Voices of the Past Whisper to the Future with John Erling

Voices of the Past Whisper to the Future with John Erling

Voices are reminders that we live; words are proof that we have spoken and memories are what we leave as a result. Each life is a voice spoken in a graceful fluidity through seconds and years in time which becomes a whisper to the future. It is that voice which echoes beyond our years to become the stories of life and legacy. One man has become a voice for those voices. His name is John Erling. Many of us may remember hearing him on KRMG radio in Tulsa where he entertained listeners for over 25 years with news and commentary. However, now retired for the past ten years, Erling has continued the spirit of his morning radio show Erling in the Morning by bringing new interesting subject matter to listeners. Through his endeavor Voices of Oklahoma, he is allowing others to tell their stories and thus telling us all about Oklahoma and those who have made their mark in the panhandle state.
“Voices of Oklahoma is a collection of oral history stories. We have collected over 200 of them with 67 of the interviewees having already died. This emphasizes the reason we are doing this,” Erling said.

This project began simply over lunch between friends. He and Walt Helmerich III, most notably known for Helmerich & Payne Drilling company and the purchase and growth of Utica Square in Tulsa, met for lunch once a month for ten years. During those lunches, Helmerich would relay these interesting stories about his life and career to Erling. It occurred to Erling that he “should not be the only one who gets to sit at this table.” Helmerich agreed but was not keen on the idea of a book. Erling, intrigued by the idea of telling others’ stories, thought about how he could get these stories to the public.

While driving around one day, he thought about using a website as the vehicle to bring these stories to the public. He then suggested to Helmerich that he record the businessman and philanthropist for future generations in his own words and make it available to everyone. Helmerich liked the idea, and so Erling already thinking about future recording, asked if he would also ask his friend Henry Zarrow, owner of Sooner Pipe & Supply, and Bigheart Oil Company if he would agree to be recorded. Zarrow agreed and the program was born. Erling immediately began seeking out others he could record. Using his connections and friends in the community to find interesting candidates, suggestions for subjects soon began coming to light. So much so in fact, that Erling had to classify categories for the abundance of options from the different aspects of Oklahoma life.

It will be ten years this April since Voices of Oklahoma began publishing these oral histories on its site. Erling, with the help of John Hamill, has recently published the book Voices of Oklahoma with excerpts from many of those interviewed. Erling was kind enough to send me a copy, and after reviewing it, I must conclude that any lover of history, regardless of where they are from, will find this an enlightening and enjoyable read.

In our lives, we come into contact with intriguing and innovative people who have experienced remarkable events. Within the first few pages alone, one can find out what it was like to dine at a private castle with George Harrison and Ringo Starr of the Beatles fame along with Eric Clapton. One can tour with Bob Dylan, wait on J. Paul Getty at a department store (the richest man in the world at the time), Flip a coin of destiny with Ritchie Valens and watch your dad purchase a home from Will Rogers for $500 down and a verbal agreement for groceries for one year, without a contract. All of these stories are told in their own words from their perspectives as Oklahomans.

Erling said he does not have a favorite story as all have something that make them unique. But he does remember some quite fondly due to their historical connection. One, in particular, is of Marian Opala, a former Oklahoma State Supreme Court Justice. Erling tells of Opala’s service with the Polish Underground after the Nazis invasion of Poland in 1939 and subsequent service in the British Army. He goes on to speak about Opala’s capture and imprisonment in a concentration camp. Opala would later immigrate to Oklahoma, earn his degrees and work his way through the legal ranks to obtain the highest judicial office in the state. He died four days after recording his story to Erling.

Although the book is a valuable resource, there isn’t anything quite like listening to the stories told by those who actually experienced these incredible moments that made up their lives, Erling explained. The driving force behind this endeavor has been to offer a valuable learning resource to future generations. Many of these personal stories that have been shared with Voices of Oklahoma are bits of personal information that would certainly be lost to history if not for the efforts of those involved with the project. Erling said that many teachers and college professors use the website as a resource to enlighten the younger generations with a vivid history they will never be able to experience otherwise. It is available to anyone at no charge who has an interest in history or those who have helped forge it. One of the most interesting aspects of this project is that it does not focus on one element of society but all. Captains of industry, musicians, artists, philanthropists, celebrities or anyone who adds to the rich tapestry of our state can all become part of this valuable historical resource.

“Our experience with the book has been a good one and has attracted interests to the website that otherwise would not have been,” Erling said. The site brings in over 10,000 listeners each month, he added. There will also be more books to purchase in the future as Erling stated that there is enough material already to fill a set of encyclopedias.

“This book is hoping to add to what we are doing with the website, and we are getting a lot of attention with it. People get excited about books,” Erling said. He explained that the book came about because people were telling him that it was quicker for them to read the transcripts which accompany the recordings. So he thought about a book and using excerpts in story form to reach those who may not have heard of the website. The book, which published ten days before Christmas, allows those who love to read to experience these interesting historical stories in a format they enjoy. The book, however, only contains parts of the complete stories and so those interested in the full stories can still visit the site and read the full transcripts. All the proceeds from book sales go back into the project to fund more interviews and recordings.

“Our experience with the book has been a good one and has attracted interests to the website that otherwise would not have been,” Erling said. The site brings in over 10,000 listeners each month, he added. There will also be more books to purchase in the future as Erling stated that there is enough material already to fill a set of encyclopedias.


