By David Althouse
Okay, first things first: Oklahomans have a knack for being not only the best, but first! Whether it’s our premier personalities, A-number-one athletes, eminent entertainers, leading leaders, or bar-none business people, Oklahomans know how to get there first with the most! Let’s take a look at these numero uno Oklahomans for a lesson on what it means to be supreme in Oklahoma – and the world.
Mary Fallin, a political trailblazer as the state’s first female governor, has much in common with the pioneering people of Oklahoma for whom she serves as chief executive officer.
Our first female governor joins an esteemed list of Oklahoma firsts across a wide spectrum of human undertakings. Some are the first Oklahomans to accomplish a major achievement, while others are the first on a worldwide scale to record a foremost milestone. Either way, they’re the essence of Oklahoma, a state of excellence.
Here’s a few just to get started: Jerrie Cobb, the first woman to pass NASA’s astronaut training; Wilma Mankiller, who made her mark as the first woman to serve as Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation; Carl C. Magee, inventor of the world’s first parking meter; and Maria Tallchief, the first American Indian to achieve the rank of prima ballerina.
The list of Oklahoma firsts is seemingly endless. There’s Bass Reeves, the first African-American U.S. Deputy Marshal west of the Mississippi River and one of the greatest heroes of the Old West. There’s Perle Mesta, daughter of an original Oklahoma ’89er, who served as the first U.S. minister to Luxembourg. And there’s Norma Smallwood, the first American Indian to be crowned Miss America.
An impressive list, yes, but we’re only beginning to scratch the surface of noteworthy Oklahoma firsts. For the sake of space, let us focus on some of the most gigantic and foremost Oklahoma firsts, the magna cum laude list of Oklahoma originals, originators, and one-of-a-kinds.
In the world of politics, Oklahoma produces its fair share of giants. Carl Albert, the first Oklahoman to serve as Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, comes to mind. We can’t forget Alice M. Robertson, the first woman from Oklahoma elected to the U.S. Congress.
Jeane Kirkpatrick, the first woman and first Oklahoman to serve as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, might be one of Oklahoma’s most influential political firsts of all time.
The daughter of oilfield wildcatter Welcher F. Jordan and his wife, the former Leona Kile, Kirkpatrick was born in Duncan on Nov. 19, 1926.
Fluent in French and Spanish, Kirkpatrick capped her formal education with a political science degree from Columbia University. She spent a year of post-graduate study at the Institut des Sciences Politiques at the University of Paris.
Kirkpatrick, a staunch anti-communist, received widespread attention for articles she published criticizing the foreign policy of President Jimmy Carter.
Her most well known piece, “Dictatorships and Double Standards,” published in Commentary Magazine in November 1979, caught the eye of President Ronald Reagan, for whom she eventually served as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, a position she held for four years.
The foreign policy of President Ronald Reagan is widely credited for accelerating the chain of events that led to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the destruction of the Berlin Wall. As part of Reagan’s brain trust, Kirkpatrick played no small part in the formulation and execution of the president’s foreign policy.
Oklahoma has given the entertainment world numerous noteworthy firsts. Our favorite son, Will Rogers, comes immediately to mind as the first Oklahoman to achieve international acclaim as an entertainer and humorist, and the first ever big-time radio commentator.
In our own time, there’s Elk City native Jimmy Webb, legendary American songwriter, and the first and only artist to have received Grammy Awards for music, lyrics and orchestration.
Considered among the finest songwriters of his generation and often compared to such songsmith giants as George Gershwin, Richard Rodgers, Cole Porter, Burt Bacharach and Steven Sondheim, Webb continues to give live performances in the United States and abroad, and recently released a live album of his show, “Live and at Large.”
Recording giants across a variety of musical genres have recorded such Webb hits as “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” “Wichita Lineman,” “Up, Up and Away,” “MacArthur Park” and “Didn’t We.”
According to Broadcast Music, Inc., Webb’s “By The Time I Get To Phoenix” has been the third most performed song in the last 50 years, with “Up, Up and Away” on the same list in the top 30.
In 1968, Time magazine acknowledged the range and proficiency of the musical genius, referring to his string of hits, noting “Webb’s gift for strong, varied rhythms, inventive structures and rich, sometimes surprising harmonies.”
To the world of retail, Oklahoma contributed two essential firsts – Wal-Mart, the first truly international retail chain, and the shopping cart.
