Will Rogers Memorial Coliseum
Photo by John Henry

Will Rogers Memorial Center a Shrine to Love and Friendship

Progress being what it is, a new arena was a long overdue need for a city of Fort Worth growing out of its blue jeans.

Fortunately for the Western performance horse industry, its major events stayed at the venerable Will Rogers Coliseum or a surrounding building on the sacred grounds.

The Will Rogers Memorial Center is a special place, named in honor of special person.

Will Rogers wasn’t from Fort Worth, but his could easily be the face of the city.

“I never met a man I didn’t like,” synonymous with Will, should be the city’s motto.

For this man of action, Western competition was his preference in sporting events.

When his death was inevitable, his companions all said at the time, Will Rogers was not frightened.

“That word was not in his vocabulary.”

His favorite dish was chili con carne.

That about checks all of the boxes to being a Fort Worth citizen.

“Kind of” was “kinder” in both speech and print. That’s more old Fort Worth and less this cosmopolitan amalgamate of the modern day.

Will Rogers was a jewel, the philosopher from Oklahoma, who used his cowboy charm – his shows always included him twirling a rope – to deliver witticisms and observations that are as relevant today as they were in the 1930s.

His was no Hollywood act, but genuine sincerity.

“We shouldn’t elect a President; we should elect a magician.”

“Remember, write to your Congressman. Even if he can’t read, write to him.”

“A fool and his money are soon elected.”

“Villains are getting as thick as college degrees and sometimes on the same fellow.”

“Ten men in the country could buy the world and 10 million can’t buy enough to eat.”

“All I know is just what I read in the papers, and that’s an alibi for my ignorance.”

Sadly, many of his cultural contributions are long forgotten. Like Plato, he should live forever. Will Rogers 101 should be mandated in school.

After his death in a plane crash in Alaska in August 1935, the testimonials came pouring in.

Rogers was, one wrote, a man who loved all men, living proof that a man can make good without making enemies. “A life, unsoiled by the greed of profits. A life, unspoiled by the accumulation of the world’s appreciation. A life, based on the simple philosophy of fellowship and faith.”

Will Rogers believed in dipping in hot water on the belief that it kept him clean.

More than even all that, however, is what the Will Rogers Memorial Center stands for.

More than a memorial to one man, Will Rogers is a monument to something so much bigger and consequential: loyalty, love and friendship. That’s why it should – and will – stand forever.

“Your going to Seattle was the … most comforting thing of all the loving things that was done for him,” Rogers’ wife, Betty, wrote Amon Carter only weeks after Will’s death. “No one but you could have thought of this and how I love you for it. All those long hours my thoughts were with you. I do want you to know how deeply touched we were and how each one of us appreciate your warm affection and sincere friendship for him.

“He loved you.”

Carter, the publisher of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, had traveled to Seattle to meet the plane carrying Rogers’ remains, to be with his close friend at the very end.

Betty Rogers’ handwritten note was among the finds in the Amon G. Carter Papers, housed at the TCU library. There is so much more in there. The letters and wires between Will and Carter are in many cases touching.

Many others are between two buddies poking fun at one another. One letter included Will Rogers Jr.’s first paycheck from the Star-Telegram as a souvenir. It appeared, from the perspective of this writer, that the son worked in the advertising department for a spell.

From his perch as a newspaper columnist, Will poked, too.

“I would like to ask a favor of my friends, no matter where they be, if they have any flowers, old wreaths or crepe bows, to please send ’em to Amon G. Carter of Fort Worth, Texas. It’s rather a pathetic case, he had always stayed clear of politics, but the summer heat got him, and he started to actively campaign against Jim Ferguson … 120 million, and he picks out Jim to argue politics with. It would be like me arguing lip rouge with Greta Garbo. So send the poor devil any consolation you can.”

Carter and Will had been intimates for more than 15 years at the time of death.

“I admired him for many years before,” Carter wrote. “During the period I have come to know him better and to be with him more, my admiration for him has become genuine affection. I do not suppose there is anyone he really dislikes; I am positive there is none he hates. Hate is absolutely foreign to his nature. That is the reason he can say such cutting things, point out such obvious truths, josh the biggest about their mistakes and frailties, without leaving a sting. The shots hit home, but they leave no sting, for those hit know there is no malice behind them.”

New York newspaper columnist O.O. McIntyre eulogized him, recalling that Rogers would come to his apartment with Irvin Cobb, another humorist, and Carter, himself quite the character.

“They formed an unbeatable trio in yarning and riposte. Cobb and Carter lounging back in easy chairs and Rogers walking up and down, twisting, turning and jiggling things on the desk, peeking into the kitchen, tearing up match flaps – always like a fighter on edge. He never seemed fatigued; a day at the studio or a night of rehearsal, nothing slowed him up. In fact, I remember his wife Betty saying one day: ‘I have never heard Will say he was tired.’”

After Rogers’ death, Vice President John Nance Garner ceremoniously chaired a committee to raise money for a memorial at his birthplace in Oklahoma and in Washington, D.C. Carter was on that committee.

The memorial fund had nothing to do with the Will Rogers Memorial Center here.

Those buildings were constructed for Fort Worth’s Texas Centennial celebration in 1936. The city, through Carter’s network, of course, got Depression-era program funding for the project. Postmaster James Farley flippantly told President Franklin Roosevelt that Carter wanted a grant because “Amon wants to build a cowshed.”

It takes a politician to know bull leavings.

The complex was not built to be a memorial to Rogers, though it could have been in the back of Amon Carter’s mind. Who knows? The City Council had tossed the idea of naming it for him very shortly after the crash.

To the president, probably Hoover, it’s unclear, Rogers appealed for help for a former classmate who was in jail in Arizona. The classmate had been busted for possession of mescal, a charge that outraged Rogers. “Why that’s the staff of life in that country.”

“I guess the usual procedure is to say that he didn’t do a thing in the world and shouldn’t be there. But I expect he did, it’s not a case of mistaken identity, as nobody else looks like him, but he is not a bad fellow. And like all fellows that get in trouble he has a family, and they need him worse than the jail does.

“Why a man should want to be out of fail these hard times is more than I know, but he always was a bit of a comedian.”

Moreover, this guy would actually be welcomed home by his wife, making him a bit of a novelty for a recent jailbird, Rogers continued. Furthermore, if his friend were released from the pokey, Will guaranteed that he would go on a “Coca-Cola diet and vote the straight Republican ticket.”

The Will Rogers Memorial Center was public money well spent, a worthy home for the Western industry for almost 80 years. We should never forget what it and “sweet, old Will” represent.