Oklahoma legends and a spelling disaster

Mike Turpen before leading an educational session at a convention last week in Norman.

Life can take a surreal turn at times. Like this: One day almost two decades ago, I was standing outside a wireless telephone store across from Penn Square Mall when a big black limousine pulled up.

A door opened and I hopped in, where I was greeted by former OU football coach Barry Switzer. The King himself.

I am not making this up.

Turns out, I was the technology reporter at The Oklahoman at the time.  My editor asked me to accompany Switzer as he surprised the lucky winner of a prize offered as a promotional special by the wireless telephone company.

As I sat in the seat next to Coach Switzer, he began to ask me what I did at the paper, about my family and where I grew up. When I said “Arkansas,” he reacted as though he had just found a long-lost relative.

You probably know that Switzer is an Arkansas native, the son of a bootlegger. He’s also friendly, conversational and full of stories.

We had a great time as we rode to Midwest City to pick up the winner. Switzer told me stories from his life in Arkansas and people he knew from Fort Smith, which is my hometown.

By the time the assignment was over, I felt I had known Barry Switzer for years. It was like saying goodbye to a favorite uncle as I got out of the limo.

I’ve written all of that because I met another Oklahoma legend with a big personality this past week, and it felt like deja vu all over again. 

My friend Steve Buck asked me to serve as a room monitor in Norman at the spring convention of the organization he leads.

As I was stationed outside the door to my assigned room before the workshop began, I turned and found myself face to face to Mike Turpen.

If you’ve lived in Oklahoma any time at all, you know Turpen is long-time co-host of the Flashpoint issue/debate show on KFOR in OKC. He is also a former Oklahoma Attorney General and chairman of the Oklahoma Democratic Party.

“I’m the last Democrat in Oklahoma,” Turpen joked after we introduced ourselves.

As Switzer had done years ago, Turpen wanted to know about where I worked and what I had done for a career, where I was from, who my wife was and what she did. Her name is Paula, I said, and she was a school principal before retiring and now works for a non-profit organization.

“Oh, she’s famous,” he said.

I laughed. My wife later told me she’s certain she has never met Turpen.

As we stood talking in the hallway of the convention center, Turpen opened his briefcase and handed me a little booklet he has written. It is entitled “10 Qualities for Survival and Success in the New Millennium.”

I admitted to him that I had misspelled his name in the paper years ago. He brushed it off as no problem.

Turpen was a presenter at one of the workshops at the convention, so he headed to his assigned room, which was just down the hall from mine.

“May I come in and take your picture,” I asked?

“Sure,” he replied. “Just email me a copy.”

So, I took the photo that is at the top of this page and later sent him a copy from my iPhone.

“Hello Mr. Turpen” I wrote with my thumb as a greeting before spell-correct on my phone got ahold of it.

It came out “Hello Mr. Turpentine.”  I failed to self-edit and hit “send.”

Turpen later sent me a “thank you” for the photo. He didn’t mention that I had misspelled his name AGAIN.

However, I quickly sent him an apology.

I got it right the third time.

Tin soldiers and Nixon coming

Air Force One sits on the tarmac at the Fort Smith Municipal Airport on December 6, 1969; Winthrop Rockefeller (white hat in left photo), and Richard Nixon shook hands with the crowd before departing for Fayetteville.

On December 6, 1969, President Richard Nixon flew into Fort Smith, Ark., on Air Force One as he traveled to Fayetteville and the “Game of the Century” between the Arkansas Razorbacks and Texas Longhorns.

That makes today a huge personal anniversary for me.

I was among the approximately 2,000 people who greeted Nixon at the airport 50 years ago today. I was 16 and living in Fort Smith with my mom and sister while my dad served a tour of duty in Vietnam.

But I wasn’t there to protest the war. I was there to see history in the person of a sitting President arrive in Fort Smith, no matter how brief the visit.

I borrowed my mom’s car and drove out to the airport a full two hours before Air Force One arrived and snagged a great spot by the rope barrier that had been set up. Security was pretty light. No one frisked us or questioned us as we ran onto the tarmac area in an attempt to beat the crowd to the best viewing spot.

When Nixon finally arrived, I don’t remember any actual remarks, although there was a podium set up. But I do remember that he came down the line of people along the rope to shake our hands. He was accompanied by Arkansas Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller (white cowboy hat in left photo above).

When the President got about two people from me, someone apparently suggested that it was time to board the helicopter that would complete the trip to Fayetteville. Nixon turned away and took a step toward the waiting helicopter. The crowd let out a collective groan, and the President immediately turned back and resumed shaking our hands (mine, too!). He continued shaking hands down to the high school bands that were playing, where he shook hands with some of the young musicians.

It was a highlight of my youth, despite the fact that Nixon turned out to be, well, Richard Nixon. Watergate and the corruption of his administration surfaced years later.

Two memories stand out from that day.

One was shaking the President’s hand.

The second memory occurred before Nixon arrived. A guy holding a small Instamatic-type camera climbed on top of one of the barrels set up to hold the rope barricade and immediately drew sharp reprimands from the security detail. The camera guy was incensed as he climbed down, and yelled “come the revolution, you’re going to get yours!”

It was a sign of the times, even in a small Southern city like Fort Smith.

A cup of joe with the new Mayor of Fort Smith

Whenever I drive over to my hometown of Fort Smith, Ark., to visit my widowed mother, I manage to squeeze in a visit to my favorite local coffee shop, Fort Smith Coffee Co.

Located just off downtown’s Garrison Ave., Fort Smith Coffee Co. has a great vibe with a mix of young hipsters and older folks like me (who skew the demographics of the place!). It has good coffee, good background music, plenty of sun and is a great place to hang.

So, I grabbed a cup of coffee and sat on a stool with the sun at my back watching people come and go.

Suddenly, a handsome man wearing a suit and tie came through the door. He seemed to know everyone, laughing and joking with other patrons as he ordered his coffee.

As I started to depart a few minutes later, it occurred to me that this was George McGill, Fort Smith’s newly elected Mayor.  He was seated near the exit reading the newspaper as I headed to the door, so I walked up and said “you look like you could be the Mayor.”

He laughed, stood up and shook my hand as we introduced ourselves. We talked for a few minutes, and he touted the city for all the good things that are happening like a recent music festival and a downtown public art project called “The Unexpected.”

Then he told me that his election as Mayor says a lot about the city because “African-Americans make up only 8 percent of the population.”

I agree. I’m proud of Fort Smith for electing George McGill as its Mayor, and for the exciting things going on like public art and construction of the new U.S. Marshall’s museum along the Arkansas River.

And that a place like Fort Smith Coffee Co. was thriving on a Saturday morning.

My friend Ed told me that I drove a long way to get a cup of coffee. Yeah, but I get to see my Mom and all the positive changes going on in Fort Smith, so it’s always worth it.