Former Oklahoma state Rep. John Bryant died of an apparent heart attack Sunday (February 13). On Monday, state leaders in both political parties, friends and family remembered the Tulsa Republican who was a champion of Oklahoma’s charter school reforms. After service in the Legislature, he became a lobbyist. One of his clients was the small association advocating for expansion of the charter school model.
Praise for Bryant came from across the political spectrum, and from friends who knew him all his life.
Monday afternoon, Governor Mary Fallin said, in a statement sent to CapitolBeatOK and other news organizations:
“I was saddened to hear of the passing of John Bryant. John and I got to know each other well when we shared an office suite during my time in the Oklahoma House of Representatives. He was an effective and hardworking legislator and was dedicated to improving our state. He’ll be missed by his many friends at the Capitol. My thoughts and prayers are with John’s family during this difficult time.”
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Janet Barresi worked closely with Bryant in the late 1990s to secure passage of Oklahoma’s charter school reforms. She issued this statement Monday:
“I was deeply saddened to learn about John Bryant’s unexpected passing. I was blessed to have known him as a friend, and it was an honor to work with him on improving Oklahoma’s education system for future generations. John leaves a legacy of service and dedication. Oklahoma has lost a passionate voice for education reform, and I have lost a friend. My thoughts and prayers are with John’s family during this difficult time.”
Of more than passing interest, an ally to Bryant and Barresi in that particular fight was then-Superintendent Sandy Garrett.
In reflections posted on Facebook Monday, Vickie White Rankin, a lobbyist at the state Capitol in Oklahoma City, said, “Our world at the Capitol will never be the same without you. You have blessed us all with your friendship, and much of your work over the years has fundamentally improved the lives of thousands of Oklahomans. Your memory will be forever written upon our hearts, forever etched upon our lives. We will miss you. May the warmth of your memory comfort your loving family in the days to come.”
Freda Jones Deskin, founder of the ASTEC Charter schools in Oklahoma City, said, “The Oklahoma Charter Schools Association will greatly miss John. He was a champion for education and a tireless worker.”
Former state Sen. Jay Paul Gumm, a Democrat, said Bryant was “one of the good guys.” Other former legislators expressing shock and grief at his death at the age of 53 included Laura Boyd, Don Rubottom, and Tad Jones.
Current legislators who reflected on Bryant’s life in their own social media postings included state Sen. Clark Jolley, and Reps. Glen Mulready, Joe Dorman and Dan Sullivan.
The community of advocates at the state Capitol shared sadness over Bryant’s death, including Stuart Jolley of Americans for Prosperity, Republican activist Pam Pollard, Education Department Chief of Staff Jennifer Carter, and Mark Bledsoe.
Joel Robinson of the Oklahoma Education Association, frequently at odd with legislators like Bryant, reflected he was “the rare guy no one disliked. A man of character.”
Friends posted online reflections like these: “I always thought I would have the time to sit and talk and catch up on our lives.” In a similar vein, another said, “I wish we could have talked once more.”
In college, long before his distinguished career in elected office, Bryant’s leadership ability and political conservatism emerged through his involvement at Oklahoma State University as chairman of the Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn chapter of Young Americans for Freedom, and involvement with College Republicans. He was among the cadre of young Reaganite conservatives who were drawn in 1979 to the longshot 1980s U.S. Senate campaign of an OSU graduate, first-term state Senator Don Nickles.
Besides Bryant, others involved in that effort were Pam (Henzel) McGuigan, Steve Antosh, Matt Seward, Julie Hartman and this writer, as well as a young woman who would later be known as Deby Snodgrass.
Antosh told CapitolBeatOK, “Although OSU was never a liberal school, conservatives were certainly far less organized back in the seventies and eighties. I have fond memories of the College Republican / Young Americans for Freedom collaboration as we attempted to make students more aware and involved. John certainly played a leadership role in that movement and he will be missed.”
This writer struggled all day Monday to find some reflections worthy of the deep affection felt for Bryant for more than three decades. Remembering John’s love of history and understanding of the fragile nature of human existence, these words were the result, in the world of social media:
“I remember with the greatest respect and affection our work … in Stillwater, mid-to-late 1970s. You were wise and judicious then, as you were later at the Legislature. Fully determined to see a more conservative future but kind and understanding toward those who disagreed with us on campus, state and national issues. I’m not going to get over this any time soon. As an old Southern gentleman, also a warrior, said before his own passing, You have crossed over the river, to rest under the shade of a tree. I pray one day to see you there, again, and lift a glass as in days of old.”