Tulsan of the Year Phil Lakin Jr. epitomizes the philanthropic spirit of our city.
Lakin climbing California’s Mount Russell in 2008 as part of the Tulsa Zoo’s “One Wild Challenge.” He also climbed the nearby Mount Whitney and Mount Muir on the same trip. An avid hiker and climber, Lakin has scaled all of the more than 50 14,000-foot peaks in Colorado.
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Imagine, if you will, the city of Tulsa without an accredited zoological park. Without a functional city council willing to work with the mayor. Without an appreciation of the importance of early childhood education. And without a desire to build new parks, beautify its streets or expand its economic and entertainment horizons. Sounds pretty dismal, doesn’t it?
Were it not for the efforts of the 2013 Tulsan of the Year — Phil Lakin Jr. — city residents might actually be facing such a nightmare scenario. An incorrigible multi-tasker who seemingly never sleeps yet is still boyish at 45, Lakin has taken it as his personal raison d’être to do anything and everything he can for the city he calls his first love.
“I love the institutions in Tulsa,” he says with a grin. “I love the look of downtown. I love the growth opportunities, and the potential, and the people, and the family settings, the values and the character our city has. It’s easy for me to do what I do because I fell in love with the city very early in life.”
By anyone’s estimation, Lakin does plenty. As the first and only CEO of the Tulsa Community Foundation, he oversees a collection of more than 1,000 charitable funds totaling approximately $3.5 billion, making the foundation the largest of its kind in the nation. A year ago, Tulsa even obtained the legal rights to call itself “America’s Most Generous City,” a trademarked moniker Lakin himself coined.
As a private citizen, Lakin spearheaded the successful effort to privatize the cash-strapped Tulsa Zoo and Living Museum, a step that many feel ensured its long-term survival. As a first-term member of the city council, he has been instrumental in repairing council relations with the mayor’s office even as he has championed initiatives to make Tulsa both safer and more beautiful. And as a dedicated husband and father, he makes it a priority to model the type of philanthropic generosity he hopes his three sons will inherit.
“Tulsa is not a thing to me,” Lakin says. “It is a part of me. It’s in me, so it’s hard to get rid of it, so I don’t. I try to make it better.”
Given the depth of Lakin’s devotion to Tulsa, it might seem logical to assume he was born here, but he was actually born in California. Father Phil Sr. is a geophysicist in the oil and natural gas business, so the family (including mother Jan, a nurse, and sister Tracey) spent time in El Paso and Amarillo before arriving in Tulsa as Phil Jr. was ready to start the fifth grade.
“My first memory of moving to Tulsa was walking outside and hearing this constant buzzing,” Lakin recalls. “It was super hot, and a different kind of hot than I was used to. I had lived in the desert my first 10 years. I asked one of my parents why the bugs would not stop making that noise. Then, I found out they were locusts.”
Fortunately for Tulsa, Lakin attributed no plague-like significance to the episode. On the contrary, he came to embrace the East 75th Street and South Harvard Avenue neighborhood in which he grew up. He eventually attended Jenks High School, where he served as student body treasurer and as a student council representative. Along the way, he became friends with fellow Troop 10 Boy Scout Jeff Stava, who now serves as chief operating officer for TCF.
“Phil has always been very concerned about what other people are thinking, what they care about and what they need,” Stava says. “He has this uncanny ability to see that and to understand it, and then be able to take care of those needs. I think that is what has made him a successful leader in all the phases of his life that I have witnessed.”
After graduating from Jenks, both Lakin and Stava attended Baylor University, where both were members of a service fraternity — the Baylor Chamber of Commerce — that organized, among other things, what is believed to be the largest homecoming celebration in the country. Lakin credits that organization with helping shape his approach to public service.
“‘Anything for Baylor’ was our motto,” he says. “We were to do everything in humility, so that nobody would see us working. If we were going to paint something, we’d paint at night. If we were going to scrub the sidewalks, we’d do it at night. And we weren’t supposed to tell anybody what we did. It was all about service without recognition.”
As busy as he was in service, Lakin still found time for his studies at Baylor, earning a bachelor’s degree in economics and finance. He even managed development efforts for Baylor for a time before earning a Master of Business Administration there in 1999, the year he returned to Tulsa to lead TCF.