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Will Rogers

by Joseph H. Carter

Will Rogers was first an Indian, a cowboy then a national figure. He now is a legend.

Born in 1879 on a large ranch in the Cherokee Nation near what later would become Oologah, Oklahoma, Will Rogers was taught by a freed slave how to use a lasso as a tool to work Texas Longhorn cattle on the family ranch.

As he grew older, Will Rogers’ roping skills developed so special that he was listed in the Guinness Book of Records for throwing three lassos at once: One rope caught the running horse’s neck, the other would hoop around the rider and the third swooped up under the horse to loop all four legs.

Will Rogers’ unsurpassed lariat feats were recorded in the classic movie, “The Ropin’ Fool.”

His hard-earned skills won him jobs trick roping in wild west shows and on the vaudeville stages where, soon, he started telling small jokes.

Quickly, his wise cracks and folksy observations became more prized by audiences than his expert roping. He became recognized as being a very informed and smart philosopher–telling the truth in very simple words so that everyone could understand.

After the 10th grade, at age 19, Will Rogers dropped out of school to become a cowboy on a ranch in Texas. He always regretted that he didn’t finish school, but he made sure that he never stopped learning–reading, thinking and talking to smart people. His hard work paid off.

Will Rogers was the star of Broadway and 71 movies of the 1920s and 1930s; a popular broadcaster; besides writing more than 4,000 syndicated newspaper columns and befriending Presidents, Senators and Kings.

During his lifetime, he traveled around the globe three times– meeting people, covering wars, talking about peace and learning everything possible.

He wrote six books. In fact he published more than two million words. He was the first big time radio commentator, was a guest at the White House and his opinions were sought by the leaders of the world.

Inside himself, Will Rogers remained a simple Oklahoma cowboy. “I never met a man I didn’t like,” was his credo of genuine love and respect for humanity and all people everywhere. He gave his own money to disaster victims and raised thousands for the Red Cross and Salvation Army.

At home, either on his ranch in Oklahoma or California, he always enjoyed riding horseback, roping steers or playing polo. He would scratch his head, grin and quip that he figured there was something wrong with anybody that didn’t like a horse.

He always thought of himself as first a caring member of the human race, American, then a Cherokee Indian; a faithful husband and a father. Even though he was the top-paid star in Hollywood, he was a family man. Will Rogers was very close to his wife, Betty, and their four children.

Will Rogers Jr., 1911-1993, starred as his Father in two feature movies and was a war hero, a successful actor and a Congressman.

Mary Rogers, 1913-1989, was a Broadway actress.

Jim Rogers, 1915-2000, after starring in some cowboy movies as a young man, spent his life as a horse and cattle rancher.

Betty and Will Rogers’s youngest son, Fred, died of diphtheria when he was two.

There were eight children born to Will Rogers’ parents, but only four reached adulthood on the rugged frontier of 19th Century Indian Territory.

While a fast horse thrilled Will Rogers, he also loved flying. It was on a flight to Alaska in 1935 with a daring one-eyed Oklahoma pilot named Wiley Post that their plane crashed and both men lost their lives.

In mourning, the world reflected on Will Rogers’ words:

“Live your life so that whenever you lose it, you’re ahead.”
“If you live life right, death is a joke as far as fear is concerned.”

Betty Rogers …

Biographers agree that the strong marriage, fidelity, loyal friendship and trust between Will and Betty Rogers were the keystones of Will Rogers’ incredible career and life success.

Losing his Mother at age 10, Will Rogers’ next 19 years were adventuresome but with small design or little long term purpose. The tide changed at age 29 when he married.

The magic of an eight-year friendship with Betty Blake of Rogers, Arkansas, had blossomed into a towering romance that had started in 1900. “Getting Married,” was inscribed in the calendar book of the vaudeville performer: November 23, 1908.

For the next 26 years, Will Rogers would soar in popularity and lasting greatness. The secret leavening was Betty Blake.

With all possible tenderness, he thrust his bride from a simple life in Arkansas into the bustling world of show business, stardom, communications, power politics and high finance. Betty Blake was perfect for all challenges. She steered her husband adroitly and properly. An ideal wife and mother, she also was the quiet, stable, innovative advisor and peerless partner.

It was at the Oologah, Indian Territory train station where the couple met in late 1899. If it were not love at first sight, certainly a friendship was born that would survive strange and severe tests. A carefree 21-year-old cowboy, Will Rogers stepped down from the Kansas City express and there, in the station, was Betty Blake. Slender, soft voice, light complexion with short cropped, light brown hair. Magic!

