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Another Alaskan plane crash victim: Entertainer Will Rogers

Emma Brown

Last week's death of Sen. Ted Stevens in a plane crash in Alaska highlights the treachery of small-craft flying in the 49th state. A story in Sunday's Washington Post recalls another plane crash in Alaska, in 1972, that claimed the lives of Louisiana Rep. Hale Boggs -- the House majority leader and father of newscaster Cokie Roberts -- and Alaska Rep. Nick Begich, the father of current Alaska Sen. Mark Begich.

Well, today happens to be the 75th anniversary of another sadly memorable Alaska airplane accident. On Aug. 15, 1935, perhaps the most famous man in America at the time, entertainer-humorist-writer Will Rogers, died in a crash near Point Barrow along with one of the most famous pilots of the day, Wiley Post.

Rogers was born in Indian Territory (the future Oklahoma) in 1879 and was proud of his one-quarter Cherokee Indian heritage. He had a comfortably middle-class upbringing but left Oklahoma to work on ranches in Texas and South America. Before 1900, he was appearing in Wild West shows as a trick roper and rider. Rogers was, in fact, perhaps the greatest roper America has ever produced.

If you don't believe me, check out this amazing video from 1921 (not 1922, as the YouTube headline reads). (By the way, there is a huge subculture of trick roping in the western United States and Mexico, with lots of fascinating footage on the Internet.)

It wasn't long before Rogers became better known as a homespun humorist who said, memorably, "I never met a man didn't like." He became a vaudeville and radio performer who used the daily headlines for his comic one-liners on life in the United States. He had a $1 million contract with 20th Century Fox to make movies in the 1930s, he wrote a newspaper column read by 40 million Americans and he was a general good-will ambassador to the nation and the world. He mocked politicians from both parties and made a famous comment that people still cite today: "I belong to no organized political party. I'm a Democrat."

Presidents asked Rogers to speak on national radio broadcasts to calm the nation's nerves, and in 1932 there was a movement to draft Rogers for the presidency. He never seriously considered a presidential run, but Franklin D. Roosevelt was worried enought to write him a letter suggesting that the Democratic party would be thrown into chaos if Rogers were serious about a candidacy.

 In August 1935, Rogers took a flying vacation to Alaska with his fellow Oklahoman Wiley Post, a one-eyed pilot who had set many airplane speed and altitude records and was the first person to fly solo around the world. Post became a major celebrity in his own right and was honored with a ticker-tape parade in New York. His airplane, the Winnie Mae, is now at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum here in Washington.

The fullest account of Post and Rogers's final flight can be found in Ray Robinson's 1996 biography of Rogers, "An American Original." (Ben Yagoda's 1994 biography is probably better over all but not as strong on the accident.) While taking off from a lake and headed toward Point Barrow, Post's new airplane rose to about 50 feet before the engine sputtered and failed. The plane crashed into the lake below and flipped on its back. Both Post and Rogers were killed on impact.

An estimated 75,000 people attended Will Rogers's memorial service in California.

"He was no battle hero," Robinson wrote in his biography, "no disease-conquering doctor or scientist; no handsome devil of the screen or stage; no job-creating industrialist; no silver-tongued politician. He fit under no ideological umbrella or label. Yet he had struck a common chord among millions."

For more, check out this short documentary on Will Rogers and Wiley Post.

By Emma Brown  |  August 15, 2010; 1:29 PM ET
Categories:  Matt Schudel  | Tags: will rogers alaska, will rogers anniversary, will rogers died, will rogers plane crash  
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Thank you for the excellent links in this post, Ms. Brown.
Thanks also to Jason Horowitz for his excellent article about the Begich-Boggs crash.
I do remember that crash and the horror of the fact that the plane was never found.
It's hard to believe now that in 1972, there were areas in these United States in which a plane could disappear, never to be found.
But then, look at the case of noted adventurer Steve Fossett; his plane disappeared over the western U.S. mountains in September, 2007 and it took months to find that crash.
Will Rogers was very popular when my parents were growing up.
His comments about politics would translate today almost perfectly.
He'd be a multi-millionnaire, if he appeared regularly on the 24-hour TV circuit.
I wish some of our motion picture producers would develop movies about the lives of great Americans -- Wiley Post, Will Rogers and Mark Twain would be great subjects; so would some of the greats of the turn of the 20th century -- Thomas Edison, J. P. Morgan, etc., not to mention the actual conditions most people had to live through during the Great Depression.
Something tells me Americans need a good dose of history, since they seem to hell-bent on repeating it.

Posted by: Judy-in-TX | August 15, 2010 4:29 PM | Report abuse

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