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Guideposts Classics: Will Rogers Jr. Remembers His Father's Lessons

In this story from July 1957, Will Rogers Jr. recalls the wisdom his witty father passed on to him.

By Will Rogers Jr.

As appeared in

“Live in such a way that you would not be ashamed to sell your parrot to the town gossip,” my father once said.

If Will Rogers had a rule to live by, maybe that’s the one. Anyway, it’s one I remember best.

Many of his words are still repeated often. However, his heritage to his children wasn’t words, or possessions, but an unspoken treasure, the treasure of his example as a man and a father.

More than anything I have, I’m trying to pass that on to my children. I would like the treasure of my father’s past and the best of my present to merge with their future.

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The spiritual heritage we get from our parents isn’t easy to pass on to our children, but I shall never cease trying.

I remember my father with reverence and laughter. To many he was the Oklahoma cowboy, with a hair lick over his forehead, an infectious grin, twirling a long lariat, and speaking a language of his own that bit big hunks into the sham of his day.

He’s thought of as a humorist. He was, but he was more, too. He was never an actor, though his name blazed in lights from Hollywood and Broadway to Berlin and Alaska. He was always himself.

Even as a wit he was trying to express ideas and ideals, and he would have preferred approval for them rather than applause for his humor.

I do not remember receiving very much lecturing from him at any time. He gave my sister Mary, my brother Jim, and me a good moral tone with the quiet sincerity which was always evident in all he said and did.

When I was a kid I wanted a motor to attach to my bike. I wanted it badly, maybe because none of the other kids had one. But it was very expensive and when I asked my father for it he said no.

“But Dad, we’re rich,” I protested.

Well, the whole roof descended on me. He said no kid of his was ever going to parade any advantage he might have, and I’d better unlearn any such notion at once. Then he muttered something about showoffs, the poor show-off who is always lonely because he’s always empty.

That made a big impression on me. Not so much the event, but the meaning my father gave it. Undue emphasis on material things made possessions ends in themselves, and that was morally wrong, if not destructive.

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Growing up with that idea can make Christian ethics a habit, though at the time we didn’t think of it that way, and my father didn’t put it to us that way. The example is always more effective than the sermon. And he often put his ideas to us with a kind of barbed laughter.

When any of us felt important or inflated with our knowledge, we had only to remember his remark:

“Everybody is ignorant, only on different subjects.”

Once, while in high school, I rushed home all excited because I’d been picked to recite a long, humorous poem. I had to try it out right away. My father retreated behind his newspaper, so I made Mother listen. Half way through I fumbled, faltered, and came to a helpless halt.

Father, who I thought was paying no attention at all, came out from behind his paper and finished the whole poem. He also knew the author and when it was written. Then he went back behind his paper. I never recovered my conceit.

He was always the example. In those days parents assumed an automatic leadership I don’t see in parents today, including myself.

My father was the head of the house. He behaved as the head of the house. He was the parent, kindly, generous, but definite. When he said it should be done, it was done. That fashioned us when we were young.

Sunday school for us was like going to regular school. We just went. And we were taught the reality of prayer at home. When I was about nine my father got sick. In the hushed house, my mother told us about the time all her children were sick with diphtheria.