Use Your Common Sense Day celebrates the birthday of Will Rogers, who once remarked, “Common sense ain’t common.” He was a witty self-made gentleman whose homespun wisdom still resonates today. He was born William Penn Adair Rogers on November 4, 1879, in Oolagah, Cherokee Nation, now known as Oklahoma.
His official website lists him as an actor, author, humorist and pundit. He was also a genuine cowboy. If Nature combined Mark Twain and Ben Franklin with a liberal dose of Groucho Marx, then taught him how to rope a steer, the result could only be Will Rogers.
He quit school in 1902 and traveled the world with circuses and “wild west” shows, doing rope tricks. He graduated to vaudeville and the Ziegfeld Follies, becoming known for his sense of humor as much as his lasso skills. He married Betty Blake on November 25, 1908, and they had four children. Rogers went on to star in fifty silent films and twenty-one “talkies.” He also wrote 4,000 syndicated newspaper columns and was a favored guest on radio shows.
In 1926, Rogers returned from a trip to Europe, noting advances in commercial aviation there that sharply contrasted with the United State’s almost non-existent facilities. He took every opportunity to point out the safety, speed and convenience of air travel and helped sway public opinion.
In 1935, aviator Wiley Post decided to survey a possible mail-and-passenger air route from Washington State to Russia. Rogers visited Post often at the Burbank, CA airport where he was outfitting his plane with floats to land on the lakes of Alaska and Siberia. He asked Post to fly him through Alaska in search of new material for his newspaper column.
Post and Rogers left Seattle in early August, making several stops in Alaska. While Post piloted the aircraft, Rogers wrote his columns on his typewriter. On August 15, they left Fairbanks for Point Barrow. They were a few miles away when they lost their bearings and landed in a lagoon to ask directions. On takeoff, the engine failed at low altitude and plunged back into the lagoon, killing both men.
The nation mourned the loss of Will Rogers. He was only 55 years old. Eighty years later, he is still quoted. Volumes of his essays and quips still appear in bookstores. There are thirteen public schools in Oklahoma named after him as is the Will Rogers World Airport. But it is the story of how a statue of Rogers came to be placed in the United States Capitol that we feel sums him up best.
Not long before his death, Oklahoma leaders asked Rogers to represent the state as one of two statues in the National Statuary Hall housed in the United States Capitol. He agreed on one condition: that the statue must be placed facing the House Chamber so he could “keep an eye on Congress.”
Unveiled on June 6, 1939, almost four years after his death, the statue of Rogers is the only one that faces the floor entrance of the House of Representatives Chamber. According to guides at the Capitol, each President rubs the left shoe of the statue for good luck before entering the House Chamber to give the State of the Union address.
That may be bunk, as he liked to say—he even ran for president on an Anti-Bunk platform. (Rallying cry: “Our support will have to come from those who want nothing and have the assurance of getting it.”) Scoff all you want but take a closer look at his shoes. They’re shiny: buffed by the hands of many a legislator. That’s no bunk.
Will Rogers’ most famous quote is probably this: “I never met a man I didn’t like.” Here are a few more of our favorites.
We can almost hear him chuckling now.
Happy Use Your Common Sense Day!