Will Rogers, the home-spun American humorist (books, radio, stage, film), was born on November 4, 1879 in Oologan, Oklahoma (near Claremore, OK). He achieved mass popularity in the US during the 1920s and early 1930s. Rogers met an untimely death in an airplane accident while traveling in Alaska gathering new material for his newspaper column; the private plane accident occurred in Point Barrow, AK on August 15, 1935 (the pilot, Wiley Post, also died in the crash).Will Rogers, Circa 1930s(Image Credit: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division. Public Domain.)
Soon after, discussions began on how best to honor the man's life and legacy. Claremore, OK was selected as the site for the memorial, on land that Will and his wife, Betty, had purchased with an eye toward building a home when Will retired; the land was to be donated by Betty. A national fundraising effort was initiated, and Congress passed legislation that appropriated up to $500,000 to assist the State of Oklahoma and the Oklahoma Will Rogers Memorial Commission with the construction of a suitable memorial.
Unfortunately for the Oklahoma Commission, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt vetoed the bill. Roosevelt didn't believe Rogers himself would support the bill and objected to the fact that the bill did not specify the type of memorial to be constructed. He believed that anyone "who knew the depth of Will Rogers' love for his fellow man, that he would have desired a living memorial - something that would carry joy and gladness into the hearts of those he left behind."
Roosevelt concluded his veto message by stating, "I believe the Congress, upon further deliberation, could devise a more appropriate means of perpetuating Will Rogers' memory which, at the same time, would be more in consonance with sound Federal practice."
The presidential veto did not end things, however, as a memorial design was selected and built under the Oklahoma Commission's direction using other funding options. Securing a US commemorative coin was one funding option explored.
Between 1939 and 1945, six different bills were introduced in Congress (five in the House, one in the Senate) proposing a commemorative half dollar in honor of Will Rogers. Back in 2012, I took a brief look at the two bills from 1945 (you can read the post here: Did You Know? #22 - Will Rogers
. but I wanted to return to the topic for a more in-depth look. (Note: The earlier post provides some background on Rogers that I will not repeat here - please consult that post if interested.)
The drive to secure a commemorative half dollar in memory of Will Rogers began in February 1939 when a bill sponsored by the Oklahoma Will Rogers Memorial Commission was introduced in the Senate; the bill was introduced by Senator John William Elmer Thomas (D-OK). It called for up to 100,000 coins to be struck at a single US Mint facility, and specified that the coins would bear a single date (TBD later) and that coining authority would end two years following the bill's enactment.
In a uncommon twist, the bill specified the coin's basic design, "such coin shall contain on one side the picture of the said Will Rogers and on the other side a picture of the Will Rogers Memorial located at Claremore, Oklahoma." It also indicated that the funds raised through sale of the coins were to be used for "expenses incidental and appropriate to the maintenance and upkeep of the Will Rogers Memorial located at Claremore, Oklahoma." One stipulation included in the aforementioned appropriation bill was that the Memorial needed to provide its own funds for its ongoing care and maintenance; Thomas' bill appears to be attempting to fill this need/requirement.
The bill was referred to the Senate Committee on Banking and Currency, but languished.
Several months later, in July 1939, Representative Wesley Ernest Disney (D-OK) introduced a very similar Will Rogers coin bill. It was a case of "same, but different." Disney's bill also called for up to 100,000 coins, but did not indicate designs for the coin. Also, it specified "1939" as the year to appear on the coins, regardless of when struck or issued, and set the expiration for coining authority at one year following the bill's enactment.
The bill listed the sponsor as the Will Rogers Memorial Commission of the State of Oklahoma, which I believe is meant to be the same organization as named in the Senate bill. The House bill did specify a different use for the net funds generated, though with the same end objective. Disney's bill specified that the funds "shall be used by it [the Commission] to establish a trust fund for the permanent maintenance of the Will Rogers Memorial at Claremore, Oklahoma." (See related above re: the Thomas bill introduced in the Senate.)
So, though worded slightly differently, the two bills would have produced essentially the same coin program and supported an Oklahoma-based Will Rogers Memorial.
The Disney bill was referred to the House Committee on Coinage, Weights, and Measures. It was not reported out and died, along with the Senate bill, due to lack of action.
If you're scoring at home: Failed Attempt #1: 76th Congress, 1939.
The story concludes in Part II
For other of my posts about commemorative coins and medals, see: Commems Collection.