Q&A: Robert LaFortune
Former oil and gas industry executive, street commissioner and mayor
At 92, Robert LaFortune can still be found officing from the Philtower building.
The LaFortune family name represents a prominent era of growth and development for Tulsa, thanks in part to its 92-year-old patriarch and lifelong resident Robert (Bob) LaFortune.
He was born in Tulsa to philanthropists and longtime businessman Joseph and Gertrude LaFortune. After serving in the U.S. Merchant Marine Cadet Corps and graduating from college, he married fellow Tulsan Jeanne Morse, and the couple began writing their own chapter of the LaFortune legacy. Following a decade in the oil and gas industry, LaFortune served as Tulsa’s street commissioner from 1964 until 1970, when he won the race for mayor — a post he held for four two-year terms.
Some of the area’s most pivotal economic development projects were implemented on his watch, including the acquisition of land for the Port of Catoosa, developing Tulsa’s expressway system and improving its city parks through the 1972 bond issue.
LaFortune and his wife had six children and enjoyed 52 years of marriage before her death in 2003. Today, the family has grown to include 16 grandchildren and 14 great-grandchildren.
Where did you go to school/university? Why?
I attended Marquette for grade school and went to Cascia Hall from the seventh grade through graduation. I played basketball, golf and football and was president of the student council. I moved on to the University of Tulsa for one-and-a-half years.
World War II was coming to an end, but in late 1945 I entered the U.S. Merchant Marine Cadet Corps, which was a training ground for maritime licensed officers. I went to basic training in San Mateo, California, and was assigned a ship. It was one of the great experiences of my life — at 18 or 19 years old — to be cast with other seamen. We went through the Pacific and back, to South America, Casablanca, France and New York. Being in San Francisco on V-J Day probably was one of the most exhilarating days in the history of the country — to see the explosion of joy and celebration at the end of the Japanese war.
I enjoyed military service and even contemplated making maritime service a career. When the war ended, I came home, re-entered TU for about a year and a half and then attended the chemical engineering school at Purdue, where I graduated in 1951.
Tell me about your family.
Jeanne and I had a wonderful marriage. We did a lot of traveling as a married couple. We went to Europe, Italy and the Caribbean. All of the children are college graduates and developed their own lives and marriages. I’ve always felt pretty proud of how Jeanne and I were able to raise our children. Grand Lake was a central focus of our lives. All of our kids grew up boating, sailing, swimming and enjoying the lake, as I do today.
What are some of the highlights from your time in city government?
The 14 years I was in office is one of the highlights of my life. Tulsa was an exceedingly dynamic city between the terms of Jim Maxwell (1958-66), James Hewgley (1966-70) and myself (1970-78). Commissioner of streets and public property was a busy, full-time job. The commission organized the first ambulance service and the first bus service. (Metropolitan Tulsa Transit Authority was formed in 1968, and was started by managing routes already established by a private company. It was the same story with EMSA; there was previously a private ambulance company, but EMSA was established in 1977 as a public trust authority.)
In my first year as mayor, the Port of Catoosa was dedicated, but earlier as street commissioner I had been charged with the job of acquiring the land for it. Today, it’s one of the unseen, unheard gems of Tulsa’s industry. Other big things going on with city government back then were expressways and city streets, and I had a priority to do some work with parks. I was able to get a bond issue together to buy some parkland, which had been terribly neglected for more than 10 years. (In 1972, voters passed a $13 million bond issue that was matched with $3 million in federal funds to build park facilities. Oxley Nature Center was established in Mohawk Park in 1974 and private monies in 1977 allowed for its development. Funded by the 1972 bond, the Robert J. LaFortune North American Living Museum is dedicated at the Tulsa Zoo.) A lot of my work involved getting funding (including 90 percent of that funding coming from the federal government) for expressways including the southeast interchange of the (Inner Dispersal Loop).
How does it feel to watch your grandson, G.T. Bynum, serve as Tulsa’s mayor?
