November 2011: The original Mike Wimmer oil paintings from Governor Frank Keating’s book “Will Rogers: An American Legend” have been relocated to the entry gallery of Will Rogers Memorial Museum. Call it serendipity or a home run. Both have a place in Wimmer’s career.
The Muskogee native was in Washington, D.C., promoting “Homerun: The Story of Babe Ruth,” a book he illustrated for Bob Burleigh, when he told the author he would like to do a book about Will Rogers. Soon after, he was invited to lunch with then Oklahoma’s first lady Cathy Keating to talk about painting their family Christmas greeting.
“For my eight years as governor, Cathy selected an artist to paint the state Christmas card. One year, Mike Wimmer was the artist,” Governor Keating said. “I bought the original of the painting and when Mike delivered it to my office, he inquired whether I knew anyone who could write a children’s book on the life of Will Rogers. Harcourt wanted to publish a book on Rogers and Mike had been selected to be the artist,” Keating said.
It was an entry into a new world for the governor. “When I raised my hand, he asked whether I had ever written a children’s book. I told him that I had not, but that I would like to give it a try,” he said. “I wrote. The publisher accepted the text, and ‘Will Rogers: An American Legend’ won the Western Writers of America best children’s book for the year it was published. A fun result.”
The writer and the artist, who were at the Claremore Museum and Will Rogers Birthplace Ranch to introduce the book, returned September 18 for a special showing when oil paintings of the Wimmer illustrations were relocated. The exhibit will remain in place about a year.
“These are beautiful paintings and we want to put them on display in our main gallery for the public to enjoy,” said Tad Jones, Museum executive director. “It is a wonderful children’s book and this exhibit will be a great tribute to their work.”
Prior to writing the book, the Keatings had been to the Claremore Museums with their children, but this was a different approach. He said he began his research “with Joe Carter’s fine book, then read everything I could that Will wrote about his times and life.” He learned a lot about Will Rogers doing the research. “Will Rogers was all humor and humility, with sparkles of wisdom and goodness and grit and common sense. He was a quintessential Oklahoman. The Memorial Museum tells his important story to America, a story of America at its goodwill best,” Oklahoma’s 1994-2002 Governor said.
Wimmer completed 19 oil paintings to illustrate the Will Rogers book. This was just the beginning of a relationship between Governor Keating and Wimmer. They also collaborated on biographies of Theodore Roosevelt and Chief Standing Bear. Keating’s most recent, “George,” is a story about America’s first president. He came into this arena through Simon and Schuster, his publisher.
After the Will Rogers book was published, the Wimmer paintings became the property of Anadarko Petroleum Corp of Houston. In 2007, they were presented to the Will Rogers Memorial Museum and unveiled in a main floor gallery leading to the Children’s Museum in the basement. The 19 pieces included 18 of Wimmer’s original book illustrations and a giclee’ reproduction of Governor and Mrs. Keating. When “The Final Journal Gallery” was relocated from near the Museum entry to the last gallery in the Museum, the Wimmer paintings were hung in the Library.
Although he and his wife have lived in the East since Keating became president and CEO of American Bankers Association, they have remained involved in several Oklahoma charities. “We chaired the capital campaign for the new Salvation Army campus in Oklahoma City,” he said. “Cathy and I are active in the Cowboy Hall and Western Heritage Center, where she is a director, as well as Oklahoma Wesleyan University and its new Keating Center.” He said he will retire at the end of the year “and decide what next to do with my life.”
Wimmer, who lives in Edmond, will continue doing what he loves — painting.
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