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Ailing Will Rogers Jr., 81, Commits Suicide : Obituary: Actor, journalist and former congressman worked to ensure his famous father's legacy. He had suffered two strokes and recently undergone hip implant surgery.

July 11, 1993|SONIA NAZARIO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Flags flew at half-staff at Will Rogers State Historic Park in Pacific Palisades on Saturday to mourn Will Rogers Jr., a former congressman, journalist and actor who committed suicide after repeated health problems.

"He toiled long and hard to see that his father had his right place in history," said Joseph H. Carter, director of the Will Rogers Memorial & Birthplace in Claremore, Okla. "This will overshadow any accomplishments in his own life."

Rogers, 81, was found dead of a gunshot wound to the head Friday afternoon on a rural road near his home in Tubac, Ariz., police said. In recent years, he had suffered two strokes and heart problems and had undergone hip implant surgery.

Sitting in the barn at the park where humorist Will Rogers Sr. once housed his polo horses, Alice Karl said Saturday that she last saw Will Rogers Jr. two years ago, when he hosted a roping competition at the park.

"He was in terrible, terrible pain from hip surgery," said Karl, who gives tours of the Rogers' home for the Will Rogers Volunteer Assn. "People ask about the family: 'Are they still alive?' 'What are they doing now?' Everyone is interested," she said. "I'm saddened that he felt so badly to shoot himself." Born in New York in 1911 while his father was starring in the Ziegfeld Follies, Will Rogers Jr. grew up in the house that is the centerpiece of Will Rogers State Historic Park. While his brother Jim raised horses and ran a cattle ranch, Will Jr. focused on his father's other interests: journalism and acting.

"Roping wasn't his true love. He seemed more at home in the city," Karl said. She remembers Will Rogers Jr. practiced rope tricks so he could play his father starring opposite Jane Wyman in "The Story of Will Rogers " in 1952 and "Boy From Oklahoma" in 1954. Will Rogers Sr., known for his easygoing humanity, was the top box office draw in 1934. An Oklahoma country boy famous for his rope tricks, Will Rogers Sr. made 70 films.

Will Rogers Jr. graduated from Beverly Hills High School and Stanford University. He became editor-publisher of the Beverly Hills Citizen from 1935 to 1953, once among the largest weekly newspapers in the West. In 1942, he was elected to the House of Representatives from Southern California's 16th District, but resigned for a commission as a World War II tank commander. He was shipping out as a merchant seaman when his father died in a plane crash off Barrow, Alaska, in 1935.

He won the 1946 Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate but was defeated, and went on to become manager in Southern California for Harry Truman's reelection campaign. His later career included jobs as a radio and television talk show host, including host of CBS' "Good Morning Show."

Part Cherokee, Will Rogers Jr. was active in American Indian affairs and was chairman of the California State Park Commission from 1960 to 1962.

A note found beside his body asked that his two adoptive American Indian sons, Clem and Carlos, be notified of his death, Carter said. He is also survived by his brother, Jim Rogers of Bakersfield, and three grandchildren. A burial with military honors will be held at 10 a.m. Tuesday in Tubac.

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