A few years ago, I had stopped at my insurance agent’s office in Grinnell to ask a question about my policy. I don’t recall if the agent was in, but the receptionist, Phyllis, was in and was always willing to help me.
Phyllis and I started talking and I mentioned something about my upbringing in Tulsa and attending Will Rogers High School. Will Rogers, who was born to a prominent Cherokee Nation family in Indian Territory (Oklahoma), was an American stage and film actor, vaudeville performer, cowboy, humorist, newspaper columnist and social commentator. He was known as “Oklahoma’s Favorite Son.”
Phyllis told me she had something I might be interested in. The next time I stopped in, she handed me the book, “Will Rogers Ambassador of Good Will Prince of Wit and Wisdom,” by P.J. O’Brien. It was first published in 1935.
Tucked inside was a letter written on Nov. 26, 1955 by the late Edith Weston Kendall of Grinnell. Edith was a long-time secretary for superintendent of buildings and grounds at Grinnell College. She also spent a brief time working for a lawyer in Grinnell.
According to Phyllis, Edith was a neighbor to her mother. Phyllis said her mother was gifted the book and letter along with some other items after Edith passed away. The box of goodies made its way to Phyllis some years later.
The letter was addressed to the First Person Editor at the Readers Digest. In November 1955, Reader Digest offered to pay $2,500 for first person stories accepted for publication. Edith saw the advertisement and wanted to share the first person story of the time she, her mother and sister took the train from Grinnell to Des Moines to see Will Rogers at the Hoyt Sherman Place on Oct. 27, 1925.
After seeing Will Rogers in person, the trio made its way to the train station for the trip back to Grinnell. Soon, Will Rogers arrived at the station to board a train to St. Paul. Sitting together, Edith, her mother and sister decided to step out of their comfort zone and talk to Will Rogers, who was seated nearby.
Following is a section of Edith’s letter about that experience:
“I can remember the intense feeling of satisfaction I had, later, when I remember that I had worn my new Lord & Taylor brown velvet hat, and my new brown coat with its beaver collar and cuffs,” wrote Edith. “Will Rogers tapped on one of those fur cuffs to emphasize the various points that he made during our conversation. No one was ever more gracious or kindly in his reception of the overtures of three obviously nervous ladies, doing what was, for them, an unheard of thing. I suppose he recognized the deep sincerity of our interest in him, and the genuine regard in which he was held by this mother and her two daughters. We told him we had come to the city for the express purpose of seeing him – that it was the first time in 13 years our fragile mother had made the trip and she told him she would have made it for no lesser cause. He was pleased by this, asked where we lived, and said, “I came through there today. How far do you have to go after you reach your station? I hope not too far, on this stormy night.” We told him our home was only a few blocks from the station and it would be very easy getting home. He explained to us that his desire to make the concert tour, stemmed from the fact that he “wanted to meet people like us” – that the people of the middle-west were his real audience, particularly the small town people – that he felt that in a big city he was regarded as an “entertainer” by people absorbed in themselves and in their own hurried lives and concerns, whereas the people in the smaller places realized him as a person as well as a celebrity. As an instance, he cited the fact that while he was eating supper at the Savory Hotel, the Governor (John Hammill) was eating at another table, recognized him, and come over to sit with him. He said “where else would it have happened?”
“After we had talked for some time, my mother feared we might be boring him, and told him that we must not take up any more of his time. He told us he would see us again before he left, and went over to the candy counter. His train for St. Paul was standing on the track, as was also our “local.” He remained so long at the candy counter that one of the group of singers came back into the depot and said, “Will, they are holding the train for you.” He said, “just a minute.” In another minute or two, he came back to us with three big boxes of candy, wrapped separately, tossed one at each of us, shook hands again all around, assuring us that he had been so happy to meet us, and departed from our lives.”
Edith wrote that after Will Rogers had boarded his train, he had asked the conductor to make sure they had safely boarded the train to Grinnell.
It’s such a wonderful story and look back at history with a connection to my upbringing. I don’t know if Edith’s story was ever published in the Readers Digest, but it would be fun to do some research.
When I returned to Tulsa two years ago for my class reunion, Debbie and I stopped at the Will Rogers Memorial in Claremore, Okla., where Will and his wife, Betty, and three of their four children are buried, and we were able to leave a copy of Edith’s letter with the museum curator.
I never knew Edith, but I am so blessed to have met Phyllis and thankful for her kind gift.
Have a great week and always remember that “Good Things are Happening,” every day and always.