Oklahoma…there and back again

August 31, 2014

August 31, 2014

Recently I started writing out the introductions and conclusions to my presentations. As I prepared for my scheduled August 15 presentation on Wiley Post at the Will Rogers Memorial Museum in Claremore, Oklahoma, I re-read favorite books, wrote some portions of my remarks, edited and arranged my slides, and simply contemplated his life story. I knew that the final part of my preparation would be visiting Oklahoma for the first time in the days leading up to my talk, so I left plenty of time in my schedule to enjoy myself. My introduction was pretty much set a few days before my plane took off.

Robin Williams

Robin Williams in “Patch Adams”

And then Robin Williams died.

It was a sucker punch to the gut, a brick wall of sadness and loss that I had felt before with the sudden deaths of people such as Jim Henson, Tim Russert, and Christa McAuliffe.

While comforted by the collective outpouring of grief from many people, including my friends on Facebook, it was incredibly sad to realize that we have received all that we ever will from the brilliant creative spirit of a man that I first remember as Mork.

Robin Williams, like Will Rogers before him, left a body of work that will be enjoyed for years to come. Both Williams and Rogers left films completed and still in the can, shared stories that made us laugh until our sides hurt, and made reflective and serious observations about life and living.

Wiley Post and Will Rogers

Will Rogers and Wiley Post

When Robin Williams died, I understood in a more personal way how the sudden deaths of Will Rogers and Wiley Post in a plane crash on August 15, 1935 affected this country so deeply.

Will Rogers died before I was born, and before my parents were born, but my grandparents could listen to him on the radio, see him on the movie screen, and read his newspaper columns. Today he would be on Twitter and Facebook and probably still observe that, “Why they call it traffic when it ceases to move I do not know.”

In his recent autobiography, “Harold,” Hal Holbrook said, “You go down the road your gut tells you to travel.”

That quote explains very simply what has resonated with me about Will Rogers and Wiley Post during more than 20 years of study – they each followed their own unique course through life and they were aware of, and used for the benefit of all of us, their strengths and abilities.

A number of years ago I visited the final home of Will Rogers, which is a state park in California. The house where he was born in 1879 is preserved on a living history ranch in Oologah, Oklahoma where peacocks, donkeys, and goats wander the grounds with giggling children and reflective adults. The Will Rogers Memorial Museum in Claremore preserves and shares artifacts from his life and his story for future generations. It is also the final resting place for Will, his wife Betty, their children and descendants.

The place where Wiley Post was born in 1898 near Grand Saline, Texas is just a field now, and the house where he was living at the time of his death was torn down for progress. But all around Oklahoma, from his grave in Oklahoma City where a monument stands nearby, to an airport named for him, to a replica of his airplane, the Winnie Mae, which hangs in the Oklahoma History Center, the honors exist.

For a number of years I have happily taken on a personal mission of sharing the story of both Will Rogers and Wiley Post – humbly being their messenger to keep their stories alive. Visiting the Will Rogers Memorial Museum for the first time this month was a very moving experience. Driving up the hill to the museum, sitting at the family tomb in the sunken gardens, and rubbing the toes of Will’s statue for luck as thousands of people have before me, are moments that I will not forget.

Wiley Post

Wiley Post and the Winnie Mae

As I shared during my August 15 presentation at the museum, I have been inspired by the many facets of the life of Wiley Post. Wiley was a mechanical genius who also spent time in the state reformatory for highway robbery as a young man. Just ten years later he flew around the world in 8 days, 16 hours with Harold Gatty navigating their course in the Winnie Mae. Within four years of that achievement he was first person to fly around the world solo, soared to more than 50,000 feet while wearing the world’s first pressure suit that he designed, and discovered the jet stream. Like me he moved around a lot as a kid, yet eventually counted people such as Amelia Earhart, Roscoe Turner, and of course Will Rogers, among his friends.

While sitting in the Will Rogers Theatre at the museum before my presentation on August 15, I thought of Will Rogers’ way of connecting with an audience and how much I have learned from the words that he left us.

I also thought of my Dad—a member of his high school debate team, storyteller, canoe and kayak enthusiast, natural salesman and woodworker who has passed many gifts on to me and who still inspires me with his love of life.

I thought of my Mom, whose love of history is contagious. I thought of my “Grampy,” Max Cork, who loved airplanes and died while I was still too young to remember him. I thought of my “Grammy,” Becky Cork, who sent me a postcard of Will Rogers when I was 12. On it she wrote, “You can learn about this man in your encyclopedia.”

As I stepped onto the stage to speak, I wore a jacket that belonged to my wife’s father, Paul Draper, who I regrettably never met—a typewriter salesman and storyteller who loved to coach kids in soccer and was among the Allied forces that liberated Dachau in the closing days of World War II and served as an MP at the Nuremberg Trials.

I realized in those moments that I am their messenger too, and that they were all with me in spirit.

