By Bud Elder
We are all the heroes in our own movies – we slay our own dragons, win our own battles, and, for the most part, get the guy or the girl in the end; however, there are those among us who appear to be walking embodiments of Silver Screen characters. How many times do we leave a picture saying, “That character reminded me of so-and-so?”
Take for example George Bailey, as portrayed by Jimmy Stewart in Frank Capra’s 1946 film “It’s a Wonderful Life.” George is an everyman, embodied with qualities to which all of us should aspire – selflessness, generosity and optimism. And, while he is beset by fantastical elements, angels and such, as well as a moment or two of self-doubt, it is proven in the movie, through a series of isolated incidents, that the world is a much better place with him in humanity’s mix.
Take this line, for instance:
“I’m shaking the dust of this little town off my feet and I’m gonna see the world. Italy, Greece, the Parthenon, the Coliseum. Then I’m coming back here and going to college and see what they know. And then I’m gonna build things – I’m gonna build airfields, I’m gonna build skyscrapers a hundred stories high, I’m gonna build bridges a mile long.”
We have a George Bailey living in Oklahoma City … Lee Allan Smith.
Think about it – Lee Allan is the type of man with whom one would want to share hours in a small town barbershop, or on the front stoop playing checkers. However, this very approachable and amiable native Oklahoman has consorted with presidents and name-above-the-title celebrities. Sooner born and Sooner bred, with a built-in showman’s bravado, Lee Allan has, to quote his favorite musical, “a heart as big as all outdoors.” His best friends today were his best friends in childhood. And, to put it simply, he has spent his whole life promoting the Sooner state to the rest of the world. He loves Oklahoma, and Oklahoma loves him.
And, while he has recently completed what many would consider the project of a lifetime, that of steering Oklahoma through its 100th year, he is still scheming, still planning, still dreaming.
“Lee Allan Smith epitomizes the best of what it means to be an Oklahoman. It is perfectly fitting that a biography of Lee Allan is subtitled ‘Oklahoma’s Best Friend,’ and an award presented annually in his honor by Oklahoma Christian University is named the ‘Lee Allan Smith Spirit of Oklahoma Award.’ While he is probably best known for organizing amazing events that promote this great state, his own indomitable spirit and heart for service tell the deeper story of Oklahoma.
This is a man who has achieved great things not for personal glory, but because he is focused on service to others. His loyalty to our country, pride in the state of Oklahoma and genuine concern for his fellow man shine through in everything he does.
“He has served our country as an officer in the United States Air Force, where his duties included helping maintain high morale among the troops stationed in remote areas of the world. Later, he organized events that helped bring people together to celebrate the best America has to offer.
“Because of his commitment, zeal and perseverance, the dedication of the Oklahoma State Capitol Dome, the Oklahoma Centennial celebration and countless other events have elevated the status of Oklahoma and provided lifetime memories for all those in attendance.
“While some measure achievement by wealth, fame or personal recognition, Lee Allan has the wisdom to understand that none of these are true measures of success. He understands that true success is measured by the degree to which you have enhanced the quality of the lives of others and paved the way for the success of future generations.
“By that standard, Lee Allan Smith is one of the most successful men I have ever met.”
– Bill Anoatubby, Chief, Chickasaw Nation
Those looking for a Lee Allan tell-all on these pages, full of homilies, self-reflection and revelation from the man himself, will be disappointed. For every subject brought forth with Lee Allan Smith, he takes himself right out of the equation – whatever the project, whatever the statue, whatever the program, it is always someone else’s doing.
His life is part George M. Cohan, part Horatio Alger, part Will Rogers. Born in Oklahoma City, educated at the University of Oklahoma, Lee Allan proudly served in the military, where some say he truly learned his calling by producing shows and learning how to treat entertainers. He is a loving husband and totally engaged father to his three daughters, each of whom is a vital part of the community as well.
Here’s a story to which the man himself fessed up. It gives a peek behind the curtain into the man he is, and is certainly a portent of the things that were to come in his life.
“When I was an intramurals manager at OU, there was never a trophy given for second place,” he said. “When we actually did get second place, I went around and raised money so that everyone on the team would be able to have a trophy.”
Returning home from the service, Lee Allan found his professional calling. It took him about a year from being hired as a newbie sales person to becoming the manager of the oldest radio station west of the Mississippi, WKY. From there, he became general manager of WKY television, later KTVY, and remained at the NBC affiliate for 31 years.
It was in the late sixties that the first of many light bulbs went off over his head, resulting in a series of television specials that rivaled the Miss America Pageant in Atlantic City and the Daytona 500 for location-specific syndicated television.
“Live from Oklahoma City, it’s the ‘Stars and Stripes Show,’” starred, over the course of its eight-year run, headliners such as Bob Hope, Red Skelton, Anita Bryant, Dale Robertson, the Fifth Dimension, Nancy Wilson, Telly Savalas, Les Brown, Lou Rawls and, in her last professional television appearance, Kate Smith. So popular and entertaining were the Stars and Stripes Shows that they were picked up to run on the NBC network.
