Willie ‘Rockne’ Tarkington, Jr.
– Son of A Buffalo Soldier
Gaylynn Childs, retired Executive Director of the Geary County Historical Society, did an interview in 1998 with Willie ‘Rockne’ Tarkington, Jr., the son of a Buffalo Soldier, when Rockne was home in Junction City tending to his elderly mother. Rockne was born on July 15, 1931, and as an adult earned his claim to fame as a film and television actor.
Rockne’s father, Willie Tarkington, was born and raised in the little town of Home, Louisiana. Willie left home at the age of 15 to join the U.S. Army. He was first sent to a post in Arkansas and while there had some duty in the town of Newport where he met a young girl by the name of Evelyn Richardson. After his third trip to visit her Evelyn and Willie were married.
Shortly after this, Willie Tarkington was assigned to “F” Troop of the 9th Cavalry at Fort Riley, Kansas. He remained at Fort Riley until he retired, except for some overseas duty during WW II and a brief training stint in Texas.
Willie Tarkington was a blacksmith and veterinarian in the Cavalry. From an early age Rockne remembered being taken by his dad to the stables where his father worked. Rockne stated that “In his job my dad had the responsibility for some 800 horses. He had to make sure they were in good shape and ready to ride. I remember my mother was always afraid I’d get kicked or something. From the age of three my dad would take me down to the stable where I would often spend the whole day. I’d eat with him and help him.”
Rockne shared another memory of his dad. “I went with my mother and sister to the parade field often to watch the Cavalry drill and get ready for parades. My dad was the guidon carrier for his troop, which was a very important position. One time during a parade when his horse started bucking, dad had to spear the guidon staff into the ground and ride the bucking bronco. The men and women and soldiers were yelling, ‘Ride, trooper, ride!’ and he rode that horse down to the end of the field until the horse stopped bucking and then dad swung back and leaned over and picked up the guidon and got back into position. I was so proud when I saw him do that. I wanted to be just like him and be in the Cavalry too, someday.”
However, when Rockne got old enough to join the Army, there was no cavalry anymore – at least as he knew it. During WW II the Army phased out horse cavalry units. Rockne recalled his dad saying, “If there were no more horses, I don’t want to be part of the Cavalry – not a new mechanized one.” Rockne’s dad and his Uncle Starks, his father’s brother-in-law, went into business together and bought a night club on the corner of 14th and Washington Streets called the 49 Club. His mother bought a liquor store next to the club. Rockne’s Uncle Starks went on to become one of the first black millionaires in Junction City.
More on Rockne Tarkington
– Son Of A Buffalo Soldier
During Rockne’s early years, he attended school on Fort Riley, then came into Junction City for school in about the fourth or fifth grade. He missed the year he would have attended the Departmental School (sixth grade) in what is now the Museum at the corner of Sixth and Adams Streets, because the family had gone to Fort Charles, Texas to be near his father while his father’s unit was being trained to go overseas during WW II.
The Tarkington family returned to Junction City during the war and Rockne attended Junction City High School until the end of his sophomore year. He had a desire to join the military. Rockne decided to quit school and join the Army just as his dad had done. His mother had to sign for him to enlist because Rockne was only 15 years old, and the requirement was 18.
He completed three years having served as an MP. After his Army service, Rockne returned to Junction City for a year, and then returned to the military. This time he served four years in the Air Force in the field of communications. It was here he got his first exposure to the entertainment field. Rockne had organized a drill team which was selected to perform in a touring USO show with singer/actor Eddie Fisher. It was this acquaintance, that would eventually lead Rockne to Hollywood.
In the mid-1950s, Rockne again came back to Junction City but after being exposed to what seemed like the whole world, the old hometown seemed “pretty boring”. He had determined to become a lawyer and went to Chicago, to attend the John Marshall Law School. By this time Rockne had married and had two sons. The marriage ended in divorce, and it was during this unhappy period Rockne was lured by his friends and a job back to Hollywood.
He honed his acting skills on the stage, first in Hollywood and later On-Broadway as the starring role in a play based on the controversial “Mandingo” novels. His film career was launched with a role in the “Magnificent Seven,” followed by roles in several television shows including “Matt Houston”, “Tarzan” and the “Andy Griffith Show”.
Rockne Tarkington can claim roles in 55 films and over 500 television shows. Rockne’s father, Willie, died in 1963 in Junction City and his mother, Evelyn remarried several years later to another veteran of the 9th Cavalry, Wiley Morris. Rockne Tarkington died on April 5, 2015, at the age of 84.