My visit to Oklahoma was a wonderful experience, even more special because I shared my visit with the people that I met. From the waitress at a restaurant in Oologah where I enjoyed a bowl of chili, to the staff and docents at the Will Rogers Memorial Museum, to the tour guide at the Cherokee Heritage Center’s Diligwa village in Talequah, everyone that I met helped me to understand why people sing about Oklahoma and its hills and open sky. In the words of one of the members of the Will Rogers family that I met, “People that are from here sometimes go away for a while, but then they come back.” I look forward to my next visit.

Will and Rob

With a statue of Will Rogers in Claremore, Oklahoma

 

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Will Rogers Tells How He Feels About Gliders

March 7, 2009

March 9, 1930
Say, this glider contraption of Lindbergh’s looks like a pretty good racket. He went up yesterday and competed with a buzzard, and the fowl got second money. The competition was going along about even till Lindy lost a wing and didn’t even stop to pick it up. Just kept right on. When the old bird saw that, he got disgusted and withdrew, and went back to his original trade.

Lindy was telling me the other night about these things. He things they have a great future in training men to fly; cost is only three or four thousand dollars. No engine, no gasoline. All you need is a high hill and a strong wind. And a few old boys to yank you out into space. All sounds marvelous, but when I try it it’s going to be inside a room, with the floor lined in feather beds.

Will Rogers’ Daily Telegrams Volume 2, Oklahoma State University Press


Will Rogers’ Daily Telegram – 3/4/1930

March 4, 2009

Well, Calvin did a mighty fine job of dam dedicating here this afternoon. He made a dam good speech favoring dams. Said he didn’t want to come at first, but that finally “President Hoover asked him to come.” He naturally couldn’t refuse Mr. Hoover for in a few years they might be opening a Hoover dam and he might want to ask Mr. Hoover to go and dedicate it. He dedicated the bridge to religion, a very beautiful thought and appropriate at this very time, for here is Russia with twice our national resources, three times our size, bending every government energy to throttle all religion. All you have to do is look at the two countries and see who’s policy is best.

A peculiar thing about the dam that you may not read in your dispatches  – the dam is built on the lower side of the Apache Indian reservation, and the water is all to be used by the Pima tribe and the whites. In fact, they moved the Apaches out of the very valley where the water is backed up in, and moved them ten miles up above. The only way the Apaches can ever get any good out of the dam is for somebody to invent a way for water to run uphill. And then they wonder why Apaches went wild.

One ceremony reminded me of a blindfolded tobacco ad test. Mr. Coolidge and an Apache chief and a Pima chief all took a whiff from the same pipe. The Indians didn’t bat an eye, but Calvin coughed over a carload’s worth.

The dam will open up 1,000,000 acres of new land, and there is 1,000,000 farmers starving to death all over the country on farms that’s all ready open, so it all depends on where you live, as to how you look at it.

Will Rogers’ Daily Telegrams Volume 2, Oklahoma State University Press


Will Rogers’ Daily Telegram – 3/3/1930

March 3, 2009

Coolidge and Geronimo Compared by Will Rogers
Going to fly over in Arizona tomorrow to see Mr. Coolidge dedicate the great Coolidge Dam. Arizona had to build the dam way over in the middle of the State to keep California from claiming two-thirds of the water. The Apache Indians are going to make Mr. Coolidge chief of their tribe to replace Geronimo. They had a great deal in common, neither one said much, and Mr. Coolidge, when a big chief, arrived at the same result with a veto that Geronimo did with a tomahawk.
 
P.S. Am tring to get Lindbergh to take me over in a glider. If he can’t I will have Anne do it.

Will Rogers’ Daily Telegrams, Volume 2, Oklahoma State University Press


Will Rogers’ Daily Telegram – 3/2/1930

March 2, 2009

Will Rogers Not Surprised At Senate Vote-Trading
Not only the week’s biggest laugh but the year’s biggest guffaw come from the United States Senate during the oil lobby hearing. They discovered that Senators were trading oil votes for sugar votes. They were surprised and practically dumbfounded that such a condition could exist. Yes, just about as surprising to everybody who knows politics as it would be to discover that Herbert Hoover was born in the United States, was over 30 years old, and white.

Vote trading got ’em all in the Senate and kept them in there (if the trades were good enough.)

A Senator learns to “swap” his vote at the same age a calf learns which end of his mother is the dining room.”

Will Rogers’ Daily Telegrams, Volume 2, Oklahoma State University Press


Will Rogers’ Daily Telegram – 2/28/1930

March 1, 2009

Will Rogers’ Tribute to Taft: Seems ‘Like He Was One of Us’
Mr. Taft, what a lovely soul! You know, all our Presidents that this generation knew, some we knew, some we felt we didn’t know, some we admitted for their great ability; some we had great faith in, and all of them to us symbolized the great office they occupied. But just as a man and a real honest-to-God fellow, Mr. Taft will go to his grave with more real downright affection and less enemies than any. He always seemed like he was one of us.

It’s great to be great but it’s greater to be human. He was our great human fellow because there was more of him to be human. We are parting with three hundred pounds of solid charity to everybody, and love and affection for his fellowmen.

– Will Rogers’ Daily Telegrams, Volume 2, Oklahoma State University Press

Note: Taft died on March 8 – not sure why this has a publish date of 2/28. He had retired as Chief Justice on 2/23 and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.