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.

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.