The Reverend Colonel William Penn Adair Rogers, that's how we might have known him if his mother had had her way. But it's probably better that Will Rogers never became a Methodist minister, as his mother had hoped. He came around to his own style of preaching, using rope tricks instead of hand waving while he taught Americans plenty about fair play and tolerance and helpfulness and humility and honesty. Anyway, whoever heard of a minister who couldn't talk except he had a chew of gum, and thought syntax "must be bad, havin' both sin and tax in it"?
Will's born name, sure enough, led off with "Colonel." The real Colonel Adair, a full-blooded Cherokee, had led a Cherokee mounted regiment in the Civil War. Clem Rogers, Will's dad, had been his lieutenant. They became lifelong friends. At the time Will was born in 1879, the colonel's wife was visiting at the Rogers home. When the newborn's hollerings started, Mrs. Adair asked the privilege of naming him. That's how the little fellow entered life with an eagle on his shoulder. The full name appears on the authenticated Cherokee Rolls for 1880 which, so far as is known, Will never bothered to look up.
I learned about Mrs. Rogers' wish for her son to be a preacher soon after a book I wrote was chosen as Will's first talking picture ("They Had to See Paris", 1929) and we were introduced. Soon as he found I was a Methodist, we didn't have any trouble getting acquainted. Even before that, touring the country as a lecturer, he especially liked to talk in Methodist churches. Usually he'd start off saying that his mother had been a Methodist and that she had him picked for a preaching career. Then, eyes twinkling, he'd explain: "But I slipped and became an actor. I'm thankful she never knowed it!"
Will's mother died when he was 10, but the influence of her early teachings hovered over him the rest of his life. She had a rich sense of humor and a tongue quick as a jaybird's wing. She had musical ability, too, and ordered the first piano brought into the section of northeastern Indian Territory which is now Rogers County, Oklahoma. (The county was named for Will's dad.) She and Will often sang Methodist hymns together. There even was a time when Will fancied his boyish soprano that of a real singer. Neighbors treated to this entertainment found it easy to restrain their enthusiasm. Anyway, his mother wanted him to be a Methodist minister, and it was so planned. But he was to "slip and become an actor."
Will's dad was a gruff, domineering businessman, about as different from his wife and youngest child as cream from clabber. He worked hard and clung to money like a sandbur to a horse blanket. By the time Will came along, Clem Rogers was the third richest man in the Indian Territory. He didn't say much directly against Will's being a minister, but sometimes would point out that there wasn't much money in it. As for his wife's wish for grace before meals, Clem obliged – at breakneck speed, so as not to waste time getting to the vittles. He worked on Sunday, too, and expected his help to do the same. All in all, he wasn't exactly what you'd call a good influence on a young sprout headed for a seminary. Will's dad was largely responsible for dealing out the worst piece of luck that could happen to a growing boy. Will hated school; he was even pouty when his mother tried to teach him the piano. Then came a thunderclap that practically scalped him. His father decided Will would have to go to Tahlequah to attend the Cherokee Female Seminary, the school the boy's mother had attended. It was downright humiliatin'. But the boy was packed up and, kicking like a steer, shipped off to the girls' school.
He was the only boy here – and he determined to get out fast. At night he would creep behind girls and send up a war whoop that made their bustles shake. The girls complained to the faculty. Will sent up more whoops. In two weeks he was back at the ranch.
Soon more trouble loomed. This time his father chose the Harrell Institute at Muskogee, a Methodist boarding school for girls attended by his sister May. He was allowed to enroll only because the school's superintendent had a son the same age. The two boys roomed together.
Soon after, tragedy hit the Rogers' household. While Will was home sick with the measles, his mother got what was then called the flux. A doctor, summoned by wire, changed teams twice in a 36- mile race against time, but Will's mother died before he arrived. Will, so sick he couldn't attend the funeral, had lost his devoted, deeply religious mother. It was the saddest day of the 10-year old's life.
Even if his mother had lived, it is doubtful that Will would have ended up a preacher. He was restless, loved the outdoors, and didn't take to book learnin' at all. He saved his talent and enthusiasm for practicing rope tricks, riding fast horses, visiting friends, and joshing with the boys. This cantankerousness weighed heavily on his dad, who had no other male heir to take over the ranch. Clem Rogers tried to harness the boy's spirit and get a good education stuffed into him by sending him to three more schools, including Willie Halsell "college" at Vanita, operated by the Methodist church, and the Scarritt Collegiate Institute in Neosho, Missouri, run by the former Methodist Episcopal Church, South. Next, at 19, after not quite two years of entertaining fellow cadets at Kemper Military School in Boonville, Missouri, Will shook the Missouri dust from his feet and lit out for Texas. That ended his formal education.
