The Gifts of Will Rogers

Mike Masterson

Mike Masterson

Editor’s note: Mike Masterson published this column on May 5, the day he received the 2012 Will Rogers Humanitarian Award from the National Society of Newspaper Columnists. He read this column during his thank-you at the awards banquet of its 36th annual conference, in Macon, Ga.

By Mike Masterson
Copyright © 2012 Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

The late humorist, philosopher, screen actor, newspaper columnist, radio commentator, roping cowboy, philanthropist, humanitarian and worldwide ambassador of good will from Oklahoma might well have become the most popular and revered American in the early 1930s before his untimely death at age 55.

A lot of people who knew Will Rogers saw him as the greatest living American of his time. He provided the mold for what we of lesser ability like to call the authentic Renaissance Man.

In fact, they thought enough of the words he regularly spoke over radio and wrote in weekly syndicated columns to create a magnificent museum in honor of his legacy and spirit at his hometown of Claremore.

But far too many Americans today don’t even know his name, or that this grand museum and memorial of cut limestone on a grassy hilltop overlooking the town exists. That, valued readers, is a shame, for I assure you that Will Rogers — born way back in 1879 — still has so much wisdom to offer each of us.

Will Rogers Memorial

Will Rogers Memorial Claremore Okla.

To me, this hallowed memorial built in 1938 resembles an enormous Methodist church complete with gardens, stained-glass windows and room after room filled with fascinating Rogers memorabilia. The collection includes his 71 motion pictures continuously running in two small theaters, replays of his radio broadcasts and even the clothes he was wearing in the 1935 fatal plane crash with famed aviator Wiley Post.

There are photos of Rogers typing away with two fingers on his little portable typewriter resting in his lap as he sits in a car. Even eight decades ago, he was busy writing some two million words on what can accurately be called a laptop. He sent those columns on deadline via Western Union from wherever he was around the world.

I made the 90-minute pilgrimage to Claremore from Northwest Arkansas to see and feel the Will Rogers Memorial after Robert Haught of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists notified me that I needed to have my entire self in Macon, Ga., on May 5 to receive that organization’s 2012 Will Rogers Humanitarian Award for my body of work across 41 years.

What’s that? Me! Ballyhooed at the age of aches, pains and wrinkles? It seemed only right that if they saw fit to hand me this treasured statuette of Will Rogers (a copy of the one that hangs in Statuary Hall in the nation’s Capitol), I needed to understand what, if anything, we shared in philosophies about this fleeting adventure called life. So it was off to Claremore.

Will Rogers, by Charles Banks Wilson

Will Rogers, by Charles Banks Wilson

Strolling through the sprawling memorial, where Rogers and his family also are entombed in a mausoleum on these acres where they once planned their dream home, I repeatedly was stunned by the displays of his comments from the ’30s to see just how much alike our thoughts about life and politics truly are.

This wholly creative man who was part Cherokee Indian clearly relished candor and sincerity and despised selfishness and deceit. Here’s a smattering of the insights he left for us that remain entirely relevant:

“Once a man wants to hold a public office, he’s absolutely no good for honest work.”

“I don’t tell jokes. I just watch our government and report the facts.”

“The more learned a man is, the less consideration he has for another man’s belief.”

“You can’t legislate intelligence and common sense into people. You can’t broaden a man’s vision if he wasn’t born with one.”

“People don’t change under governments. Governments change. People remain the same.”

“Nothing will spoil a big man’s life like too much truth.”

And perhaps his best-remembered quote: “I never met a man I didn’t like.”

The only quote I ever concocted is: “Evil flourishes in direct correlation to the extent truth is violated.” And that’s not very witty at all, is it?

I can assure everyone of this much truth. Any journalist is only as effective as his publisher enables through support from the top. And for that reason, I share this recognition with publisher Walter Hussman at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, who has proven himself time and again over my career (and his, they overlap) to be not only fearless, but one of the finest publishers of news and opinion in the nation. Hussman has stood firmly behind my every effort to seek and report truth over four decades because he believes in First Amendment journalism. And I gladly share this honor with Jeff Jeffus, the supportive president of Northwest Arkansas Newspapers, who nominated my work and who has stood equally solid behind me and believed in my efforts when others preferred that my voice be muffled.

I feel nothing but a deep sense of gratitude and a humbleness deep inside my heart to even be mentioned in connection with Will Rogers and his indomitable spirit—for when his life ended so suddenly, it was the depth of that one man’s spirit alone that left such an indelible impression on generations to come.

Finally today, to Will Rogers’ lengthy lists of accomplishments in such a regrettably brief lifetime, I’d add the title of prophet, for the final word of his last column was the common denominator that unites us all.

It was the word “death.”

• • •

Mike Masterson is staff columnist and opinion editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette’s Northwest edition.
Copyright © 2012 Arkansas Democrat-Gazette — All Rights Reserved

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  1 comment for “The Gifts of Will Rogers

  1. January 10, 2013 at 11:38 am

    As of Saturday, Sept. 1, 2012, Mike Masterson’s job as opinion pages editor for the Northwest Arkansas edition of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette ended, but it continues to publish his op-ed column three times a week.

    As Mike wrote in his Sept. 4, 2012, column, “Ch-ch-ch-changes: Turn and Face the Strain”:

    Like it or not, it’s inevitable that life is change as the clock of life keeps on ticking.

    It’s become true for me that the mark of a well-adjusted person is one who readily adapts to change and accepts his new circumstances and inevitable challenges they bring. Our biggest problems seem to arise when we keep trying to do the same things we were doing before life changed course on us. …

    I’m no different than anyone else. I’ve made 10 major life changes across a career spanning nearly 42 years. Most of those entailed changing communities, newspapers, job responsibilities, friendships, colleagues, family ties and expectations of me at every turn.

    From Newport to Hot Springs, to the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Sun-Times, back to Little Rock, the Arizona Republic, Ohio State, to the Asbury Park Press in New Jersey, to Fayetteville, to my hometown of Harrison, and back to Fayetteville as a columnist for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Whew! It actually wears me out just to read all that.

    I actually lost track a while back of how many houses I’ve purchased and called home along the way. Of course, I chose a craft that is mobile by nature. It’s a career where most journalists start small and strive to get to the “gig time” population centers only to discover once there that the only things different are the people, the congestion, taxes and the salary.

    It’s still journalism, no matter where you practice it. …

    Most change in our lives comes from our choices and the people who shift in and out of our personal field of consciousness. The good ones leave more of an impact than the bad ones, I believe, and in far different ways. In that respect, I’ve lived a fortunate life filled with supportive employers and encouraging friendships. …

    I’m in a state of reverie today because change has come a-callin’ yet again at this stage. Tick, tock, tick tock . . .

    As of last Saturday, I am no longer the NWA Opinion Editor for the paper.

    Triggered by the sustained pathetic economic conditions in the nation, things are changing dramatically across the landscape of this business, prompting consolidations and sadly, reductions in staff sizes and even abbreviated publication days in virtually every city and town.

    So, on Saturday, I became an independent correspondent who will continue to produce three personal opinion columns weekly for the paper, while free to write elsewhere as long as the publication doesn’t compete with this newspaper.

    Naturally, I’ll adjust. But I am grateful that publisher Walter Hussman; Jeff Jeffus, president of Northwest Arkansas Newspapers LLC; and others who must make agonizing-purely business-decisions that seriously affect the lives of loyal employees in such hard times saw the value of my regular offerings to you, the valued readers. …

    As my late friend Dr. Bill Hudson’s raggedy Tshirt read: “Life is a river, go with the flow.” Tick tock, tick tock.


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