Will Rodgers and Wiley Post were self made men. Both went after a life they were creating through passion, daring, raw talent, persistence, and wit. Both became the stuff that books are written about, stories are told, and movies are made.
Born November 4, 1879 on the Dog Horn Ranch in the Indian Territory that would later become Oklahoma, Will Rogers was the youngest of 8 children in a close and loving Cherokee family. He dropped out of school in the 10th grade and his first big adventure was in 1901 when he went to Argentina to work as a Gaucho then off to Australia as a circus performer doing rope tricks.
Later Will joined Vaudeville, the Ziegfeld Follies, then to Hollywood to star in 70 movies, became a columnist who wrote over 4000 articles, did radio, and traveled the country as a humorist-philosopher who won the hearts of America.
Wiley Post was born November 22, 1898 on a farm in Grand Saline, Texas. When Wiley was 5 the family moved to Oklahoma. He dropped out of school in the eighth grade, yet on the farm he became obsessed about machines. He went to a county fair in 1913 where he saw his first airplane and knew instantly that’s what he wanted, to be an aviator.
In 1926 working oil rigs an accident cost Wiley his left eye and the patch he wore became his icon. He received settlement money because of the mishap and used it to buy his first plane. Soon after he met Will when he was hired to fly him to a rodeo. They became close friends to the end.
To me, Wiley Post ends up in the history books playing 2nd fiddle unfairly to Charles Lindbergh. Post flew around the world twice, pioneered high altitude flight, was first to use auto-pilot and gyroscope technologies and created what was to became the precursor to NASA’s space suit.
One of my favorite stories from childhood is my dad telling me about a couple of days at Bryn Mawr Field (later Renton Airport) in the Summer of 1935. Will Rogers and Wiley Post were here in Renton to prepare for an adventure to the Territory of Alaska.
Even brilliant self made men with lots of experience can make fatal mistakes in haste. Wiley, short on money, had a plane built from two salvaged Lockheed planes. And when the pontoons he ordered didn't arrive in time he decided to use a pair that were considered too large for the aircraft by some.
They took off from Renton on August 7, 1935 and spent the next 10 days flying around Alaska and the Yukon Territory. On August 15th they left Fairbanks for Point Barrow and landed in a shallow lagoon to get out of the bad weather. When they took off the plane lost power and crashed killing them both.
The spot where Will and Wiley took off from Renton is still in use today. It's known as the Will Rogers – Wiley Post Memorial Seaplane Base. Five years later William Boeing would chose many acres adjacent to this south Lake Washington site to build airplanes and continue the aviation legacy.