A night to remember with Howard Schnellenberger

Howard Schnellenberger on the OU sidelines in 1995. (Oklahoman photo)

I’m sure by now you’ve seen the news that former University of Oklahoma football coach Howard Schnellenberger passed away this morning.

Schnellenberger coached OU for one unspectacular season in 1995, and was fired right after the 5-5-1 season ended.

By OU standards, it was a disaster.

Schnellenberger came to OU with decades of football success on his resume and the confidence of a Gen. Douglas MacArthur. It just didn’t translate to success with the Sooners.

Although I was just an outsider looking in that year, all I could see was a pompous old man who thought his mere presence would inspire success.

Then fate brought me together with Howard for one night in 1995.

I was working as a Business News reporter at the time for the Daily Oklahoman. One of my beats was writing about Oklahoma agriculture.

You might remember that the Oklahoma Farm Bureau made Schnellenberger their spokesman in an ad campaign in 1995.  The ads appeared on Oklahoma TV stations and mainly featured Howard squinting into the distance as words described the value that the Farm Bureau brings its members.

Many folks thought Howard was an odd choice for the Farm Bureau. In fact, here’s something that Oklahoman columnist Berry Tramel wrote back in ’95:

“Sudden thought: Why did the Oklahoma Farm Bureau select Howard Schnellenberger as its marketing spokesman? Aren’t most of those folks OSU graduates?”

But Schnellenberger’s most recent job before OU was that of football coach at the University of Louisville, and the executive director of the Oklahoma Farm Bureau at the time was a Kentucky native. So, there was a thin connection. 

Howard Schnellenberger (Oklahoman photo)

Then one day, out of the blue, my wife and I received an invitation from the Farm Bureau to attend a “media night” at Applewoods Restaurant. OU coach Howard Schnellenberger was the special guest speaker.

Paula and I loved Applewoods and its famous apple fritters, so of course we agreed to go.

Turns out, a local television reporter and I were the only “media” members at the dinner. And only about a dozen people total were at the Farm Bureau event.

Here’s all I remember about that night. Howard stood over our tables and droned on in a low monotone for about 30 minutes. I remember nothing about what he said.

My wife had an interesting experience, too. Howard’s wife, Beverlee, was with him and sort of latched on to Paula as her new best friend for the night. She never stopped talking.

I couldn’t wait for that painful evening now 26 years distant to be over.

And it wasn’t long before Schnellenberger’s tenure as OU coach was over, as well.

Rest in peace, Howard.

Bonus: Watch and read an oral history of Howard Schnellenberger at OU published by The Oklahoman in 2011.

Grateful for the impact of Jerry McConnell

In 1983, I was a very raw young sports reporter at the Southwest Times Record (SWTR) in Fort Smith, Ark., with dreams of some day working at the Dallas Morning news.

Fort Smith was my first stop out of college, and I worked on the sports desk, then the news desk for a couple years, then back to sports as the Sports Editor.

But I dreamed of Dallas and working with the likes of Blackie Sherrod and Randy Galloway. I even wrangled an interview there but came up with no job and the advice to gain more experience.

Then one day a friend with whom I worked on the SWTR news desk — I’ll call her “Patti” — suggested that I send a resume to the Sports Editor of The Daily Oklahoman in Oklahoma City. His name was Jerry McConnell, and Patti had worked for him when he was the managing editor the Arkansas Democrat in Little Rock.

So, I fired off a resume to Jerry with absolutely no expectations.

By coincidence, my timing turned out to be perfect.

One of the Sports copy editors at The Oklahoman had just quit, and football season was starting.

Jerry gave me a call and asked me to come interview. I drove over to OKC and met with Jerry and his Assistant Sports Editor, Bob Colon.

Jerry hired me, and I relocated to OKC in early September 1983.

Turned out that I was not well prepared for the daily pressure and grind of The Oklahoman Sports Desk. We put out three editions each night, sometimes fully remaking almost the entire section between editions.

I was mistake-prone and unlikely to make an edition’s deadline on any given night. I had no design skills.

