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Chronicles of Oklahoma
Volume 17, No. 3
September, 1939
THE STATUE OF WILL ROGERS

By
Paula McSpadden Love

Page 336

Once again Oklahoma was privileged to participate in one of those rare historical occasions when the state's highest ranking officials, citizens, loved ones and devoted friends gathered in Washington, District of Columbia, June 6, 1939, to unveil the Jo Davidson statue of Will Rogers.

Events had been carefully planned because this day was important not only to Oklahoma but to the nation at large. Will Rogers, though a native Oklahoman, belonged to the world and this fact was quite evident by the vast throng that crowded the Rotunda of the nation's Capitol long before the hour set for the program.

At 2:30 the Navy band opened their program in which they featured such numbers as "Will Rogers" by Pryor; "Oklahoma I Love You" by Opal Willifred Harrison; an arrangement of "Old Faithful" and several other well known airs.

Presiding over the assembly was Walter Harrison, Secretary of the Will Rogers Memorial Commission, who spoke in clear, distinct tones as he announced and introduced each number.

The Reverend Ze Barney Thorne Phillips, Chaplain of the U.S. Senate opened the program with a prayer of inspiration. His deep, resonant voice put into words the sentiment of the people, as they sat with heads bowed and listened to the words of praise and thanksgiving . . . . "We thank Thee for this priceless heritage of splendid Christian manhood bequeathed to us, his fellowmen, for his unsullied ideals, his devotion to his home and loved ones, his never failing humor, transfiguring his nature and potent thought, and above all his vibrant personality, weaving its wholesomeness into the warp and woof of myriads of lives. And as we unveil and dedicate this statue in this holy shrine at the Nation's capitol, accept we beseech Thee, the dedication of our lives unto Thee and to the service of our country and grant us to live in such a state that we may never be afraid to die, so that the living and dying, we may be thine through Jesus, Christ, our Lord."

Mr. Norris Henthorne, Chairman of the Will Rogers Memorial Commission was the first speaker on the program. He gave a brief but very comprehensive review of the state's activities in connection with perpetuating the memory of Will Rogers. He made mention that, "twenty-two years ago today, at this same hour, citizens of Oklahoma came to Washington and gave to the nation a statue of

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Sequoyah, native American, Cherokee Indian and author of the Cherokee alphabet. This morning citizens of Oklahoma, including members of the old Cherokee Indian nation, placed a wreath at the base of this statue, thus again honoring that other eminent Oklahoman who has been counted among the great of the nation by being placed in Statuary Hall." He told of the Will Rogers Memorial at Claremore and concluded his address by the following: "The ceremony today exemplifies the feeling of all of Oklahoma. We are proud to have the nation share with us the respect in which Will Rogers was held by our people. No more suitable words could be used in portraying the feeling of Oklahoma towards Will Rogers than the words carried in the bronze on the door of the Memorial in Claremore: 'Built by the people of Oklahoma in tribute to Will Rogers, Native Son and World Citizen.' "

Chairman Harrison then called on the Governor of the State of Oklahoma, the Honorable Leon C. Phillips.

The state's chief executive felt the grave responsibility of the hour and in his address conveyed the deep respect, high esteem and genuine appreciation for Oklahoma's favorite son. He characterized Will Rogers as "the archtype of the American people, the plain and kindly spokesman of the inarticulate." Continuing he said, "Will Rogers was born with the elements of greatness in him. He is one more irrefutable example of the fact to which we as citizens of a democracy unwaveringly adhere, that out of the humblest heritage and simplest circumstances can come great characters who will revive our faith, enlighten our thinking and fire our souls to action." He cited examples of the love Will Rogers had for his home state; he spoke of his loyalty to family and friends and recalled how his great heart was torn when the nation was in trouble and his fellowmen in distress. "He developed a personality from which the false, the pretentious, the silly and the ostentatious fell away," Governor Phillips commented. "Neither carping criticism nor scorn marked his judgment of his fellows, but only a kindly tolerance edged with illuminating wit." The climax of his address reached a note of grandeur as he concluded with the following tribute, "When the great Winnower of human achievement has sifted out the truly great from the chaff of contemporary heroes; when the Great Recorder has penned the record of those whom the Winnower has chosen, the name of Will Rogers, the great American, beloved of his fellows, will be etched in the Book of Fame, imperishable and undimmed. There, writ large neath it in letters that gleam with the idealism and reawakened faith he fostered, will be inscribed the qualities that brought him from the obscure village on the frontier plain to the forefront of human love and affection everywhere . . . . Simplicity, understanding, loyalty, and love of his fellow man. It is with this conviction that I commend Oklahoma's, America's, Will Rogers to the timeless ranks of the immortals."

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Chairman Harrison called on Mrs. Sallie McSpadden, the 75 year old sister of Will Rogers of Chelsea, Oklahoma, to unveil the bronze. In his introduction of this typical Oklahoman who is so well known and loved in her state, Mr. Harrison remarked, "Among the living none merits participation in the ceremony more than Mrs. Sallie McSpadden, the elder sister of the late Will Rogers. She filled as best she could the departed mother's place; she moulded Will's early years. She was always Will's devoted love. Sister Sallie will unveil the bronze with the assistance of Mr. Will Hays, representing the Motion Picture Producers of the United States."

