In focus

More than photography connected the father-and-son team of Bob and John McCormack.



John McCormack followed in his father’s footsteps and became a photographer. The father and son captured thousands of Tulsa memories through photographs.

John McCormack speaks of his late father, longtime Tulsa photographer Bob McCormack, with enormous pride. His eyes fill with warmth, and sometimes tears, as he recounts stories of their lives. Together the pair captured thousands of memories of Tulsa families, including more than 5,000 weddings.

“I get emotional, but it’s because he was a great guy,” says John, who followed in his father’s livelihood and longtime Tulsa business, Bob
McCormack Studio.

Since Bob’s death 13 years ago, John has a few things left of the man with whom much of his life has been so closely intertwined: his own personal memories and an untold number of images from his father’s enormous body of work.

 

Early on

It was a fortuitous day in August 1935 when 21-year-old Bob McCormack of Lathrop, Missouri, stepped off the train in Tulsa. 

He left the station and went to a crowded Tracy Park, at East 11th Street and South Peoria Avenue, where he spent the night because he had nowhere else to go. The next day, he met Publisher Eugene Lorton at the Tulsa World and discussed his photography skills, which he had learned from his neighbor, a federal judge.

Lorton hired Bob on the spot and sent him on assignment to Oologah and Claremore to photograph Will Rogers’ family, friends and local residents, who had gathered to mourn Rogers’ tragic death earlier that day in Alaska. 

Bob and Betty McCormack on their wedding day in Lathrop, Missouri, in 1940.

Bob moved into Tulsa’s downtown YMCA while his fiancée Betty waited back home in Lathrop. The tight conditions of the Great Depression made for a
long, seven-year engagement for the couple before their marriage in 1940. 

After spending seven years at the Tulsa World, Bob became the chief photographer at Douglas Aircraft Co. during World War II. He then opened his own studio, which John continues to operate today. 

John has fond memories of his father’s photography work. While Bob was with the Tulsa World, he sometimes took Betty, John and daughter Nancy on assignments. 

John McCormack with John Wayne and Jan Prather.

Bob and Betty once met then-rising star Lucille Ball, who took a picture with Betty. She and Bob unknowingly destroyed the negative because Betty didn’t like how she looked.

“Don’t you think I’d love to have that picture today?” John asks.

Another time, John recalls going to the old Tulsa airport with his dad and a friend, Jan Prather, to photograph screen legend John Wayne, who was in town raising money for his film “The Alamo.” After the assignment, Bob snapped a personal photo of his son with Wayne.

“I can still remember John Wayne pushing his hat up,” John says. “He had just clicked his lighter and lit a cigarette. He put his arms around both myself and my friend with a big old smile. That’s a cherished memory that I have. My dad wanted to make sure I was included.” 

As passionate as Bob was about the business, he was just as passionate about Betty, his children and his faith. 

“My mother and dad partied hard, they worked hard and they prayed hard — there was not a moment wasted,” John says.

Betty worked at the photography studio as the salesperson, accountant, PR person, you name it. John remembers eating out frequently with the whole family — despite his mother being an excellent cook, she was often so busy with work at the studio she preferred to go out. 

Bob McCormack photographed high fashion photography, too, like this Magazine Tulsa cover.

Bob used every opportunity to help the business thrive. In addition to photography, he also made billboards and murals in a warehouse on the property of his first studio at 1722 S. Boston Ave. 

Just as committed to his children as his work, Bob also built a high-jump sand pit for John at their home and studio to encourage physical fitness in his kids. John later discovered a photo of his dad high-jumping in high school. 

He remembers going into his father’s dark room as a pajama-clad boy to kiss Dad goodnight.

“Even in the midst of all the work, he was always trying to look out for his little boy,” John says. “My father lived his entire life with 100 percent mind, body and soul. He used his imagination and his reason like so many people of that era. They took their imagination and their reason and lived life abundantly.”

Although photography was the family business, John earned his undergraduate degree from the University of Kansas with plans to become a dentist. While home on spring break in 1969, Bob and Betty announced they were moving their studio to the McFarlin mansion at 1610 S. Carson Ave.