But Jerry was a patient editor and boss. Rather than scream at me, or worse, fire me, he allowed me to make my mistakes, and gently helped me grow as a professional. He also was in the office every night until at least the first edition was finished, so he was accessible.

Jerry also shared many fascinating stories from across his long career. I loved to sit and listen to him spin a yarn in his gravely baritone voice.

So, I’ve always been grateful to Jerry for his kind and steady hand as a boss and a friend. He eventually retired from The Oklahoman and moved back to his hometown of Greenwood, Ark.

In retirement, he wrote a book, an oral history of the Arkansas Democrat.

Jerry passed away last June at the age of 92.

To my regret, I only recently learned of his death. You can read his obituary to see what impact he had on his profession and the community, both in Arkansas and Oklahoma.

Jerry touched the lives of many, many people in the newspaper industry and beyond. I’ll always be grateful for what he did for me.

My friend Patti was one of those for whom Jerry made a difference. Here’s what she had to say about him:

“He was a super friend to me and taught me a lot in Democrat days… He passed peacefully at home just after we last saw him. His last words to me were, “Love you too babe”… He liked you a lot. I will miss him ever!”

Thank you, Jerry McConnell, for bringing me to Oklahoma City and making a difference in my life.

Why I read the obituaries

Obituary page from March 3 edition of The Oklahoman

I have an admission to make. I take a lot of pleasure each morning in reading the daily obituaries in the newspaper.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not taking pleasure in someone else’s death.

But obituaries routinely tell the most interesting life stories of the recently departed. You learn about where they grew up and were educated, their life’s work and their achievements along the way. Sometimes you learn about the places they traveled, their hobbies or even their favorite foods.

Of course, the obituaries list all of their survivors and close family members who preceded them in death.

I ran across an article in the Independent Herald in Huntsville, Tenn., that emphasizes the importance of obituaries to readers and the community:

“Aside from the front page, the single most-read page of the newspaper is the obituaries page. Readers care about obituaries because the people featured on the page were their friends and neighbors, former classmates, fellow church members, or people who played integral roles in the community.

Obituaries are vitally important because, quite simply, every obituary tells the story of someone’s life — who their parents were, who their children are . . . but, just as importantly, where they’ve been and what they’ve done. An obituary may be the only time that person’s name ever appears in the paper, and it is through that obituary that a lasting record of a person’s life is written.”

The downside to reading daily obituaries is discovering the obituary of a friend or past coworker who died unexpectedly. That’s happened to me several times in the past few years, but I’m grateful I had the obituaries to alert me.

Maybe it’s my (advanced) age that draws me to the obituaries, but I appreciate the stories of the lives of those about whom I am reading more now than in past years.

Lately, with the pandemic swirling around us, the number of obituaries published each day seems to be growing. But daily reading of all those obituaries is far from a morbid curiosity.

It’s a celebration of lives well lived.

Tracking the growth of Oklahoma’s leading public companies

I was recently asked to contribute a couple of stories to the special Oklahoma Inc. section published by The Oklahoman. It was an opportunity to write short profiles on a couple of the state’s leading public companies.

So I signed on.

If you’re not familiar with it, Oklahoma Inc. ranks all 28 public companies in our state based on three key categories: one-year return to shareholders, revenue growth and earnings per share growth.

I was fortunate to be able to select the companies I wanted to profile, so I chose Paycom and AAON, ranked Nos. 1 and 2 in the 2020 Oklahoma Inc. standings. Paycom’s stock is traded on the New York Stock Exchange, while AAON is traded on the NASDAQ market.

You can read the stories here (subscription required). Paycom 
AAON

Paycom is the shining star among Oklahoma public companies.

I first interviewed Paycom founder Chad Richison for The Oklahoman shortly after Paycom was founded in 1998, with no clue that it would some day employ more than 3,000 Oklahomans and build an awesome campus in far Northwest OKC.

