“Smile, ‘though your heart is breaking” – Tulsans, Immaculate Conception, Wayman Tisdale

 Here’s a story about three black Tulsans.

The school choice debate in Oklahoma changed on March 13, 2008. No surprise, a black Tulsan was the reason. State Sen. Judy Eason McIntyre rose from her desk on the state Senate floor. She explained why she supported a school choice bill authored by fellow Tulsan James Williamson, a Republican.

That day, she told colleagues, “This is not a difficult decision for me to make. This does not mean that I’m anti-public education. … I have been a supporter of public education all my life.”

A veteran of 16 years on the Tulsa school board, McIntyre said she had worked to get someone to “do something about these same schools that have gone on for years and years and years and nobody cared. Now, my critics are telling me that I’m trying to destroy public education! No, I’m not trying to destroy public education, I’m trying to get us to do what we need to do that nobody in a position of power has even said anything about.”

Sometimes the obvious is a powerful argument. McIntyre stated the obvious: “I know politics brings about strange bedfellows, but I’m not ashamed to be in bed on this idea.  Because somebody … is finally trying to help do something different.  Are they going to get something out of the deal?  Yeah, that’s what politics is all about. … So these people who are willing to give some money to get a tax credit, if it means educating a kid then I’m for it because I’m tired of waiting.”

altThen, she got stronger: “This is the time for me, despite an election year. I believe in this strongly enough that if I don’t come back I am still going to continue to fight for this because we are better than this.”

She explained, “In front of our title it says ‘state.’ Mine doesn’t say ‘North Tulsa’ or ‘Osage County’ Senator, it doesn’t say ‘African-American,’ it says ‘state Senator.’ So, while we are concerned about those things in our district, as we should be, we’re also concerned about every child in the state of Oklahoma.”

McIntyre wrapped up by saying to “fellow Democrats” that if “you’re interested in children, if you believe that every child should be educated,” then they should support the tax credit scholarships that were being proposed to let children in failing schools seek better education, even if it was at a private school. It was one of those relatively rare moments in politics, when a speech really does make a difference.

As the years pass, I have agreed with Eason McIntyre a few times, disagreed often. As a reporter, she is fun to cover, has an incredible smile and often a hug to give.

She was a critic of this year’s GOP budget, and stood with Democratic colleagues against it. Still, she contributed to the Senate’s historic pension reform panel, through which Tulsa Sen. Mike Mazzei crafted real reforms in state government pension policy, perhaps enough to keep the system solvent.

I agree with Judy about kids, and possibilities.

Recently, I reported for CapitolBeatOK.com, the online news service I run, on two separate incidents where fellow “liberals” in Tulsa assailed her – one in person, the other through an email – for her cooperative posture toward Republicans.

This year, she supported Sen. Dan Newberry’s measure building on the momentum of that 2008 school choice bill. Opportunity Scholarships, operating through a tax credit program, passed both the House and Senate, and Governor Fallin has signed it into law.

Judy has made a difference in many ways, and she shepherded through the 2011 session a bill making “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” the state Gospel song. It was a blessing to be present when she and members of the Black Legislative Caucus watched Fallin sign the designation.

Recent attacks on Eason McIntyre came from white women she has long considered friends. Still the cheerful warrior, Judy the cancer survivor will head to the door after next year’s session, with dignity and her eclectic brand of Oklahoma principles intact. And, that smile.

altJabar Shumate is another Tulsan with a story, and a smile. We met two decades ago, when he worked for former Senator (and then-new OU President) David Boren. Few of us who had encountered him were surprised when, eventually, Jabar entered politics.

Now in the state House, he intends to seek the Democratic nomination to replace his mentor and friend, Eason McIntyre.

Last year, Rep. Shumate survived “an all-out war” with labor unions, which tried to take him out in the House Democratic primary. His voting record is in most particulars that of a mainstream African-American Democrat, but Shumate was targeted for defeat because of his consistent support for parental choice in education.

In an interview after that primary, Rep. Shumate spoke candidly about the political threats he has faced as he emerged the last few years as a leading advocate of education reform. He told me, “Until [2010], the threats were subtle. I can’t say that the ‘threats’ came across that way. There was some discomfort in the relationship with the teachers unions all through my time at the Capitol but until [2010] we indeed had a relationship.”

The unions then were angry at Shumate for his support of the Lindsey Nicole Henry scholarship program, a small start-up allowing direct support to special needs children needing private education, and they’re probably angry at him this year for supporting Newberry’s bill.

Shumate said he was confident throughout that campaign, and remarked, “I find it interesting that groups that otherwise proclaim their devotion to diversity and to the value of being culturally aware and sensitive would push back so negatively on African-American legislators who make a principled decision to promote diversity in the important sense of parental options and student options in education, support for excellence, and improvement in schools.”

He noted, “I have supported teacher union positions about 81% of the time because I agreed with those positions. But to those unions the fact that I supported choice for children in terrible schools or for special needs and circumstances made them determined to defeat me. I know they donated $5000 to my opponent. I am confident in saying that I can discern $65-70,000 in various forms of soft money they spent to defeat me. It didn’t work.”

It was, he said, “a very nasty race. In the African-American community we are close and tend to know one another and have many longstanding relationships. Political communication is often direct. Certainly that is how it is in north Tulsa, my home.

