What if folks like Roy Clark, Barry Switzer, Wanda Jackson and Eddie Sutton were willing to sit down and tell you their life stories?
Would you be interested enough to listen?
Bait, if you want to take it: Jackson, the queen of rockabilly music, once dated a lad named Elvis Presley.
Voices of Oklahoma welcomes you to that conversation, and many others.
John Erling, a member of the Oklahoma Broadcasters Hall of Fame, has interviewed almost 200 individuals for Voices of Oklahoma, a venture dedicated to preserving the oral history of Oklahoma.
Erling said recordings of 130 interviews have been posted to voicesofoklahoma.com, where they can be accessed for free. An additional 60 interviews need maintenance before they can be posted “but I keep interviewing people, so my inventory stays about the same and I can’t ever get ahead of myself.”
People are also reading…
The most recent Voices of Oklahoma interview occurred Wednesday, when Erling huddled with former Call Rape Executive Director Gloria Dialectic, who, at 84, is still active in community service efforts.
Among things learned during a two-hour interview at Dialectic’s residence: Dialectic is not her birth name. She didn’t want to keep her husband’s last name after a 20-year marriage ended, so, for a new last name, she chose a word that was reflective of her world view. She grew up in Pennsylvania and went through a “hippie” phase after moving to Arkansas. She has long battled rheumatoid arthritis. She once got arrested while occupying the site of a proposed nuclear power facility in Inola.
Interesting? There’s a lot more, but you’ll have to wait for the interview to be uploaded to voicesofoklahoma.com.
On deck for future interviews are Wes Watkins, a retired member of the U.S. House of Representatives, and Jane Jayroe, a former Miss America.
No one has ever turned down an invitation to be interviewed for Voices of Oklahoma, according to Erling. Perhaps that’s because Voices of Oklahoma, though it has entertainment value, is meant to be an educational resource. Click on a name, learn all about that person, beginning with family roots.
Erling said the most nervous he has ever been for any Voices of Oklahoma interview came when he met with evangelist Oral Roberts.
There’s a backstory.
Erling was the longtime host of a popular “Erling in the Morning” show on radio station KRMG. During that time, he made fun of Roberts’ fund-raising endeavors. Erling pointed out that he never made fun of Roberts’ faith (“because the basic tenets of his faith, I happen to believe.”). But Erling wasn’t opposed to saying, on air, that he saw a 900-foot Lassie and was going to build a Kennel of Care for cats and dogs, just like Roberts was building a City of Faith.
Worry kicked into high gear when Erling visited Roberts’ condo for the Voices of Oklahoma interview. Does he know me? Does he know I used to make fun of him on the radio?
Said Erling: “Then he started talking about the media and he said ‘You know John, the media would sometimes come on to me and they would write negatively about me. But I never pushed back, did I John?’ And I knew he had me. He knew.”
But Erling said his regard for Roberts went up 100 percent in that moment because the evangelist didn’t let whatever was said on the radio interfere with the Voices of Oklahoma session.
Erling described the Roberts interview as “super.” It may have been Roberts’ last interview, according to Erling, who said Roberts died seven or eight months later. Roberts is one of 45 Voices of Oklahoma interview subjects who are no longer around tell their own stories.
“Alex Haley says every death is like the burning of a library,” Erling said. “Those stories would have been gone.”
But the stories of historical figures like Roberts and Marian Opala survived because of Voices of Oklahoma.
Opala, who came to the U.S. from Poland, served as a justice of the Oklahoma Supreme Court for 32 years.
“He was a prisoner of war,” Erling said. “It was just wonderful the way he talks about how he was liberated by the Allied Forces and he came up from under these haystacks with his hands high and he is crying telling the story.”
Opala was 89 when the interview took place. He seemed to be in great health and his mind was sharp during the interview, but he died four days later. Erling doesn’t want to play favorites, but doesn’t mind saying the Opala interview is one of his faves.
Though transcripts of interviews are available at voicesofoklahoma.com, Erling believes people are cheating themselves if they read the transcripts instead of listening to Voices of Oklahoma interviews. You can’t hear Opala’s accent (Erling loves it) in a transcript. There’s an extra layer of reality when, instead of reading about these things, you hear Henry Bellmon talk about signing House Bill 1017 or hear astronaut William Pogue talk about floating in space or hear Doris “Coke” Meyer talk about her uncle, Will Rogers.
“The point I am trying to make is when you hear the voices it just makes a difference,” Erling said.
Erling hopes this project makes a difference.
Again emphasizing that Voices of Oklahoma is an educational tool, Erling thinks young people can learn from the stories of interview subjects who beat the odds, like QuikTrip founder Chester Cadieux, who had to sell the concept of a convenience store, and Hobby Lobby founder David Green, who worked for TG&Y as a teen and eventually began making frames in his garage.
Erling suggested young girls could benefit by listening to interviews with former Cherokee Principal Chief Wilma Mankiller and former state Sen. Penny Williams.
Maybe, said Erling, others will use Voices of Oklahoma to learn “I didn’t know that” things about people from Oklahoma. Catharine Kingsley of Stillwater was employed as a code-breaker during World War II. Wanda Clark of Idabel and Oklahoma City was Lucille Ball’s personal assistant for 28 years.
Erling keeps a list of people he would like to interview, but names are always being juggled. The next interview could come as a result of someone saying “you ought to talk to so and so.”
“There hasn’t been a plan to who I would talk to and I’m kind of glad about that because it has given me a real smattering, a cross section, so it’s a very good cross section of Oklahomans,” he said.
At least three times during a 50-minute interview about Voices of Oklahoma, Erling referred to himself as a “North Dakota farm boy.”
Why does a North Dakota farm boy care so much about Oklahoma stuff?
Erling, who came to Tulsa in 1976, said he established a relationship with the state by way of KRMG and the station’s huge audience.
“So many wonderful things happened to me it became very easy to call Oklahoma home,” he said. “The longer I lived here I became fascinated with the history of the state, the story of our Native Americans and the very interesting geography. Forty years of living in Oklahoma will do that to you.”
Voices of Oklahoma interviews have touched on war remembrances, the struggle for racial equality and the Holocaust. Erling indicated there have been moments when he got moist eyes because the person he was interviewing became emotional. Of course, there have been fun moments, too, but the conversations (often two hours long) and the research required to maximize the conversations can be exacting.
“It’s work,” Erling said, “But I tell you, if I didn’t have this, I don’t know what I would have done with myself. ... I have been gone from KRMG for 10 years. What would I have done those 10 years? I have no idea. It has probably saved my sanity to be honest with you. It gave me self-worth. It gave me a reason. I know why I am here. I know I am doing a good thing. If I didn’t have all those things going for me, I think I would be a mess. I really do. So, not only is it good for the public to hear these voices, old John kept his brain straight and is doing a good thing.”
Jimmie Tramel 918 581-8389