Good Will Friend to all: Oklahoma celebrates the life and verve of its favorite son -- the cowboy, actor and philosopher Will Rogers.


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.

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