Paycom moves fast, both with the innovative HR software it offers clients and in its philanthropic efforts across Oklahoma and in the cities in which it operates. I cited an example of Paycom’s philanthropy in my story, but have since been made aware of something even more recent.

The company most recently announced a donation of $30,000 to Folds of Honor to help provide scholarships to military families. That contribution closely follows the $10,000 it gave to Central Oklahoma Habitat for Humanity to support its Critical Home Repair program.

AAON, meanwhile, has a great story about how the pandemic is driving demand for its heating, air conditioning and ventilation technologies.  

Congratulations to Paycom, AAON and all the companies that made the top 10 of this year’s Oklahoma Inc.

My 2007 test drive with the original iPhone

Steve Jobs holds an original iPhone at the Apple launch event in 2007.

Editor’s note:  In honor of Apple’s special product event today, I’m reprinting a column I wrote as technology reporter at The Oklahoman in 2007 after using the original iPhone for a week at the invitation of AT&T.  I’ve been an iPhone user now for almost a dozen years. However, in the months after the iPhone debuted in 2007, I had only a lowly flip-phone and some serious iPhone envy. 

I was seated prominently in a popular lunch spot along Western Avenue on Monday afternoon talking on the new iPhone that AT&T provided me for a one-week tryout.

I was there to show it off.

Parked at a table in the center of the busy restaurant, I whipped out the shiny new high-tech toy and proceeded to flaunt it for 45 minutes.

Important e-mails were read and sent, using the iPhone’s virtual keyboard that magically appears when any typing is needed. Web sites were accessed, appearing just as they do on a desktop or laptop computer. Tunes were cataloged on the device’s iPod. Photos were taken with the camera phone.

Nobody seemed to notice or even look my way.

Obviously, the crowd was suffering from a serious case of iPhone envy.  Their jealousy caused them to look the other way, even as I held it up to input an important appointment on the calendar.

So, I stepped it up a notch and took a very important phone call. I let the telephone ring several times before answering it. Loudly.

People continued their conversations at neighboring tables. I’m sure they were seething because they had no iPhone like the one that was providing me with such child-like wonder.

Meanwhile, I was seething at their ignorance. Or was it apathy?

Of course, they had no way of knowing that the very important phone call I took came from a coworker whom I had asked to call me at that time so I could make a show of taking a very important phone call.

I was engaged in animated conversation on the iPhone for several minutes when I looked around and noticed that the entire section of the restaurant was empty save for me.

I gave up, inserted the phone back into my shirt pocket and quietly walked to the car. Lunch was a bust.

When I walked back into the newsroom, my mood brightened. At least I had a captive audience who couldn’t run when I whipped the iPhone out. I could show off its many great features, from the easy YouTube access right on the main screen to the Google Maps button that let me see a great close-up satellite view of my house.

So, I walked into an editor’s office and pulled it out of my pocket. He was armed only with a Blackberry, which was suddenly relegated to old school technology status. The editor wanted to see the iPhone’s Web browser in action.

We had no WiFi network for the device to automatically find and use, so I called up a page using AT&T’s wireless network. We waited. And waited. Finally, we both had to go back to work.

“I’ll bring it back in when it’s feeling better,” I said, walking out.

On the way back to my desk I passed a co-worker I’ll call “Paul” and sprung the iPhone on him.

Just as I was about to list some bragging points of the device, he reached in his pocket and pulled out … an iPhone.

Paul had had it for a week and never told anyone until that moment. I almost quit on the spot.

Instead, I put the phone away and slinked back to my cubicle. An editor shouted some instructions from her desk.

“Write something about your experiences with the iPhone.”

Oh, great. Well, at least my wife liked the device until I told her about the $600 price tag. She made me put it in a drawer for safekeeping until I could give it back to AT&T.

iPhone, I hardly knew you.

An unexpected gift and a flight to remember

 

Editor’s note: Back in 2005, I covered the annual Biotechnology Industry Organization convention in Boston as technology reporter for The Oklahoman. I was moved by an incident that happened on the flight back home and wrote about it in a column a week later. It’s short and not of anything of real consequence, but I’m proud of the message that it has. So, I’m sharing it in this blog.