Bob McCormack outside the McFarlin mansion, home to Bob McCormack Studio from 1969-2008.

 

When he graduated from KU in 1972, John moved into the mansion’s third floor. He began applying to dental school and helping with the family business. Until then, his dad had never shown him how to use a camera, nor had John asked. 

But as he assisted his dad, John discovered he enjoyed photography and began doing it full time. He lived in the mansion for seven years, the headquarters of Bob McCormack Studio until 2008.

“I’m so glad I lived there because eight years later, my mother died prematurely, so I spent the last years of her life right there,” John says. 

When Betty died in 1980, the McCormacks were married for 40 years.

The father-and-son team worked together for decades.

 

Together, father and son created their own adventure. The spring following Betty’s death they headed to Hot Springs, Arkansas, which Bob and Betty had visited frequently. The drive took about 10 hours instead of the usual four and a half because Bob had to stop at every intriguing site for a photo opportunity.

“Dad never went anywhere without his camera,” John says. “If he saw something that interested him, he’d say, ‘Pull over.’”

And “Pull over” didn’t mean Bob just rolled down the window; he got out of the car and looked at the subject from every angle. 

“He finally found what he was looking for and captured it,” John says. “The images he created were long-lasting and were done with love and with great care.”

After Betty died, the father and son lunched frequently around town at places that are now long gone — the Pancake Place, Deli 2000 and Duffy’s at East 21st Street and South Boulder Avenue. 

“My dad was a slow eater,” says John, remembering how important their face-to-face conversations were to him. He laments how between ubiquitous televisions and smartphones, those connections are becoming rarer.

At 76, widower Bob married another woman named Betty (Knarr), who was a friend of John’s mother. John remembers finding a photo on the new couple’s wedding day of the two Bettys together, holding hands and laughing. 

“At that very moment, I said, ‘Thanks be to God,’ because my dad did not live alone the rest of his life.”

Bob McCormack died in 2003 still doing what he loved. He was in the studio days before his death, John says.

Bob McCormack and just some of the hundreds of cameras in his collection.

 

Archiving Tulsa

Bob served as an archivist of Tulsa and Oklahoma. 

“(Dad and Mother) were very involved in his passion for creating images, sustaining this city and its culture,” John says. “He loved Tulsa and Tulsa loved him back.”

Bob McCormack was known for his portraits, including this one of an oilfield worker.

In April 2008, John signed papers with the intent to sell McFarlin Mansion, and he needed to find an organization to take Bob’s immense collection, which was stored in the home. 

“I knew that the images were all important and historically important,” John says. “It’s really a family album showing every aspect of what went on here in Tulsa from 1935 through now.”

John first approached the University of Tulsa in April 2008, followed by other local nonprofits, and awaited a response. Moving day was quickly approaching. He had six weeks and no home for the collection. He recalls leaving his house and feeling called to come back inside. 

Bob McCormack’s rendition of the first freighter into Tulsa.

“I did something I’ve never done (at home) before,” John says. “I had been trying by myself to take care of it. In that moment, I got down on my knees and said, ‘Oh, dear God, please help me. I need your vision, wisdom and insight, and I need it this very day.’”  

That was at 9 a.m. At 10 a.m., the studio phone rang. John was in the dark room and grabbed it after a few rings. It was TU with the news the university had decided to take the McCormack collection. It is now housed in a climate-controlled building for special collections. 

It took six men three and a half days to box up Bob McCormack’s film, photos and 500 cameras. It required a 52-foot truck. The collection weighed 18 tons.

The sweet relief of knowing the collection had a new home meant everything to John.

“I get down on my knees every morning now, and I say thank you,” he says. 

John reflects frequently on his life with his family, and especially his father. 

“I’m so fortunate to have been so loved,” says John, who has been married to his wife, Diane, for 35 years, and has his own children and now grandchildren. “The common thread is love.”

 

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May 2019

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Cost: Friday $10, Saturday & Sunday $5

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Where:
Los Cabos - Jenks
300 Riverwalk Terrace
Jenks
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B-29 Doc will spend Memorial Day weekend in in Tulsa, Okla., May 25 and 26. The Tulsa Air and Space Museum & Planetarium (TASM) will host B-29 Doc for a two-day event that will feature both static...

