TULSA — Somewhere in the mist of the beginnings of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists arose two icons, Ernie Pyle and Will Rogers. NSNC has other now-ghostly mentors, including Erma and Molly and Art, but these two men from the first half of the 20th century are the modern mentors of columns.
It’s taken me years to understand why.
I loved Ernie Pyle’s World War II columns, classics of our genre and also of overall journalism. Did those send him to the top? Not to me. When, however, I pored through the collections On a Wing and a Prayer: The Aviation Columns of Ernie Pyle, co-edited by our friend the late Mike Harden, and Home Country, American travel stories edited by Lee G. Miller, it became obvious: Pyle observed, then he wrote it true.
What of Will Rogers? He started out a vaudeville solo act of spinning rope and spinning quips and stories. He turned those into movies then into newspaper columns, among other outlets.
Those one-liners of Will’s haven’t gone stale nearly a century later, repeated especially in election years. Worthy of hero-worship? By the end of our Labor Day weekend to Rogers’ hometown of Claremore then to Tulsa for its museum of another gifted performer, the answer came out yes and the reason became obvious.
The weekend came from my winning bid in the silent auction of our 2015 Indianapolis conference, benefiting the NSNC Education Foundation. NSNC’s Bob Haught (president of the Will Rogers Writers Foundation) and Rogers’ great-granddaughter Jennifer Rogers Etcheverry arranged the Claremore package: admission to the Will Rogers Memorial Museum, dinner at Hammett House just down from Will’s hilltop property and lodging at a Holiday Inn Express.
The hotel was a year old and the restaurant a terrific surprise for foodies like my wife and me.
Will and Betty Rogers bought that land, 20 acres, in 1911. His death in a 1935 plane crash at age 55 stopped their original plan of building a retirement home there. His widow and a national commission raised funds to build a memorial on it in 1938. His body was re-interred there (from California) in 1944. As the years passed, the facility turned into a museum, with expansions in the 1980s and ’90s. His archives are housed there, available for research.
The public exhibit areas contain a wealth of artifacts and art. It also follows the historical museum trend of audio and video offerings. The museum overcame my resistance to gallery gift shops — how can a man resist a bolo tie with Will Rogers’ face on it?
Andy Hogan proved the key. Hogan is a historical guide and interpreter for the museum. He must be its top docent. There’s no stumping Hogan. With his Rogers-esque, cowboy-esque garb of taupe Western hat, blue jeans, pale ranch shirt with a red bandanna around his neck, Hogan of course could parrot off dozens of those jokes.
Then he’d give — if you asked — the medium, year and place they first were cracked.
Hogan talks out the biography (Here’s a 26-minute video of Hogan doing some of that.). He hasn’t written it; museum staff recommend journalism professor Ben Yagoda’s 1993 volume (which I also bought in the shop). Implicit in our auction package apparently was that my wife and I would be the sole recipients of Hogan’s knowledge for our couple of hours there. His enthusiasm was amazing.
Hogan perhaps unintentionally had insight into Rogers’ drive: The performer could not stop moving. Even at ease, he paced, he chewed gum constantly and the museum is evidence of his successful multitasking in all the media available from the teens to the ’30s. He toured for work; he traveled for fun. I asked Hogan if Rogers was maybe ADD, had a touch of attention deficit issues? That might have been a part of it, he said.
Hogan accepted my root query: What makes Will Rogers a prime columnist hero? He couldn’t say. Then I saw it, the merger of stage, film, radio, syndicated newspaper columns, humor books, celebrity-focused fundraising and personal philanthropy, and pioneering aviation advocacy.
Not only was Will Rogers an original in multimedia creativity, it made him famous and wealthy. Perhaps only a handful have followed a similar course during the following century.
This was even more clear when we left Claremore for nearby Tulsa to see the Brady District’s new museum of the following generation’s famous son of Oklahoma, songwriter and folksinger Woody Guthrie. Chronic illness ended Guthrie’s musical career at a comparable age to Rogers. Guthrie too had other artistic talents, mainly illustration. Yet through fate and disposition, the varied efforts of the “This Land Is Your Land” composer lacked the intensity and frankly the success of Rogers.
Who did? I asked Rogers’ homespun scholar Hogan. For the rest of the 20th century, who hit most of the marks year after year in performance and writings, putting each in the medium best suited to it?
Who does now — with TV on the path to passé, as the Internet pervades our modern world?
Hogan could think of one: Garrison Keillor.
He’s right: Keillor until his retirement a few months ago ran for ages a public radio variety show, before which and occasionally during wrote humor and short stories for magazines (notably The New Yorker), authored novels and occasional columns, created a Robert Altman movie starring Meryl Streep, and in recent years saw his radio work streamed as video online.
I looked at Hogan, near a window overlooking the family crypt.
We agreed we enjoy Keillor, admire his talent. In decade after decade, the Minnesotan is about the only artist who comes close to Will Rogers.
But not that close.
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A slightly different version of this column was first published in the October 2016 edition of The Columnist, the newsletter of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists. I am a former NSNC president and director of media.