As the American flag was drawn slowly aside to reveal the remarkable likeness of America's most beloved citizen, a hush of deep veneration fell upon the interested spectators. After a dramatic second, the Navy band burst into "The Star Spangled Banner" and the crowd rose simultaneously in loving respect and heartfelt emotion.

Mr. Harrison then presented Senator Allen Barkley of the U. S. Senate. He first brought out the fact that out of the 72 statues occupying places in the Hall of Fame, 60 were office holders of one type or another and only 12 out of the 72 were private citizens of the United States. "The statue which we are unveiling today," remarked Senator Barkley, "is the twelfth among those which have been placed in the capitol by the states which have selected the representative to honor them in this American Hall of Fame. Will Rogers represents, in this capitol the twelve men or women who never held official position under any state or under the nation, and as I look upon this wonderful statue, which I had the privilege to see in Paris just as Jo Davidson completed it, it seems that I am standing in the presence of Will Rogers."

Senator Barkley was talking about his friend; he was speaking of one whom he loved or he could not have put such feeling into words as he soared in his declamation. "Not only was he an intimate and a confidant of kings and of presidents and of governors, senators, members of the House of Representatives, and members of the Legislature; not only was he the friend and the confidant of the humbler men and women, not only of our country but of the world. But even greater than these, he was the friend of the children, and no man was ever a friend of children in this world who was not a good man, a noble man. He gave of his wealth, he gave of his time, he gave of his talents, he gave of his great heart to make America a better place in which to live and he carried to every nation which he visited, and he visited nearly all the nations in the world, that same spirit of nobility and of comradeship which made those who could not speak his language understand his heart and appreciate his soul.

"And so today, Governor Phillips, ladies and gentlemen, I have

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the honor and the privilege as Chairman of the Joint Committee on the Library, to accept this beautiful statue of this great American, not only in the name of the Joint Committee on the Library, but in the name of the American Congress, in the name of the American Government, and in the name of the American people, and I accept it in gratitude not to Oklahoma alone, not for this beautiful statue which represents Will Rogers but I accept it in gratitude for the noble and immortal life which it represents."

Following this address the audience listened to Joe Benton, native Oklahoman, and a member of the Metropolitan Grand Opera Company, sing two numbers, "Good Will to Men" by Geoffrey O'Hara and "The Lord's Prayer" by Melant. He was accompanied by Merl Freeland.

After taking a panorama of the vast crowd that packed the Rotunda Walter Harrison introduced, Luther Harrison, a former Oklahoma legislator, educator, and at present editorial writer on the Daily Oklahoman. In his address he traced the development of Statuary Hall and emphasized the fact that the statue of George Washington was the only one placed there by the unanimous choice of all America.

"But today, sons and daughters of Oklahoma," the slender orator continued, "Oklahoma presents a companion to George Washington, who is the unanimous choice of the people of the United States." A spontaneous and vigorous applause greeted this remark and Mr. Harrison went on in his discourse. "Speakers more gifted than I have attempted this afternoon to explain why this man, who never held an office, became so preeminently great. Perhaps that itself is the explanation, who knows? But if you would understand Will Rogers, you will have to go back 500 years to the Southern Passes of the Appalachians. For 500 years before the star of Oklahoma burst forth in the firmament, 500 years before this preeminent American was born out on the plains of Oklahoma, the Cherokee people as proud, as grave, as courteous, as dignified as any race that ever walked the earth, were maintaining republican government, which is democratic government in the fair land of the Southern Appalachians." He spoke at length of the Indian heritage which was in the Rogers blood, the "Trail of Tears," the movement from the Mississippi, on to the Arkansas, the Grand and finally the Verdigris. He spoke of the call of the "Northern Lights" and how Will Rogers with Wiley Post left his home "in the land of the sunset, away from the sandy shores and the orange groves of mystic California, out beyond the primeval forest that guards the Columbia, out beyond the harbors of Vancouver, and beyond the frozen tundras of Alaska, up to the very verge of the polar ocean" to meet his destiny. And in a voice steeped with emotion he completed his remarks. "And

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we who knew him can hardly doubt that when the call came for him to meet his Maker, he entered the presence of his Maker with a stainless heart and with his inimitable whimsical smile.

"We present today, the companion of George Washington, the greatest private American citizen, a man of whom there are all too few, a man whose kindly spirit is looking down in sympathy on us this afternoon. So God accept him and Christ receive you."

Luther Harrison's address was the fitting climax of a beautiful and meaningful program. He had put into words that poetical aspect of the nature of Will Rogers that others had omitted. With the pronouncing of the benediction, the Navy band played "Stars and Stripes Forever" and the ceremonies were adjourned.

And so Will Rogers in bronze is in the Hall of Fame, placed there by the acclamation of the American people who loved and honored him. Standing in the characteristic pose fashioned by the artistic hands of Jo Davidson, he will look down upon an admiring public in the years to come. Who better deserves a place in the nation's Hall of Fame, than this kindly philosopher who will live forever in the hearts and minds of the people for he wrote his own opitaph in those immortal words, "I never met a man I didn't like."1



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