much to see that something is wrong but it does take some eyesight to see what will put it right again.”
“Everybody is ignorant only on different subjects.”
“When I first started out to write and misspelled a few words, people said I was plain ignorant. But when I got all the words wrong, they declared I was a humorist.”
“Everything is changing in America. People are taking the comedians seriously and the politicians as a joke.”
“Everything is funny, as long as it’s happening to somebody else.”
Perhaps Will Rogers’ personal philosophy of a life well-lived is summed up in his following pithy insights:
“Get a few laughs and do the best you can… live your life so that whenever you lose, you’re ahead.”
“Live in such a way that you wouldn’t be ashamed to sell the family parrot to the town gossip.”
As for his views on politicians and government, when the state of Oklahoma commissioned a statue of Rogers in the National Statuary Hall Collection of the United States Capitol, he agreed on the condition that the statue would be placed facing the House Chamber so he could “keep an eye on Congress.” It’s the only statue that does so. They say each U.S. president rubs the left shoe of Rogers’ statue for good luck before entering the House Chamber to give the State of the Union address
Rogers most enduring quote came just before his untimely death at age 55, when he and aviator Wiley Post died as their Lockheed Orion-Explorer crashed into a lagoon in northern Alaska in 1935. Said 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 lifetime, but I never met a man I didn’t like.’” Of which he later joked: “I am so proud of that, I can hardly wait to die so it can be carved.” The words – “I never met a man I didn’t like” – are carved forever into his gravestone at the Will Rogers Memorial in Claremore, Oklahoma.
Mel Grossman is a local resident and weekly columnist.