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Looking back: Will Rogers in Stillwater

Friday, February 3, 2006

Will Rogers’ visit to the Oklahoma State University (then Oklahoma A&M College) campus 75 years ago this month drew plenty of attention and good reviews from the local press.

One A&M student, whose letter home was featured in a college magazine following Rogers’ Feb. 5, 1931, visit, put it like this:

“Rogers’ wisecracks are spread from coast to coast — and when I say ‘wisecracks’ I mean ‘wisecracks.’ He ridicules everyone from ‘king’ to ‘field mouse,’ and gets away with it — Well! Just to prove his power — the receipts for the performance totaled $2,507.52 — bring on another individual who could extract two hundred and fifty thousand pennies from these seemingly penniless students.”

Rogers came to Stillwater to raise money for families who’d been hit hard by drought during the Great Depression. According to published accounts in "The Daily O’Collegian" and "The Stillwater Gazette," his stop here was one of many he made during a lengthy fundraising tour at the time and his popularity was obvious.

As the "Gazette" reporter put it: “… for two hours, Oklahoma’s favorite son rambled through a happy monologue that had the nearly 2,000 persons alternately rocking with laughter, nudging each other understandingly, or sitting alert, faces wreathed in smiles, ready to burst out again in gales of mirth or hand-clapping, or both.”

What made Rogers so special? The "Gazette" reporter confirmed the A&M student’s comment on “kings to field mice” by writing:

“Will’s ready wit harpooned a sacred cow or two, polished off Governor Murray and pricked any bubble of self-importance that might be in the process of blowing by the thirteenth Oklahoma legislature. He handed a few warm ones to those present and the homefolks yelled for more ....”

Rogers, who was one of Hollywood’s biggest stars at the time, had a 10th grade education, and his Stillwater visit allowed him to “serve up” plenty to his degree-bound audience.

“You know when a class graduates here, the smart ones go out and coach somewhere, and the dumb ones, they go to the legislature," he said.

“All your speakers bring a message to the youth of Oklahoma. I’m not going to hand you any of that hooey. They generally say the future of the state depends on you. You know, we’ve got too many of you now. You are a pretty hard looking group. I don’t see anybody I’d like to take back to Hollywood.”

The day after his appearance in Stillwater, Rogers would write in his nationally syndicated daily newspaper column:

“Played this morning at the best agricultural school in America, Oklahoma A and M. Their cattle win all the shows, and their boys win all the judging contests. It’s not a raccoon coat college.”

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