“This Alaska is a great country if they can just keep from being taken over by the United States. They got a great future. This is the greatest aviation minded city of its size in the world. There is only 30 thousand white people in Alaska and there is 70 commercial planes operating every day in winter on skis.”
These were the words of Will Rogers as he noted in his Aug. 14, 1935 daily column that appeared in hundreds of newspapers across the nation. Readers must have chuckled when he added a comment about the territory’s farming efforts: “There is a lot of difference in pioneering for gold and pioneering for spinach.”
Will Rogers had a special talent. He could make people laugh. By way of his newspaper views, his radio broadcasts, motion pictures, or public speaking appearances, he had a way of coming up with humor on almost all subjects.
Overnight, all the humor suddenly turned to tears 80 years ago Saturday. Information came saying Will Rogers and his good friend and fellow Oklahoman, Wiley Post, were killed in a plane crash at a little known frozen Alaskan location near Point Barrow.
Readers had been keeping up with Will’s travels as he was on a goodwill mission to the far north. One of his last columns was headlined “Off Somewhere in a Red Bus.” He was referring to his friend’s airplane. Post, famous in his own right, was his pilot. Flying in heavy fog, he landed at the remote spot to ask directions. The crash came when the craft’s single engine failed moments after take-off.
The deaths occurred on a Thursday. Most of the nation and the rest of the world didn’t know of the loss until the following day, Aug. 16.
Here in Claremore, the place Will Rogers called his hometown, the tragic news spread like a prairie wildfire. The afternoon edition of The Progress confirmed it was true.
It seemed as if everyone in Rogers County was a relative of or friend to Will Rogers; and if not, surely knew someone who was.
The shock of the famed humorist had barely set in when the Claremore community started reacting. Progress Editor W.C. Kates wrote the next day that the first contribution for a Will Rogers Memorial had been delivered to his office. He added it was “fitting” to come from a Claremore citizen and friend of Will’s. Mrs. Maud Bayless had mailed a $1 check and suggested a memorial be placed at the intersection of Main Street and Highway 66. If not there, then at the new city library that bore his name.
Mayor J.M. Davis promptly requested a city resolution for the City of Claremore to meet in special session for the purpose of paying last respects to Will’s family in California and to Mrs. Wiley Post at her Oklahoma home in Mayesville.
On Saturday, Aug. 17, 25 city businessmen met. Plans were started for a state-wide memorial service in Will’s honor if burial was in Claremore. If not, it would be the same time as services in California.
Named to head the committee were W.C. Sunday, James Hammett, R.L. Thomas, E.W. Meads, Murl Cline, L.H. Calloway, E.A. Church, Joe Martin, and Kates.
Florist John Bowman was instructed to make wreaths to be placed on every white-way post on Main Street.
All flags were lowered to half-mast and would remain until further notice.
No donations were solicited. Expenses would be paid by the City and would come out of the light and water fund.
A delegation was also named to represent Claremore and to pay last respects at the Post funeral.
In a bit of sad irony, the movie playing at the Yale Theater that evening was “Love Me Forever” starring Grace Moore. A dozen years later she would also die in a plane crash.
On the same day, the International News Service ran a bulletin and mistakenly reported both men would be returned to Oklahoma for burial. In time this would prove to be true, but not at first.
Plans called for Will to be buried at Forrest Lawn Park in Beverly Hills. Calif. The date was to be Aug. 22.
On Aug. 19, four Claremore men left here driving a new city-owned Phymouth sedan to attend the California gathering. They were Mayor Davis, former mayor Church, Cline, and Sunday. In addition to paying his respects with the others, Cline went to represent Oklahoma Military Academy and local civic clubs.
Claremore’s Will Rogers Airport was selected for the local memorial service. It was dedicated four years earlier with Will serving as master of ceremonies. It was built in two weeks’ time after Will joked he would invite Post to visit Claremore “...if it could be reached any other way than by parachute.”
All city business activity came to a stop at noon for the memorial service. Congressman Josh Lee, Norman, delivered the main address. He was introduced by State Sen. Dennis Bushyhead, Will’s cousin.
The program was broadcast live on Tulsa Radio KVOO. It was estimated more than 15,000 people convened in Claremore that summer afternoon.
Had it been possible, Will probably would have had some witty statement about all those standing out in the hot sunshine. It is certain he would have enjoyed the closing of the ceremonies as the Spartan Dawn Patrol of Tulsa flew over with a floral tribute.
In the next few years, a beautiful memorial would be built in Claremore and Will would come home for his final resting place.