Cost: $20.00 - Free

Where:
Tulsa Air and Space Museum & Planetarium
3624 North 74th East Ave.
Tulsa, OK  74115
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Sponsor: Tulsa Air and Space Museum & Planetarium
Telephone: 918-834-9900
Contact Name: Kevin Meeks
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Floral Haven Funeral Home, Crematory & Cemetery (Broken Arrow) remembers those who made the ultimate sacrifice during a weekend of commemorations to mark Memorial Day. Among the scheduled...

Cost: Free

Where:
6500 S. 129th E Ave.
Broken Aarow, OK  74012


Sponsor: Floral Haven Funeral Home
Telephone: 415-359-2316
Contact Name: David Cumpston
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The Museum’s Dickinson Research Center is home to more than 700,000 photographs, 44,000 books, and perhaps unexpectedly, at least 1,000 horses. Meet some of the herd in Horseplay, the new...

Cost: $12.50 adult entry

Where:
National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum
1700 NE 63rd Street
Oklahoma City, OK  73111
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America’s LARGEST interactive comedy murder mystery dinner show is now playing at the Hilton Garden Inn Tulsa Broken Arrow! At The Dinner Detective, you’ll tackle a challenging crime while you...

Cost: 59.95

Where:
Hilton Garden Inn Tulsa- Broken Arrow
420 W Albany St.
Broken Arrow, OK  74012
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Telephone: 866-496-0535
Contact Name: The Dinner Detective
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Mamma Mia!  Here we go again... If you ABBA-solutely want to have a fun evening, come join us in a post-Mothers' Day celebration of the woman who brought you into this world (and let you stay in...

Cost: $8.00

Where:
PH Community House
306 S Phoenix Avenue
Tulsa, OK  74127
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Sponsor: Laughing Matter Improv
Contact Name: Jerry Henderson
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Where:
Mercury Lounge
1747 S Boston Ave
Tulsa
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Where:
River Spirit Casino - 5 O'Clock Somewhere Bar
8330 Riverside Pkwy
Tulsa
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Where:
River Spirit Casino - LandShark Pool Bar
8330 Riverside Pkwy
Tulsa
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Cost: $10

Where:
Soul City
1621 E 11th St
Tulsa
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Where:
River Spirit Casino - Volcano Stage
8330 Riverside Pkwy
Tulsa
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Where:
Hard Rock Casino - Track 5.
777 W Cherokee St
Catoosa
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Where:
Hard Rock Casino - Riffs
777 W Cherokee St
Catoosa
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Cost: $5

Where:
Bad Ass Renee's
6373 E 31st St
Tulsa
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Cost: $5

Where:
473
2224 E Admiral Blvd
Tulsa
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Cost: $5

Where:
Centennial Lounge at VFW Post 577
1109 E 6th St
Tulsa
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Cost: $15

Where:
Duet
108 N Detroit Ave
Tulsa
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Where:
Soundpony
409 N Main St
Tulsa
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Celebrate Memorial Day Weekend with a classic car and motorcycle cruise down Route 66, historical displays, and live entertainment.

Where:
Route 66 Historical Village
3770 Southwest Blvd
Tulsa, OK
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Cost: $30-$40

Where:
River Spirit Casino
8330 Riverside Pkwy
Tulsa, OK
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Where:
Mohawk Park
5701 E 36th St
Tulsa, OK
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Where:
Rabbit Hole Improv
1526 S Harvard Ave
Tulsa, OK
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Cost: $4-$8

Where:
pH Community House
306 S Phoenix Ave
Tulsa, OK
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Cost: $5

Where:
The Colony
2809 S Harvard Ave
Tulsa
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Where:
The Stumbling Monkey
8921 S Yale Ave
Tulsa
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Cost: $10

Where:
The Vanguard
222 N Main St
Tulsa
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Cost: $20

Where:
Hard Rock Casino - The Joint
777 W Cherokee St
Catoosa, OK
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Where:
Lefty's On Greenwood
10 N Greenwood
Tulsa
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