Born Samuel Moore Walton in Kingfisher on March 29, 1918, Sam Walton went on to create Wal-Mart, becoming the first Oklahoman to build an international retail chain.
After leaving the military in 1945, Walton took over management of his first retail establishment, a Ben Franklin variety store in Newport, Arkansas. From 1945 to 1962, with a chain of Ben Franklin variety stores serving as his laboratory, Walton pioneered many of the retail concepts that proved vital to his success with Wal-Mart.
The first true Wal-Mart store opened on July 6, 1962 as Wal-Mart Discount City in Rogers, Arkansas. These days, Wal-Mart conducts business according to many of the same concepts Walton developed many years ago with his Ben Franklin variety stores. Walton’s pioneering retail concepts are practiced in Wal-Mart stores in Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Chile, China, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Japan, Mexico, Nicaragua, Puerto Rico, South Korea, the United Kingdom and the U.S.
Years earlier, Sylvan Goldman, owner of a chain of Oklahoma City grocery stores called Standard/Piggly Wiggly, glanced at some folding chairs and saw something grocery shoppers had been waiting for – a shopping cart. He invented the first shopping cart in 1936 by adding two wire baskets and wheels to a folding chair. Goldman, together with mechanic Fred Young, designed a dedicated shopping cart in 1947 and formed the Folding Carrier Company to manufacture the carts.
Other inventions by Goldman include the grocery sacker, the folding inter-office basket carrier, the handy milk bottle rack and the Baggage cart – all firsts.
Oklahoma firsts in the world of sports are numerous. Discussing Jim Thorpe and Mickey Mantle gets us off to a good start.
Thorpe was the first Oklahoman named the greatest American football player and greatest overall male athlete by the Associated Press. A statue of Thorpe stands at the entrance to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. The inscription on the statue reads, “Jim Thorpe was named first team Walter Camp All-American in 1911 and 1912. He won gold medals in the decathlon and pentathlon in the 1912 Olympics, played professional baseball and, in 1920, was elected the first president of what became the National Football League. He was the first great performer of that league, its highest paid player, both the precursor and prototype of the weapons of modern football.”
Of Thorpe, 1912 Olympic Silver Medalist, Abel Kiviat said, “He was the greatest athlete who ever lived. What he had was natural ability. There wasn’t anything he couldn’t do. All he had to see is someone doin’ something and he tried it, and he’d do it better.”
And this from King Gustav V at the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm: “You, sir, are the greatest athlete in the world. I would consider it an honor to shake your hand.”
Mantle was the first Oklahoman to hit 18 home runs in World Series games, a record that holds to this day. He still holds the records for most World Series RBI’s (40), runs (42), walks (43), extra-base hits (26) and total bases (123). Regarded by many as the greatest switch hitter of all time and as one of the greatest baseball players to ever play the game, Mantle was born in Spavinaw, Oklahoma, the son of Elvin Charles Mantle, a coal miner, and Lovell Mantle.
Mantle’s 18-year career was played with the New York Yankees exclusively, winning three American League MVP titles and playing in 16 All-Star games. He played on 12 pennant winners and 7 World Series Championship clubs.
Mantle attempted humility in the face of his phenomenal baseball success. “After I hit a home run I had a habit of running the bases with my head down. I figured the pitcher already felt bad enough without me showing him up rounding the bases.”
Of Mantle, New York Yankees Manager Billy Martin said, “No man in the history of baseball had as much power as Mickey Mantle. No man. You’re not talking about ordinary power. Dave Kingman has power. Willie Mays had power. Then when you’re talking about Mickey Mantle – it’s an altogether different level. Separates the men from the boys.”
We could discuss Oklahoma firsts all day, and that’s because there are an abundance of them.
We could write in detail about General Thomas P. Stafford, commander of Apollo 10, the first flight of the lunar module to the moon; General Tommy Franks, first Oklahoman to serve as Commander of the United States Central Command; and Shannon Lucid, first non-Russian to hold an international record for the most flight hours in orbit, first woman to be awarded the Congressional Space Medal of Honor, and record holder of the most flight hours in orbit by any woman in the world.
The future of Oklahoma rests with such individuals, people who see today as the first and most important day ever, a day to use our creativity, imagination and intelligence to be the first – and the best.
For more information on Oklahoma firsts, visit www.maryfallininaugural.org/oklahoma-firsts.