Q&A with Pat Woodrum
Native Kansan championed Tulsa’s library system and botanic garden.
On the heels of graduate school at the age of 23, Pat Woodrum began her career at the Tulsa City-County Library. She spent the next 32 years working in nearly every area of the system and was executive director for two decades.
But Woodrum, 76, is known for much more than her service as Tulsa’s lead librarian. She’s a master gardener, cook, wife, mother, friend and philanthropist. Woodrum was one of the founders of the Tulsa Botanic Garden and served as its executive director for seven years. A book lover and writer, the library brought her to Tulsa, but she stayed because of its people and a community she grew to love.
Where did you go to University? Why?
I started at Parsons Junior College (Labette Community College) and went on to Pittsburg State Teachers College (Pittsburg State University). There was never any doubt, because of my parents, that I would go on and get a college degree. When I was 15, I started working in the Parsons Public Library, and it was then I decided I wanted to be a librarian. In order to be a librarian, I went to the University of Oklahoma for a master’s degree in library science.
What was one of your most defining moments in life?
When I married Clayton. I first met him when I was 14, and we were married when we were in college. It was a very good decision. We have many like interests, and our careers and community activities have complemented one another. We feel blessed because we have been married for 56 years and have one son, Clay, and two grandsons, Trey and Taylor.
What age do you feel right now and why?
I feel mentally that I’m 40, and it’s because I’m still very much involved in the Tulsa City-County Library and the Tulsa Botanic Garden as well as a lot of other community activities — for instance, Iron Gate. I have several writing projects in process. I love to garden and cook, and I compiled a cookbook of recipes for family and friends.
You started working in the Parsons Library at age 15. What interested you about libraries at a young age?
I was 4 years old when my father first took me to a public library. He and my mother were great readers. We would go to a secondhand store, and our parents would let us pick out any used books that we wanted, and we read a lot in our home.
How would your friends describe you?
That’s a hard question to answer. Several of my longtime friends say I’m loyal, caring, intelligent and giving. I’m a strong moral compass, organizer, planner and leader.
What would people be surprised to know about you?
They’d be surprised to know that I almost always have some reading material or a book in my handbag. I just have to do something with my time. I experience a great sense of insecurity if I don’t have three or four new books at the house or with me when I’m traveling.
What’s your favorite genre or type of book?
It’s primarily fiction, all types. I like historical novels. I try to read anything with an interesting plot or an author that I like that’s on the New York Times bestseller list. I don’t often read brand-new authors until they’ve been out a while. Isabel Allende is one of many favorite authors.
Is there a library program you’re particularly proud of?
When I was executive director of the library, Peggy Helmerich helped me develop an endowment. In return, I wanted to do something to thank her for it. We started the Peggy V. Helmerich Distinguished Author Award that once a year brings in an outstanding author who has made a major contribution to literature. There’s a black-tie dinner on the main floor of the library followed with a public program the next morning. When we started it, we could offer a $5,000 honorarium, and the honorarium now is $40,000. The author would spend several days in Tulsa, so I got to spend that time with the author. That has been a real privilege to meet those people over the years.
If you could relive a memory from the past, what would it be?
We moved here in 1964 when the Central Library was under construction. I helped move into that building from the old Carnegie building, which was at Third and Cheyenne. The night of the opening for the public, the plaza area between the courthouse and the library was set up with chairs and the building was dark. Gov. Henry Bellmon was the speaker that night, and at the conclusion of his talk he got on the phone and called the director of NASA in Washington, D.C. The director turned on the building lights via a signal transmitted from Washington to Tulsa by satellite. Nobody had ever seen anything like that before!
What was a “worst time” and how did you pull through it?
When our son was 18 months old, he contracted spinal meningitis and was in St. John’s in quarantine. He was in a coma, and doctors didn’t give us very much hope that he would ever pull through it. After about a week and a half, I just left the hospital and went home and sat by myself and prayed. I don’t know how many hours I prayed. The phone rang, and I was told to return to the hospital because he was coming out of the coma and I could hold him. It took a couple of months for him to fully recover, but he did. I believe in prayer, which has helped me in many difficult situations.
What keeps you awake at night?
I very seldom have that problem.
How do you measure success?
Anything that can help make life a little better for someone else or to make the world a better place — being able to do any of those things, that’s an achievement and success.
What is a favorite Tulsa memory?
The Tulsa Club building at Third and Cincinnati has been empty for probably 20 years. In its heyday, it had a private club and was a place where a lot of the oilmen stayed when they were in town. There was a gentleman’s floor, which I helped break the “glass ceiling” in, and then other floors, but the top floor was open like a ballroom. We had a lot of wonderful family traditions in that building. We’d always go there for brunch with our son after church, and the Helmerich Christmas party was always up there. Thinking about it brings back a lot of memories of people who are no longer with us.
Describe a perfect weekend in Tulsa or elsewhere.
It’s a Sunday where we go to church and then to brunch, and if it’s a nice day we go out and spend time at the Botanic Garden. Then, almost every Sunday we have a family dinner at our house. Our son lives six blocks away. One grandson is just graduating from Baylor and is going to get a master’s at OU in library science. My youngest grandson is a freshman at TU.
What have been the most significant changes you’ve experienced in Tulsa?
They’ve been due to advances in technology. I think it was probably in the mid-’80s when the first fax was sent from the Central Library to the OSU Library. A group of us stood around a new fax machine and watched as the send button was pushed. We believed we were seeing the cutting edge of technology, and we were at that time. Today’s newly renovated Central Library is unbelievable in so many ways, but primarily due to the advances in technology.
What is your favorite thing about Tulsa?
The people, without a doubt. I’ve had an opportunity to work with many of the leaders and funders of Tulsa — people like the Zarrows and George Kaiser. I admire so many of them for what they have done for Tulsa and what they do for people. People are giving, and they care about the community and improving people’s lives. That’s the thing that I like most and enjoy being involved in.