Commentary: Remembering Hannah Atkins

Hannah Atkins has passed away, but her kindness, her precious and unfailing integrity, and her thoughtfulness will remain in my heart. The world will largely remember Mrs. Atkins as the first black woman elected to the Oklahoma House of Representatives, her stint at the United Nations, and a term as Henry Bellmon’s secretary of state.

For me, most memories of Mrs. Atkins are deeply personal.

When I was still in grade school, she was elected to the Oklahoma House of Representatives with the help of Vicki Miles (now a federal judge), one of “Hannah’s helpers.”

The Atkins family was a blessing in my life from the time when, in high school, I competed in track alongside her son Charles. I was a distance runner; he was a sprinter and high jumper.

Mrs. Atkins and my mother, Bonnie, spent time talking about life issues while supporting their sons on the cinder tracks of those days.

After high school and then college, I lost contact with her for a time. After spending the 1980s working in the nation’s capitol, I returned to Oklahoma in 1990 to write for The Oklahoman. As we renewed our acquaintance, Hannah Atkins became a valued contact and source, and then a friend.

We served together on the KIDS (Keep Improving District Schools) Project, sponsored by the Oklahoma City Public Schools Foundation. That project undertook a comprehensive look at functioning public schools in other states.

A group of us, including Hannah, made a memorable trip to examine effective schools. Our acquaintance deepened into friendship. The work we did with a few others laid the basis for the MAPS for Kids program that financed improved physical plants in the Oklahoma City public school district.

When news of her death came today (Friday, June 18), Governor Brad Henry issued this statement:

“We have lost a great public servant and a great Oklahoman. Hannah was a dear personal friend of mine and the Henry family. She served with my father in the Legislature and acted as the chairperson of my first gubernatorial campaign.

“Hannah Atkins was many things to many people – a civil rights pioneer, an influential state legislator, a dedicated educator and mentor – but more than anything, she was an inspirational leader who worked tirelessly to improve her state and its people.  We will miss her greatly, but we will never forget her efforts to make Oklahoma a better place.

“Our thoughts and prayers are with the Atkins family and Hannah’s many friends and loved ones.”

Hannah was a unique combination of high-minded idealism and pragmatic direct action. Many remember her now as a “liberal,” but I always thought her designation as a “flaming moderate” was most apt.

I was honored she said yes to my request to become one of six members of the Opinion Board of Contributors who wrote regular commentaries for the state’s largest newspaper. She was unfailingly thoughtful and compelling in that work as in every other area of her life. After she moved back East, we lost touch again. She will be buried in Oklahoma City.

I will never forget her tender admonitions to me when we disagreed, which was less often than some might assume. I loved her and admired her deeply. I remember Hannah now with the greatest affection and appreciation for her influence in my life.

Hannah Atkins made a difference in Oklahoma and in America.