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Will Rogers and Wiley Post

Final flight of Will Rogers, Wiley Post remembered

Juneau remembers a sad anniversary today - the final flight of humorist Will Rogers and pilot Wiley Post. The pair died Aug. 15, 1935, as they flew to Alaska's northernmost outpost, Point Barrow.

Post was an experienced pilot who had flown around the world twice, setting a new record for that journey in 1931. The short, stocky, one-eyed aviator had gone hunting with pilot Joe Crosson in Alaska's interior in 1934. In 1935 he again flew north, this time accompanied by fellow Oklahoman Will Rogers (1879-1935). Along their flight path, they paused to chew the fat in Juneau, at the brand-new, experimental Matanuska agricultural colony in Palmer, and again in Fairbanks.
The small red Lockheed seaplane arrived at Alaska's capital on the afternoon of Aug. 7 and left just after noon on Aug. 9. Rogers planned to visit an old friend in Barrow, whaler and trader Charles Brower.

Retired federal judge Tom Stewart was 16 when the famous pair came to Juneau.

"I went down to the waterfront to see them. They landed at what's now Merchants Wharf; there was an air terminal where floatplanes moored,'' Stewart recalled.

"The thing I most especially remember was Will Rogers standing on the corner by the Juneau drugstore handing out sticks of gum to the kids. And he was just like he was on the radio and in movies. I had seen his movies, so I knew what he looked like and what he talked like - and he was just like that,'' Stewart marveled.
Juneau was a town of 5,000 in 1935. When Rogers appeared before an unprecedented audience of 60 at a Juneau Chamber of Commerce luncheon on Aug. 8, he kept everyone in stitches. Some of his comments boosted aviation:

"You know I want to pay you people a compliment. You've got 40,000 alleged white folks up here (in Alaska), and 65 airplanes,'' said Rogers, who was part Cherokee Indian. "That's a darn good average. But it's a national disgrace that you aren't connected with cuckoo land with an airplane route.''
Speaking of pilots, Rogers added, "You've got a great bunch up here. They have to be good ... in these tough channels. Just send a new pilot out. If he comes back, he's OK.''

For readers for whom the name Will Rogers rings no bells, consider: Before there was nationally known political satirist Mark Russell playing the piano and writing knife-sharp lyrics, there was humorist Will Rogers.

Russell pounds the ivories to punctuate his delivery; Rogers spun a lariat.

Russell has public television for his soapbox; Rogers had stage, screen and radio. Known as the "cowboy humorist'' and "the cowboy philosopher,'' Rogers appeared in the Ziegfeld Follies and starred in 71 motion pictures. He also wrote his own column, syndicated in 630 newspapers - in a time when newsprint was king.

Both Russell and Rogers had their fingers on the pulse of public scorn and churned out a tide of riotous, often bittersweet commentary on everything from government and the economy to the judgment of the president to why people wind up in Juneau.

For example, preparing to leave Juneau, Rogers bought two sets of raingear. "Why two?'' asked the clerk.

"Well, if I was going to stay in Juneau, I'd buy three sets,'' Rogers replied.

And Wiley Post? Just consider him the Chuck Yeager of the day.

Growing up in Juneau in the early '30s, Dean Williams - later to found his own airline, Southeast Skyways (which became Wings of Alaska) - was fascinated with anything related to aviation, particularly the Pan American clippers that landed in Auke Bay. Williams was 17, a high school junior, when he joined the crowd of perhaps 100 people at the floatplane dock when the famous pilot and humorist landed.

"I shook hands with them,'' Williams recalled Saturday as he worked in his yard. "They were colorful people, really fun to talk to.''

Bob Thibodeau was 13 when the famous pair visited Juneau.

"One of my young friends said they were in town. `Why don't we go down and see the plane?' he asked. But I didn't go,'' said Thibodeau. "I was busy doing something else. And then we heard the following day that they crashed. Then I regretted I had not going down to see the floatplane.''

Juneau played host to many prominent folks in the first decades of this century, Thibodeau said. A visit by novelist Rex Beach overlapped Rogers' stay. Franklin Roosevelt fished here. And, more than once, John Barrymore visited with his family on their private yacht. On a less rarified note, "Every time a ship docked, it was a social event,'' Thibodeau said.

The deaths of Rogers and Post on Aug. 15, 1935, prompted some of the most extensive coverage of a single story in the Daily Alaska Empire to date. It included an extra edition on Aug. 16, as well as nearly the entire front page two days in a row, plus editorials. The editorial of Aug. 19 called the pair "two of the best known and best loved men in this country, or in the world.''

Rogers and Post were instantly killed at 5 p.m. Aug. 15 near Point Barrow, when their plane crashed nose-first into a river. Natives camping on the river said Post landed and asked directions to town. As the Lockheed took off, the engine misfired with the plane only about 50 feet in the air, and the plane went out of control and crashed.

Eskimos chanted a funeral dirge as the Native skin-boat carrying the bodies made its way into Barrow. Charles Brower helped medical missionary Henry Oriest prepare the bodies for the flight south.

Gov. John W. Troy had been host to the pair at the Governor's Mansion during their visit. Now Troy telegraphed messages of condolence to both Mrs. Rogers and Mrs. Post.

Their new friends in Juneau - and old friends all around the globe - mourned the loss.

Source:  Juneau Empire, Sunday, August 15, 1999



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