G.T. has been a gem. I meet every month with him. I don’t give him advice, but if he asks me a question, I’ll be glad to tell him what I think. He has great vision, and he’ll be perhaps the greatest mayor Tulsa has ever had. I’ve tried to introduce him to what a good mayor should be doing — listening to everyone, being accessible, being transparent — and he does all those things. He’s very well organized, has a good staff and is very good at directing people.
What was one of your most defining moments in life?
It would have to be the decision to run for street commissioner because that was a turn to political life. I made that decision without much forethought.
What age do you feel right now and why?
My physical capabilities are more like when I was in my early 70s. From that point on, you begin to lose physical strength and agility. I used to play really good golf, but today I don’t play at all.
How would your friends describe you?
My friends would describe me as a middle-of-the-road kind of guy. I’m pretty calm, not out of line and not too aggressive.
What would people be surprised to know about you?
That’s hard to tell. I am very sentimental. Tears come to my eyes watching a good TV show. I have a little bit of a hard time even public speaking, talking about things that are very sentimental to me — my wife, things we’ve done, my parents. It may not surprise people, but that’s the way I am.
If you could witness any event of the past, present or future, what would it be?
I think the end of WWII was one of the greatest times to be alive. No generation today can appreciate what the WWII veterans did with their lives to win that war.
What was a “worst time” and how did you pull through it?
I think the worst time was probably the loss of my parents and the loss of my wife, too. I feel very strongly about my Catholic faith. That has a lot to do with how you analyze death and people who have departed that were close to you.
What concerns you today?
I think our society has become much too secular, very self-interested. I think there’s a lack of compassion, somewhat coming from the president himself.
I’m very sensitive about Tulsa’s homeless. I’ve always been a big supporter of efforts to remediate some of that. I think we just don’t have enough sympathy for other people and enough consideration and politeness in how we interact.
The lack of interplay between parties and different political interests is discouraging. I always recall Page Belcher (U.S. Rep.-R) telling me how he and his wife and Congressman Tom Steed and his wife played bridge every month. I thought, wow, you mean Republicans like you are mixing with Democrats? With them, it was an accepted practice and should be today.
How do you measure success?
I measure success mainly by the impact it has on the people that are trying to be served. My dad used to say, “Bob, you have to know the joy of accomplishment.” That stuck with me all these years. You need to have a goal and you need to finish it.
What is a favorite Tulsa memory?
It probably would be something like the opening of the PAC (Tulsa Performing Arts Center). I’m also very proud of the reconstruction of the library. I learned about libraries when I was mayor. I was on the commission for eight years. When the library campaign came along in 2012, I thought, well, here’s a chance to help raise money. (He served as chairman of the campaign that raised $30 million in private funding.) The completion of that project meant a lot to me, but so did finishing the PAC and the expressway system.
Describe a perfect weekend in Tulsa or elsewhere.
I think a perfect weekend in Tulsa would be visiting our major museums, the library and PAC and seeing how these public projects are really contributing to the quality of life in the city. There’s plenty for visitors to do. We have some beautiful neighborhoods. They’re unique for their design and quality, so I would say just making sure you know the city from a broad standpoint.
What place in Tulsa do you miss the most?
If I go back far enough, I probably miss the old movie theaters. Growing up, we went to the Orpheum or the Ritz Theater or the Majestic or the Rialto. I think the passing of movie theaters is something that kids really miss today.
What have been the most significant changes you have experienced in Tulsa?
One of the most significant changes came with the combination of some city and county operations such as the city-county formation of our library system and health department as well as planning on a city-county basis. That transition didn’t happen easily in some cases, so I think that has been a really excellent growth element for Tulsa.
What keeps you busy beyond your daily office hours at the Philtower?
As the last surviving sibling, I have obligations to the LaFortune family trust. My evening social events occasionally include going to public dinner functions but mostly going out with my kids or having them over for dinner.