At the time, Lee Allan was so eager to create a sense of community leading up to the first show that he formed an Oklahoma City Broadcasters’ Association so that even competing stations could be involved. As a result of this grand gesture, Bill Thrash, then an employee at KOCO, the ABC affiliate in the market, was able to work on the first production. Thrash would go on to direct the remaining seven programs and serve as Watson to Lee Allan’s Holmes on many television productions to come in their joint careers, up to and including the recent Centennial Spectacular.
“Lee Allan is a true visionary who allows his creative imagination to go straight to implementation.
In 1979, we were celebrating Channel 4′s 30th Anniversary with events all day and night. At the then-National Cowboy Hall of Fame, we brought in the popular daytime syndicated Mike Douglas Show, which guest starred Bob Hope, Marty Robbins, Dale Robertson, Tanya Tucker and Will Rogers, Jr. Think about this – in front of 30 million people that morning, Douglas sang “Surrey With the Fringe on Top” in front of the Cowboy Hall. How’s that for great publicity?
For our lunch break, several of us, including Douglas and future ‘Today’ host Jane Pauley, choppered downtown for a Chamber of Commerce lunch.
After Bob Hope’s segment was taped, Lee Allan took the legendary entertainer to Oklahoma Christian University to see Enterprise Square.
That night we held a Channel 4 spectacular, with 10,000 people being welcomed by Danny Williams and Mary Hart. Tanya Tucker and Mike Douglas opened for Bob Hope performing his stage act.
After this incredibly long and beneficial day, Lee Allan asked Hope where his performance fee should be sent.
Bob Hope then said, “Donate it to Oklahoma Christian College.”
Lee Allan has said many times that moment brought chills up his spine.
Just another day in the life of Lee Allan Smith.”
– Bill Thrash
While television screens in the late ’80s continued to expand, they still weren’t large enough to hold Lee Allan Smith – he was destined for bigger and better things.
Under the umbrella of the Ackerman McQueen advertising agency, serving as vice chairman, Lee Allan formed Oklahoma Events, where he continues to work with daughters Jennifer and DeLee.
Starting with a monumental Olympic Festival and continuing on a path that would include the dedication of the newly built Capitol Dome, reopening Oklahoma City’s Civic Center and many other memorable occasions, Lee Allan made it a personal challenge to make the Sooner state ready for prime time.
“I always knew that for our city to succeed, we had to all work together, every citizen, every corporation, every public official,” he said. “What you see lacking in other states and communities is a true consensus – a buy-in from all interested parties.”
Then comes Oklahoma’s Centennial, a series of events that were years in the planning, culminating in a Centennial Spectacular musical event broadcast statewide on OETA starring the likes of Garth Brooks, Vince Gill, Reba McEntire and other Oklahoma ambassadors.
“Our Centennial events, from our appearance in Macy’s Parade in New York and the Rose Bowl parade in Pasadena, were all about showcasing our great state to both our citizens and the outside world as well. Lee Allan Smith and Blake Wade were the right people at the right time to spread the joy and message of our 100th year.”
– Governor Brad Henry
Speaking of Henry, the former state leader is a part of Lee Allan’s next major endeavor as he, along with former Governor Frank Keating, will serve as co-chairs for yet another significant development for Oklahoma City – that of the Native American Cultural Center, located at the crossroads of I-35 and I-40.
“This new facility will offer both citizens and visitors a rare insight into our extraordinary American Indian culture,” Lee Allan said. “It will combine all of our tribes’ exhibits to truly tell the real Oklahoma story. It will also serve as a destination point for travelers from all over the world, which will then add to our city coffers as economic development.”
On this same point, Lee Allan speaks to the continuance of the Oklahoma City river development, which, in his own words, is a “game changer” for the future.
“I truly treasure my relationship with Lee Allan Smith; he, along with Judy Love, served as co-chairs of my historic inaugural ball, and I can’t wait to hear what advice, counsel and vision he will bring to me as an outstanding citizen of this state.”
– Governor Mary Fallin
There are too many awards and honors to mention; however, Lee Allan’s inclusion in the Oklahoma Hall of Fame, the Oklahoma Broadcasters Hall of Fame and his honorary doctorate from the University of Oklahoma have to hold high places on his mantel.
From a time when his mother urged young Lee Allan to always “be a good American,” through his pioneering spirit in local broadcasting and his skills as an impresario; his enhancing the Oklahoma landscape with everything from Bob Hope and Red Skelton busts at Stars and Stripes Park, the statues of Oklahoma’s greatest baseball players in front of the Bricktown Ballpark, and Oklahoma University’s finest in its Heisman Park; Lee Allan Smith has done so much, raised so much, contributed so much, that it can’t even be catalogued.
And, while his days of exhorting Oklahoma-based companies such as TG&Y, OTASCO, C.R. Anthony’s and Kerr McGee to participate in their community’s development have given way to modern-day corporate partners such as Chesapeake and Devon, Lee Allan realizes that there is always, in fact, a better day yet to be had in the state of Oklahoma.
Hear that sound? It’s a bell ringing for Lee Allan Smith.