August 15, the Ides of August, hosted several significant events through the years. In 1935, it was a tragic day in Alaska, as an airplane crash took lives of Will Rogers and Wiley Post. To refresh your memory, an encore post, with a few edits and additions.
After Mark Twain died, America found another great humorist, raconteur, story-teller, who tickled the nation’s funny-bone and pricked the collective social conscience at the same time. Will Rogers is most famous today for his sentiment that he never met a man he didn’t like. In 1935, he was at the height of his popularity, still performing as a lariat-twirling, Vaudeville comedian who communed with presidents, and kept his common sense. He wrote a daily newspaper column that was carried in 500 newspapers across America. Rogers was so popular that Texas and Oklahoma have dueled over who gets the bragging rights in claiming him as a native son.
Will Rogers ready to perform. Photo taken prior to 1900 – Wikimedia
Wiley Post was known as one of the best pilots in America. He gained fame by being the first pilot to fly solo around the world. Post was famous for his work developing new ways to fly at high altitudes. Post was born in Texas and moved to Oklahoma. He lost an eye in an oil-field accident in 1924, then used the settlement money to buy his first airplane. He befriended Will Rogers when flying Rogers to an appearance at a Rodeo, and the two kept up their friendship literally to death.
Post asked Rogers to come along on a tour of the great unknown land of Alaska, where Post was trying to map routes for mail planes to Russia. Ever adventurous, Rogers agreed — he could file his newspaper columns from Alaska by radio and telephone. On August 15, 1935, their airplane crashed near Point Barrow, Alaska, killing them both.
Wiley Post, first to fly solo around the world, in an early pressure suit for high-altitude flying – Wikimedia photo
On August 15, 2008, a ceremony in Claremore, Oklahoma, honored the two men on the 73rd anniversary of their deaths. About 50 pilots from Oklahoma, Missouri, Kansas and Arkansas will fly in to the Claremore Airport for the Will Rogers-Wiley Post Fly-In Weekend. Oklahoma Lt. Gov. Jari Askins will offer a tribute.
Rogers was 56, leaving behind his wife, Betty, and four children. Post, 36, left a widow.
Rogers’ life is really quite legendary. Historian Joseph H. Carter summed it up:
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, Will Rogers dropped out of school to become a cowboy in a cattle drive. 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.
Post’s legacy is significant, too. His employer, Oklahoma oil man F. C. Hall, encouraged Post to push for aviation records using Hall’s Lockheed Vega, and Post was happy to comply. Before his history-making trip around the world, he had won races and navigation contests. NASA traces the development of the space-walking suits worn by astronauts to Post’s early attempts for flight records:
For Wiley Post to achieve the altitude records he sought, he needed protection. (Pressurized aircraft cabins had not yet been developed.) Post’s solution was a suit that could be pressurized by his airplane engine’s supercharger.
First attempts at building a pressure suit failed since the suit became rigid and immobile when pressurized. Post discovered he couldn’t move inside the inflated suit, much less work airplane controls. A later version succeeded with the suit constructed already in a sitting position. This allowed Post to place his hands on the airplane controls and his feet on the rudder bars. Moving his arms and legs was difficult, but not impossible. To provide visibility, a viewing port was part of the rigid helmet placed over Post’s head. The port was small, but a larger one was unnecessary because Post had only one good eye!
Last photo of Will Rogers (in the hat) and Wiley Post, in Alaska in 1935 (from Century of Flight)
Tip of the old scrub brush to Alaska bush advocate Pamela Bumsted.