b. January 28, 1858, West Concord, Vermont d. May 21, 1945, New York City
A bronze bust of late aviator Wiley Post welcomes visitors at the main entrance to the Oklahoma Judicial Center, home to Oklahoma’s Third Branch of Government.
Post is a rather colorful figure in Oklahoma history who overcame a multitude of adversities to get his aviation career off the ground. Growing up in Grady County, Post saw his first airplane at a fair in Lawton in 1913, and his dream of being a pilot took hold. He trained as a mechanic and took construction jobs before finally landing in the oil fields as a driller. Though he saved what he could, he believed he would never have enough to buy his own airplane.
Apparently, this desire turned to desperation in 1921, when Post resorted to highway robbery to achieve his goals. On April 28, 1921, he was convicted of conjoint robbery in Grady County Court and sentenced to ten years in the state penitentiary. Behind bars, Post sank into a deep depression, prompting the prison doctor to ask for his parole. He was released on June 5, 1922, after serving fourteen months of his sentence.
By 1924, Post got work as an exhibition parachute jumper. When those opportunities dried up, he returned to the oil field in 1926. On his first day, a steel splinter flew into his left eye, damaging it so badly that it had to be removed. The tragedy had a silver lining: Post got $1,800 in a Workers’ Compensation judgment. He used the settlement to buy and rebuild a Canuck airplane.
He started his own business, flying oilmen to their leaseholdings during the week and entertaining with flying circuses on the weekends. Chickasha oilman F.C. Hall hired Post to be his fulltime pilot and purchased a Lockheed Vega for him to fly. Post named it the Winnie Mae, after his daughter and his wife. Justice James Winchester currently resides in the Chickasha home owned by F.C. Hall at the time Post flew for the oilman.
When the stock market crashed in 1929, Hall had to sell the Winnie Mae back to Lockheed. Never one to miss an opportunity, Post convinced the airplane manufacturer to hire him as a test pilot. He worked with leading aeronautical engineers and noted pilots, including Amelia Earhart. By 1930, Hall had managed to get his finances back in order and asked Post to return as his personal pilot.
Around this time, Post started entering long-distance races. The significant prize money enabled him to prepare for an around-the-world flight. On July 1, 1931, he completed a trans-global flight in eight and a half days – twelve days less than the previous record holder. A tickertape parade was held for him in New York City, along with a White House reception where he met President Hoover. Two years later, Post became the first man to fly around the world alone, this time in seven and a half days. Fifty thousand people greeted him upon his return to New York and he was again a guest at the White House, this time at the invitation of President Franklin Roosevelt.
Afterwards, Post turned his attention to scientific pursuits. He helped develop and test the world’s first pressurized flight suit and in 1934 discovered a river of wind flowing at great speeds from west to east over the United States. Today, this phenomenon is known as the jet stream. That year he also appeared on the silver screen, playing a pilot in the film Air Hawks.
Post’s role in Oklahoma history is perhaps best remembered because of how he died. On August 15, 1935, he was flying Will Rogers on a vacation trip to Alaska when their plane crashed shortly after take-off near Point Barrow, Alaska. For weeks afterward, newspapers in Oklahoma and around the world were dominated by articles about Rogers’ life and the great loss. Twenty thousand people viewed Post’s casket at the Oklahoma State Capitol, prior to his funeral.
Memorial efforts began immediately. Frank Phillips of Tulsa, founder of Phillips Petroleum, commissioned bronze busts of Will Rogers and Wiley Post to be displayed at the Oklahoma Historical Society. Herbert Adams was selected to create the pair of sculptures for a reported $25,000 (over $400,000 in today’s dollars).
A leading figure in American sculpture during the early 1900s, Adams studied with noted Parisian sculptor, Antonin Mercie, and at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris. Upon returning to the United States, he taught at the Pratt Institute Art School in Brooklyn, New York. His commissions include bronze doors for the Library of Congress as well as life-sized memorials of historic figures in Massachusetts and Pennsylvania. His works are included in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. The National Sculpture Society created an award in his name: The Herbert Adams Memorial Award, presented to significant American sculptors for lifetime achievement in the advancement of sculpture.
After completion of the sculpture, the bust of Wiley Post was displayed in the Grand Central Art Gallery of New York from December 17, 1937 until January 8, 1938. The busts were presented to the Historical Society in a special ceremony on February 13, 1938. The proceedings began with a fly-over by the Southwestern Aviators Association who dropped floral offerings on the front steps of the Historical building. The Indian Glee Club from Mountain View, Oklahoma then sang “America.” The main address was delivered by Judge Thomas Doyle of the Court of Criminal Appeals and President Emeritus of the Historical Society, who praised art as a way to share history with the people. His words would become the guiding principles used in selecting art for the Oklahoma Judicial Center and the standard for this publication. Also in attendance at the ceremony were the artist, along with Wiley Post’s wife and mother. Frank Phillips chose not to attend, asking instead that his name be kept in the background, to focus all the attention on Will Rogers and Wiley Post.
The Historical Society President at the time was former Chief Justice Robert L. Williams who served on the Supreme Court of Oklahoma from 1907 to 1914. He left the Court to become Oklahoma’s third governor, 1915 to 1919. In 1929, he successfully lobbied for passage of a bill to provide construction of a separate building for the Oklahoma Historical Society – up until that time, the Society had been housed in the State Capitol. This piece is on permanent loan from the Oklahoma Historical Society.
Source: American National Biography, Vol. 1, pp. 96-97; “Address by Thomas H. Doyle; Minutes of a Special Meeting of the Oklahoma Historical Society, February 13, 1938,” Chronicles of Oklahoma, Vol. 16, No. 1, March 1938; “Artist Picked, Clay Models Are Approved,” The Oklahoman, September 26, 1937; “Rogers and Post Busts Are Unveiled,” February 14, 1938.