He rode herd a few months before returning home to confront his father, who still nursed the flickering hope that his son might someday settle down and run the family ranch. That hope soon died. Yet Will was not an incorrigible; in many ways he was more sober-minded that his raucous companions. Unlike them, he did not play cards, gamble, smoke, or drink. Where they prided themselves on their swearing, Will had no part of it. He liked to play pranks, but never harmful ones. His mother had laid foundations that were to stick for a lifetime.
When Will finally settled on a career, however, it was far removed from the ministry. At the beginning he was just a tank-town vaudeville lasso twirler, no more. He never said a word on stage or tried to be funny. One night, though, he broke silence to call attention to a difficult new rope trick. The words he used weren't funny, but his personality showed through. When the folks laughed, Will was flabbergasted. In fact, he was downright depressed – until fellow performers convinced him that getting laughs was good show biz. Once Will put his mind to it, he didn't have much trouble being funny.
For a good while, Will never went on stage or lectured before a group without a wad of chewing gum in his mouth and a lariat in his hand. After a time he found he didn't even need the rope. He'd just stroll on stage, hands in pockets, and talk. That was all. Just talk. But what magnificent talk it was! He'd talk on anything.
Will didn't turn into another gag man with a repertoire of tired jokes ground out by hired writers. He was himself, on and off stage. He didn't have a set routine because he wanted fresh humor, though it sometimes lacked polish in on-the-spot improvisation. People could never take themselves too seriously with Will around to stick pins in inflated egos. He loved to whittle at the "ins" cockily riding on top of the world. To his great credit, he never took a crack at those who were "out" or "down." He always championed the little guy.
Will never was a regular churchgoer, yet he expected his children to attend Sunday school every week. When he lived in Beverly Hills, California, the community had no church; Sunday school was held in a grammar school. Will pitched in and helped raise money for what still operates as the Beverly Hills Community Church.
Not that Will never talked about his Methodist upbringing. While lecturing in the summer of 1928, for example, he appeared before a group of Methodists at Ocean Grove, New Jersey. He described the experience in his weekly syndicated column: "I didn't tell 'em I was a South Methodist. That would have been worse than telling them that you had gone High Hat and joined out with the Episcopals. You know, there is two gangs of Methodists, the North and the South.... one believed in slavery, the other didn't. That is their only fundamental difference. Now, the War has been over since '65, but they are still building different churches... There is just as much reason for these denominations to be separate as there is for blondes to go to one church, and brunettes to another... The Civil War has been over 63 years, but the Churches are the only ones that haven't found it out." (From Weekly Article # 293, August 5, 1928. Note: the main bodies of the Methodist Church did join together in 1939)
In that same year, Will began to mention epitaphs. The subject fascinated him. He suggested this as his: "He joked about every prominent man of his time, but he never met one he disliked." Now Will did dislike certain persons, let the world believe what it will. But he never said anything against them. His way of handling the situation was simple: he had nothing to do with them. If it couldn't be avoided, he'd speak as cordially as he could – then scoot.
Anyway, epitaphs got to be a regular lecture topic. Will probably mentioned 20 or more at various times, no two alike. One of the cleverest was: "Here lies Will Rogers. Politicians turned honest, and he starved to death." The likes of these attracted little attention. He never dreamed his first would become world famous.
It happened in Boston in 1930, during a lecture tour. As usual, Will wandered out, hands in his pockets, his gum going, and started off with a genial "Howdy, folks." On this night, he repeated a story he had used often before.
"I've got my epitaph all worked out," he said. "When I'm tucked away in the old graveyard west of Oologah (his hometown in Oklahoma), I hope they will cut this epitaph: 'Here lies Will Rogers. He joked about every prominent man of his time, but he never met one he didn't like.' I'm so proud of that, I can hardly wait till they can use it."
He had in mind only politicians; But a reporter from a Boston paper that night misquoted him as saying flatly, "I never met a man I didn't like." A wire service picked up the story and soon it was the talk of the nation. Will was astonished. Why, nobody had paid any mind to it before. He had been using if for many years.
And he'd probably be more surprised to see it carved on the base of his statue at the Will Rogers Memorial in Claremore, Oklahoma. (12 miles from Oologah)
On the outside of the Memorial Building is carved another of his sayings which I think best sums up his attitude toward life and his fellow humans. It is this:
"We are here just for a spell and then pass on. So get a few laughs and do the best you can. Live your life so that whenever you lose it, you are ahead."
That's probably not the way a real man of the cloth would have put it. But it was just how Will felt about things, and he spoke it out plain as he always did.
It was the way he lived his life.
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