“My friends, constituents and voters were told flat out lies about my record. We countered by talking about what I stood for. My mother, my step-father, and whole family talked and told the truth, and when it came to the lies they told constituents to their face, ‘Those are lies you’ve been told.’ What happened was that my core supporters stood firm for me.”

Keep an eye on Jabar Shumate, and that smile.

altA black Tulsan known for smiling through the pain is the late Wayman Tisdale, a man I never met.

Last year, when the Knights of Columbus presented the John F. Kennedy award to Tisdale, posthumously, I learned more about the basketball superstar from the University of Oklahoma who went on to a remarkable NBA career, then superstar success in Jazz. Tisdale may be best remembered for his heroic battle against cancer, to which he first lost his leg, and then his life.

At the Jim Thorpe Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City, Wayman’s brother, the Rev. Weldon Tisdale, represented the family and accepted the award.

Weldon remembered his sibling with deep affection as he accepted the JFK Award. Now pastor of Friendship Church in north Tulsa, he reflected, “You don’t have to tell me about the Knights, my family knows all about them.”

He thanked the Knights. I learned the Tisdale boys, (three of them, and Baptists) were graduates of grades 1-5 at the now-closed Immaculate Conception school. They got that education thanks to adults who loved them, and Knights in Tulsa.

After the event, I burrowed into the archives of the Tulsa World, and found a news story from 1988. The Tisdale boys (Wayman, Weldon and older brother William) were on a sentimental journey. They were dedicating new basketball courts there at Immaculate Conception Church and School.

Wayman, then in his prime, told the World’s Clay Henry, “I spent more years at this school than any other I’ve attended. The teachers here gave me the guidance I needed.”

He said, “The teachers here didn’t tell my folks all the things I did up here or I doubt I would be standing here right now. I was a fidgety kid. I liked to run around in class, throw stuff and yell. The teachers recognized that I was just a hyper kid with a lot of energy.”

The Tisdale lads played a lot of basketball on the old courts at Immaculate Conception, but that was not what Wayman remembered: “It thrilled me more than anything to go play in the sand box. I wanted to build sandcastles. I didn’t want to play basketball.”

William said, “Wayman always got hot and tired quickly. He’d go over to the sand box, dig a hole, take off his shoes and stick his feet in the cool sand. One day I was determined I would make him play basketball. My attempt worked, but we rolled around in that sand for a while.”

Between games, the future superstar – who went on to greatness for the Booker T. Washington Hornets, the OU Sooners and in the NBA – would take a break, go put his feet in the sand, build castles and dream.

April 2011: The Knights in Oklahoma City co-sponsored the first annual Wayman Tisdale Awards, presented by Devon Energy Corporation. ESPN legend Dick Vitale was given the Humanitarian of the Year designation for his leadership in raising money to fight the scourge of cancer. Young Jared Sullinger, the Ohio State University superstar, basked in the affection of a large crowd at the Skirvin as he was named NCAA men’s freshman basketball player of the year.

A little starstruck, I shook hands with Toby Keith, and embraced Wayman’s beautiful widow, Regina. They smiled as a photographer friend captured the pair together. I learned that late in Wayman’s life, Toby was a guest on one of those jazz albums.

The personal highlight of that evening came when I saw Weldon. Before I could remind him of the Knights’ connection, the preacher gave me a great big hug, that glorious Tisdale smile, and said, “Hello again, brother.”

Brother. That meant a lot.

After Wayman’s death, at the end of a Tulsa World story, an online comment was made by a man whose online handle was “Ace5720.” He wrote:

“I was privileged to have the opportunity to play basketball against Wayman Tisdale in high school and in the summer leagues. My Jenks team got to play Wayman’s Hornets teams three times, and we never beat them. Wayman was a ‘rock star,’ the Lebron James or Michael Jordan of our time, and those Jenks-Washington games attracted big crowds from around the city and coaches from around the country.

“In the Tournament of Champions, when Wayman blocked my shot out of bounds, there was no trash talking or humiliation from Wayman; he just gave me a smile and a pat on the back. When I was lucky enough to block his shot, he would have the same reaction. He remained the same humble, great man after a hall-of-fame college career, making millions of dollars as a pro athlete, winning a gold medal, and becoming a renowned musician.

“He helped build racial bridges in the Tulsa community more than he probably knew – all Tulsans, white, black, north, south, loved Wayman and we all considered him our own. After some time of reflection and grieving, Tulsa should honor this great man as one of our greatest citizens and ambassadors for our community.”

“Ace” wanted to see a statue of Wayman in Tulsa. Maybe it is already there by now, and I’ve just not found it?

“Ace” wrote, “It would be fitting for the great Wayman Tisdale to shine his magnetic smile on Tulsa for the ages.”

I never knew Wayman personally, but I know him a little more every day.

I know his roots in a community that believed in him, and ultimately loved him. His experiences at a Catholic school his family chose, a place that taught discipline, and let him be a little boy with possibilities. Wayman Tisdale was a lad nurtured in love, an optimist with dreams rooted in good education and hard work.

And, that smile. A brother’s smile. Immaculate.


Note: Senior editor at The City Sentinel and long-time Capital Editor for Tulsa Today, Patrick B. McGuigan is a member of the Knights of Columbus Council No. 1038, a co-sponsor of the annual Wayman Tisdale Awards. This essay is adapted and expanded from an essay that also appeared in the June 2011 edition of Perspective magazine, the monthly publication of the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs.