Hearing voices — recording history

There are places where you can hear the voices of Oklahoma’s past. The muffled tones of oilmen echoing in the ornate lobby of Josh Cosden’s skyscraper at Fourth Street and Boston Avenue, reflecting a time when a historian said skyscrapers were not a real estate necessity but built because Tulsans liked to see things go up.

In the tiny library to the left of the grand entrance of Harwelden — where you can sense the respite of leather-bound books and the quiet conversations that surrounded them.

And in Oklahoma City’s Skirvin Hotel, where, if you are to believe visiting NBA players, the voices belong to ghosts who haunt its halls.

There is a place, however, where voices of Oklahoma’s past, and also its present, can truly be heard.

It is designed primarily for educators and their students, but all are welcome to eavesdrop on Voices of Oklahoma, a special place designed to preserve Oklahoma’s heritage one voice at a time.

Visitors to www.voicesofoklahoma.com will find an easily navigable site that currently boasts of interviews with such diverse and prominent Oklahomans as Chester Cadieux, Peggy Helmerich, Stephen Jones, Wilma Mankiller, Ron Norick, Elliot and Virginia Phillips, Oral Roberts and Danny Williams. From a convenience store founder to a media legend — and that’s only the beginning. An additional 50 interviews have been completed and are being added as funding allows.

The founder of this unique and remarkable glimpse into Oklahoma’s personality (and personalities) and heritage is not who you’d think — a representative from a state or local historical society or an educational institution.

No, the founder is a man whom thousands of Tulsans woke up to and with each weekday morning on the radio for 29 years. A man noted more for spoofs, such as his promotion of the "Tulsa Mountains," than for scholarship into Oklahoma’s past. A Tulsan by way of the Dakotas and an Omaha, Neb., radio station: John Erling.

"I was fortunate to become friends with Walt Helmerich some eight or nine years ago," Erling says of his friendship with the noted Tulsa offshore-drilling executive, Utica Square owner and philanthropist. "We have lunch monthly, and on one occasion I told him he should write a book."

Helmerich demurred, saying both his grandfather and father had done so and no one read either, but when Erling suggested that he put his reminiscences down on audiotape, Helmerich warmed to the idea.

"I asked him if he could talk to Henry Zarrow about doing the same thing — having me interview him — and he agreed and Mr. Zarrow agreed," Erling says.

Thus Voices of Oklahoma was born.

Erling left KRMG in 2005, and after three years running an advertising agency office in Tulsa, he devoted himself full-time to his idea and project — reviewing "candidates" for interviews, conducting in-depth research, holding all of the interviews and editing, creating transcripts, website design, etc.

Indeed, because the website is designed with students and education in mind, anything to simplify — providing transcripts, breaking the interviews into "chapters" so specific subjects can be reviewed and recommending books related to each interview — is considered.

Support for the project (which is hardly static, as Erling is constantly developing new sources for interviews, including World War II veterans) has come from a blue-ribbon panel of foundations: Williams, Helmerich, Chapman, Kaiser, Warren and Bernsen.

Although the site is designed for education, anyone can overhear these voices — Elliot Phillips talking about living in Philbrook for a few years, Peggy Helmerich about her days in Hollywood, the late Wilma Mankiller on how she had to establish herself as a leader after being elected a chief, the late Oral Roberts dodging a bullet that brought him to national attention and more.

And even more voices will be heard as additional interviews come online.

A unique peek into the past from thoughtful foundations and John Erling. Yes, at www.voicesofoklahoma.com, you are hearing voices.

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