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
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.
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 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.
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 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.
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.
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 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.”
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.
“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.”