I settled into my seat – row 24, seat D on the aisle – for a four-hour flight from Boston to Houston last week.

A woman occupied the window seat, and I was pleased to see the middle seat was empty.

Then I looked up and saw a really big man walking toward the back of the plane, and I knew where he was headed.

I mean “big” in the same way we envision Santa Claus as “big.” Rotund. My mom would be nice and say he was just big boned.

Anyway, I stood up and let the big guy into the middle seat. He spilled over into my seat and that of the poor woman in the window seat.

I resented every inch of his girth, but said nothing. I read my paper, listing toward the aisle.

I guess I couldn’t hide my discomfort because the flight attendant stopped and offered me another seat.  She said she had only middle seats available. I said I was fine and went back to my paper.

Meanwhile, the big guy folded his arms, leaned his head back against the seat and closed his eyes.

The plane took off and here we were, swapping the cotton off our shirts as our bellies rubbed against one another. He slept. I read and fumed.

There he was, standing by the rear emergency exit adjacent to the two bathrooms and the galley. He was nursing a cup of coffee. ‘So there you are,’ I said, not knowing really what to say. ‘I wanted to give you some space,’ he replied.

About an hour into the flight, the big guy said he wanted to get up and stretch his legs. I gladly stood and let him out.

He went toward the back of the plane and disappeared.

Now I really could enjoy the paper and the book I brought with me.

But time went by and I began to wonder where the big guy was. An hour ticked off, then two hours. I decided to wander back to the rear of the plane and see if I could find him.

There he was, standing by the rear emergency exit adjacent to the two bathrooms and the galley. He was nursing a cup of coffee.

“So there you are,” I said, not knowing really what to say.

“I wanted to give you some space,” he replied.

I went back to my seat.

About 45 minutes before we landed in Houston, the big guy reclaimed his middle seat.

I didn’t mind so much now.

“I really appreciate what you did,” I said to him. “You certainly didn’t have to do that.”

“You deserved it,” he said. “Is your mother still living?”

“Yes, she is.”

“Then do something nice for her on Mother’s Day.”

I felt about one-inch tall.

The plane landed, and we departed with no more words. I regretted that I didn’t ask his name or even introduce myself.

So, on Sunday I called Mom, wished her a happy Mother’s Day and told her this story. She told me it made her day.

Thank you for the present, big guy.

 

 

 

Setting it straight; digital newspaper subscriber responds

I recently shared my thoughts in this blog on the current struggles of the newspaper industry and frustrations that I have little to offer as far as solutions to reverse the trend.

I used my friend Casey as an example of smart young potential readers who have found their news sources elsewhere.

After the blog post was published, I discovered that I did Casey a disservice.  

Turns out, even though he’s great with snarky one-liners about the newspaper industry (for my benefit as an old newspaper guy), he still reads the daily newspaper online.

Casey told me that he is a newsok.com “pro” subscriber to the online version of The Oklahoman.  And he comes from a family of longtime newspaper readers and subscribers.

So, I asked him to share his thoughts on what type of content the newspaper should offer readers.  Here is what he said:

“I go to the newspaper when I want a more in-depth, more trustworthy source. Instead of instant alerts, I think they need to slow their content even more; give me more detail and deeper journalism. Heavily researched.  Articles more like what you would find in a magazine, almost.”

Casey was responding to what I wrote about young people seeking only online news alerts and instant headlines instead of deeper newspaper coverage.  

Of course, newspapers continue to struggle, despite the support of individuals like Casey.  The Oklahoman announced in its Dec. 27 editions that it was trimming its circulation area and eliminating street sales. 

Casey broke my stereotype of the typical young American who only learns what’s happening in the world (or their local community) through social media interactions.

And he likes the paper.  He really, really likes it.

“For my money, real reporters work for the newspaper,” he told me.

Wow. Casey, I salute you.  And I promise not to throw you under the bus again, even if you zing me with a snarky one-liner.