Making a positive difference in the world can take many shapes. In the spirit of CLS’ mission to promote lifelong learning and active citizens, we’ve compiled a list of Oklahomans who changed both their communities and the nation.
David L. Boren, the 13th president of OU, has had a successful career in executive positions at state and national levels. He attended OU, Yale University and the University of Oxford. He served as a state legislator (1967-75), as the 21st governor of Oklahoma (1975-79) and as a U.S. senator (1979-94).
In the senate, Boren chaired the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. For U.S. State Department initiatives, he collaborated and helped build bipartisan support that promoted democracy abroad, which ultimately lead to the release of Nelson Mandela. On a special broadcast of ABC News Nightline with Ted Koppel, Mandela led a standing ovation for Boren.
Boren was inducted into the Oklahoma Hall of Fame in 1988.
Jim Thorpe, a member of the Sac and Fox nation, is considered one of America’s finest athletes. His legendary career includes: being voted the Greatest Athlete of the Twentieth Century, being the only athlete to ever win both the pentathlon and the decathlon during the 1912 Olympics and serving as the first president of the American Professional Football Association (later known as the NFL). When King Gustav of Sweden shook Thorpe’s hand on the medal podium he reportedly told him, “Sir, you are the greatest athlete in the world.”
Thorpe was a Native American who rose to fame during open and widespread racism toward minorities. He played on several American Indian sports teams throughout his career, and was often used as a symbol of the “other” in American media. His success increased the standard for athletic accomplishment, but the symbolic meaning of his achievements—years before Native Americans gained complete citizenship—is far greater.
Born to a poor coal miner and cotton farmer from southeastern Oklahoma, Carl Albert attended OU and went on to study law at the University of Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar, graduating in 1934.
Albert spent many years as a lawyer and in the U.S. Army during World War II before his election to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1946, eventually becoming Speaker of the House (1971-76). He supported many government programs, including public housing and federal aid for education, and was a strong advocate for public health. Albert was also instrumental in passing the Social Security Act of 1965, which created the Medicare and Medicaid programs to provide federal health insurance for the elderly and for low income families. His impressive political record, along with his short stature and place of birth, earned him the affectionate title “the Little Giant from Little Dixie.”
Alice Mary Robertson was born in 1854 at the Tullahassee Mission in Creek Nation, Indian Territory and remained unmarried her entire life. She ran for the United States’ 67th congress in 1920—the same year women won the right to vote. Her contemporary, Theodore Roosevelt, called her “…one of the great women of America.”
Robertson holds a prolific list of firsts for women including being the first woman from Oklahoma elected to the U.S. House of Representatives and the first female clerk appointed to the Indian Office at the Department of the Interior.
Robertson championed education and medical care in Oklahoma, especially for women and Native Americans. She chartered the University of Tulsa, established the first V.A. medical center in Muskogee and was instrumental in facilitating the education of the Cherokee and Creek tribal members in their native languages.
Elizabeth Warren, born in Oklahoma City, grew up on “the ragged edge of the middle class” as the daughter of a working class family. She has spent the majority of her political career advocating for the financial rights of consumers, particularly focusing on how bankruptcy affects women, the elderly and the poor.
Warren has co-authored a book on bankruptcy and consumer credit in America (As We Forgive Our Debtors), was part of the Congressional Oversight Panel for TARP and was instrumental in the creation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau for which she was appointed Special Advisor in 2010. To add to her accomplishments, she became the first female U.S. senator representing Massachusetts in 2013.
Clara Luper, a retired schoolteacher and civic leader, was a pioneer in the American civil rights movement. As the first African American graduate student in the history program at OU, she helped overturn segregation in Norman. In 1958, she led a group of NAACP Youth Council members, including her own son and daughter, in a series of nonviolent sit-in protests in Oklahoma City and is credited for desegregating hundreds of establishments in Oklahoma during the 1960s.
Luper’s influence was not limited just to the Midwest. She was also active in the national civil rights movement and was a prominent figure in the NAACP . She participated in the 1963 March on Washington with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the 1965 Selma to Montgomery marches. She then focused her efforts on advocating for educational, economic and political equality in Oklahoma.
Writer and performer, Woody Guthrie, authored “This Land is Your Land,” considered one of the most famous folk songs in United States history. He is known for music that celebrates the good in people and provides messages of unity, and he served as a voice for the poor and downtrodden.
Guthrie came of age during the Great Depression and witnessed a series of family tragedies before leaving Oklahoma to perform on the road. He quickly became known for his nomadic way of life and unique style—folk music had not yet gained wide popularity—and his estimated 1,000 songs won him a place in music history. Almost 50 years after his death in 1967, he is still credited as a strong creative influence for countless musicians ranging from Bob Dylan to the Foo Fighters.
Born in Seiling, Oklahoma, Gary England developed an interest in weather at an early age when a devastating tornado killed more than 100 people in the nearby town of Woodward, Oklahoma in 1947. He is recognized as the first on-air meteorologist to alert viewers of a possible tornado using commercial Doppler weather radar in 1982 and is nationally acknowledged as a pioneer and expert in broadcast meteorology.
England is known as an advocate for severe weather preparedness (focusing on providing advanced warnings), and he conducted awareness campaigns for school children throughout the 1980s. He continues as one of Oklahoma’s most beloved personalities and was honored as the keynote speaker for the opening of the National Weather Center in Norman in 2006.
Will Rogers was a show business sensation during the 1920s and 30s and one of the top paid celebrities of his day, influencing radio, print and movie industries concurrently. The New York Times printed his weekly newspaper column from 1922 to 1935 where he was known for expressing the views of the ‘common man’ humorously while focusing on important social issues.
While Rogers is well remembered for his political comedy and satirical wit, he was also actively involved in humanitarian efforts. During the Great Depression, he traveled the country fundraising for the Red Cross to help feed the hungry.
At the time of his death in a plane crash in 1935, Rogers had made 71 films, written more than 4,000 syndicated national newspaper columns, traveled the world three times and was one of the most famous Americans on the planet.
In 1991, OU law professor Anita Hill made national news when her charges of sexual harassment against then Supreme Court Justice nominee, Clarence Thomas, were made public the day before his confirmation.
Hill has been credited with revitalizing feminism, increasing awareness of sexual harassment and its effects, inspiring women to run for office and giving thousands of women the courage to speak out about their own experiences with sexual harassment.