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Will Rogers: an American Humorist

Sometimes I like to reflect on the past. I am particularly interested in the men and women who were able to keep us laughing during the dark times of economic depression and the horrors and rigors of the wars that our nation has faced. There were a number of comedians and humorists who served in that capacity in years past. Some I remember in particular are Jack Benny, George Burns, Bob Hope (I saw him in person in Johnson City several years ago), Carol Burnett, and Lucille Ball. Those folks were prominent during my lifetime. There were many others of course who evoked a laugh or two during the difficult times of our nation.
The great humorist Will Rogers also comes to my mind. While I was born after his career ended in a plane crash, I wish I had been alive during Will Rogers’ time on the world and national stage. I enjoy reading about him and his exploits as a rope trick artist, humorist, columnist, trick rider and the many other things he did so well. His folksy humor stood out as he performed live in Vaudeville and Wild West Shows, wrote weekly and daily columns in leading newspapers, and starred in movies. He was popular in silent movies and became even a bigger star when the talkies came along. He appeared in 71 films and several Broadway productions. He also wrote 4,000 syndicated columns and six books.
William Penn Adair Rogers was born November 4, 1879 at Rogers Ranch in Oologah, Indian Territory (what is now Oklahoma). His parents, Clement Vann Rogers and Mary Schrimsher, were partly of Cherokee descent. His humor certainly showed through when he said: “My ancestors didn’t come over on the Mayflower, but they met the boat.” He played the “Cherokee Kid” in 1902 and 1903 while with Texas Jack’s Wild West Show. He appeared at the World’s Fairs in St. Louis and New York City. He was also in vaudeville circuits in America, Canada and Europe from 1905 until 1915. In 1934, Rogers was voted the most popular male actor in Hollywood. He was also a brilliant broadcaster and an excellent writer.
There is a subtle or perhaps not so subtle difference between a comedian and a humorist. Many folks say a comedian is concerned with making people laugh at what he says. On the other hand the humorist is concerned with making people laugh as he or she makes an important point. For instance Rogers had humorous commentary about the government and other public institutions that was not just humorous but made a valid point as well. One of his most famous quips was “I don’t make jokes, I just watch the government and report the facts.” He also said: “There’s no trick to being a humorist when you have the whole government working for you.”
Rogers married Betty Blake in November of 1908 and they had four children: Will Jr., Mary, Jim and Fred. On April 15, 1935, Rogers and friend Wiley Post were on their way to Alaska for a vacation when the plane crashed near Point Barrow, killing both men. Rogers was 55. His death shocked and saddened the nation.
Some other of his sayings includes: “Buy land. They ain’t making any more of the stuff.”; “If I studied all my life, I couldn’t think up half the number of funny things passed in one session of congress” and “It isn’t what we don’t know that gives us trouble, it’s what we know that ain’t so.”
I will continue to hold Will Rogers high as a great humorist and a great example of someone who never let success go to his head.