The seventh of nine children born September 9, 1879 to James and Amelia Blake of Silver Springs, Arkansas, Betty’s father died when she was three. Her widowed Mother moved the family to Rogers, Arkansas, a town whose name cannot be traced to Will Rogers’ ancestry. Betty had been born nearly two months before Will Rogers’ November 4, 1879, birth in Indian Territory.

Betty Blake’s widowed Mother provided a happy home under tough economic conditions which meant the children all worked. Betty Blake was a good student, but employment precluded her graduation from the local academy.

Talented in music, she played several instruments and was a popular actress in local theater. She clerked in a mercantile store, set type for the Rogers Democrat newspaper then became a railroad telegrapher.

Stricken by typhoid in 1899, she lost her hair and, as it grew back, she styled it into the boyish bob that would greet Will Rogers. To regain her health, she moved to tiny Oologah where her sister’s husband was railroad station master.

Will Rogers then shyly joined Betty Blake in evenings of traditional entertainment with friends. At Christmas, she returned to Arkansas but letters followed from “Injun Cowboy W. P. Rogers.”

Will Rogers wrote of “love” and a “broken heart” and twice met with Betty at various places. The romance gave way to travel lust and Will Rogers left for a trip to Argentine in 1902. Before returning home, he had worked his way to South Africa where he was hired to perform rope tricks in a Wild West show. He went on to Australia and New Zealand, performing in shows, and working as a cowboy. It was 2 years and 3 months after he left that he landed at San Francisco and took a train home. A week later, he was performing at the World’s Fair in St. Louis (1904). The visiting Betty Blake was watching a wild west show, and was surprised to see her old flame, Will Rogers, dash into the arena with his rope twirling. Daringly, she sent a note back stage and the couple met for dinner, then went separate ways.

Letter writing resumed as Will Rogers ventured into vaudeville and, finally, in Nov. 1908, the couple married in Arkansas and honeymooned on the show business circuit.

Busy as a homemaker and a Mother with a hard working husband, Betty Blake Rogers nonetheless quietly counseled her Will Rogers as his career unfolded. Betty was the force behind the scenes. She managed finances and kept the undisputed loyalty of her husband until his death.

By the time of the August 15, 1935 crash at Point Barrow, Alaska, the surviving children were young adults.

The day their father died:

Will Jr., 24, had finished college and was preparing for an adventuresome voyage as a deck hand on a freighter.

Mary, 22, was an actress playing in summer stock theater in Maine while her Mother watched from the audience awaiting her husband’s return from his adventure with Wiley Post.

Jim, 20, had spent the summer working as a cow puncher in West Texas and, with his cousin Jim Blake, was driving to New England to watch Mary perform.

The bereaved widow and children reacted with poise but bewilderment and continued their lives in glaring spotlights of public interest. The children would grow to ripe ages and retirement after success in their own careers and ways.

Will Rogers Jr. would gain fame in public affairs, politics and acting. He retired in Tubac, Arizona where he was laid to rest in 1993 at age 82. Two sons, Clem and Carlos, died in 2000 and 2001.

Mary Rogers was a stage and movie star who, saddened, became an American expatriate returning to California where childless she died at Santa Monica in 1989 at the age of 76.

Jim Rogers, after a stint as a newsman and motion picture actor, became a successful rancher then moved to active retirement in Bakersfield, California. He was deeply involved in the Will Rogers Memorial Commission of Oklahoma overseeing the Claremore museum and Oologah birthplace. Jim died on April 28, 2000, at the age of 84, and was laid to rest with his parents in Claremore. His loving children are Kem, Charles and Bette. His widow, Judy, remains at the family ranch. Kem Rogers succeeded his father on the Will Rogers Memorial Commission of Oklahoma, and lives near Nashville, Tennessee. Charles (“Chuck”) lives north of Phoenix, and Bette and her husband live on their ranch in California.

Nine years after the fatal crash in Alaska, Betty Blake Rogers died of cancer in their ranch home on the hill overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Her body was taken by train to Oklahoma and laid to rest under the sarcophagus at the Will Rogers Memorial at Claremore.

Through her generosity, Mrs. Rogers had bequeathed the land and the priceless collections of Will Rogers memorabilia and papers to the world through a pact with the people of Oklahoma, Will Rogers’ home folks.

The Will Rogers Memorial Commission, with public financing, constructed the historic, Oklahoma eclectic limestone museum and friends financed building the family tomb. Will and Betty Rogers, with their children, are in appropriate repose at Claremore but the legacy reverberates decades later.

“The day I roped Betty Blake was the best catch of my life.”

Joseph H. Carter is author of the book, “Never Met a Man I Didn’t Like”.

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