The project is funded by both individuals and foundations who believe in Voices of Oklahoma’s mission. These include, but are not limited to: The Chickasaw Nation, Burt B. Holmes, George Kaiser Family Foundation, Grace and Franklin Bernsen Foundation, H.A. and Mary Kay Chapman Charitable Trust, Helmerich Foundation, The William K. Warren Foundation, and Williams Companies. To visit the site or purchase the book, log onto voicesofoklahoma.com.

Authors Note: As owners of Uniquelahoma, my business partner Spencer Heckathorn and I believe this story to be one of the most important we can publish. The very mission of Voices of Oklahoma and Uniquelahoma is to highlight this incredible state, its people, history and cultures. Voices of Oklahoma is doing just that in a unique and powerful manner that benefits us now and for generations to come. It is our sincere hope that each of our readers will visit and support Voices of Oklahoma and help keep our history alive.

Santa is Real! You Just Haven’t Met Him Yet

Santa is Real! You Just Haven’t Met Him Yet

Santa is Real! You Just Haven’t Met Him Yet

CL Harmon, Lead Author, Osage Nation Member

18 December 2018co-published with Tulsa Lifestyle Magazine

The True Spirit of Christmas Is Closer Than You Might ThinkYou better watch out, you better not cry, better not pout, I’m telling you why, Santa Claus’ alter ego mayust whack you with a stainless steel candy cane! Okay…that’s not true, but he will find the exaggeration
funny as he does so many things. What is true though, is that he is the real Santa. I know that some may
scoff and proclaim there is no Santa, but those people have never met Richard Baxter Jr. Most people
though just call him Santa. He even has a belt buckle he wears year-round that reads Santa and is a card-
carrying Santa which he takes with him so he can prove he’s the sleigh riding jolly man when children
ask.Every day 365 days a year, he looks like, acts like and even laughs like Santa. But more than that, he
believes in the spirit of Christmas and the true meaning of the season every one of those days. He is a
reminder to each of us why we should truly celebrate and to also never forget that the innocence of a
child can teach us all that magic does exist if we just believe it does.“If it weren’t for the birth of Jesus, we would be out of a gig,” he quipped. He shares that meaning in all
other areas of his life by being an example of a giving person throughout the year. It’s almost as though
he was born with the spirit of Christmas; he was even born on December 25 and has been fascinated
with the holiday since he was a child.

Photos Courtesy of Amber Gregg Photography. To view more of her work, visit www.ambergreggphotography.com

You are who again?
The fact that he naturally looks and laughs like the Santa most of us envision just reinforces the belief
that he is Mr. Claus. The first time I saw Baxter, I told the person I was with that he looked like Santa.
Unbeknownst to me, he was behind me. Then a voice from behind me bellowed out, ‘well that’s
because I am Santa,’ followed by a ho-ho. Of course he was referring to what people call him, but still,
the image of Santa I have always had was very close to Baxter’s normal appearance. He even rolls his
mustache and has “Santa street clothes” which he wears for any season. Whenever he happens upon a
child and is out of his Santa suit and the child remarks he looks like Santa but is not dressed like him, he
always has a story about how he is Santa. He is just out checking on the naughty and nice list or that he
had to meet with toy makers. One might say he never misses an opportunity to be himself.

“It took off like wildfire”

Baxter is also a member of the Amalgamated Order of Real Bearded Santas and takes the role of the
holiday character very seriously. Although he portrays the actual character in costume only part-time, he
is the spirit of Christmas full-time. It’s difficult to imagine for most how someone could play a character
year round, and so it makes sense that they wouldn’t believe. But that’s just it, it’s no act. That spirit of
giving and laughter is with him wherever he might be at the moment. I had the privilege of working with
him for two years at Webco Industries’ Stainless Division, and during that time, I never called him by his
legal name or heard anyone else do it either. He was always Santa. He treated every single person with
kindness and respect. He always conducted himself with humility and had a bellow of laughter that was

Photos Courtesy of Amber Gregg Photography.

His Highness King Jolly
He moved here from Washington, where he participated in many holiday activities including mall Santa.
This is where he got his start 35 years ago as a professional Santa. This was back in the days of
Polaroid's, and the “gig” lasted three years. In addition, it allowed him to become the photo location
manager where he had seen as many as 9,000 children in just over a five-week period. He eventually
tired of the mall scene and started his own business doing home visits, which included nursing homes,
parties and holiday gatherings. He has continued that business here, and it has grown to include
parades, organizations, and retail gigs.
“It took off like wildfire,” he said. Even his wife Rebecca got in on the act as Mrs. Claus during a cruise
gig where he performed as the jolly gift giver. It is during this cruise that he knighted a young boy as the
elf Sonic using a candy cane. This, he said, is one of his favorite memories as Santa, because the child
had suffered tragedy in his life involving his parents and this small act of kindness was a gift to that child
that made Christmas be the way it should for all children, Baxter expressed. He added that being Santa
is his legacy, a way to live on after ha has passed. Every person in which he interacts, takes a photo with
or who watches him with children keeps a little piece of him with them. It truly is an amazing experience
that one keeps with them always.

An ambassador of Goodwill
It should be noted that a professional Santa can work year round and make good money if he is willing
to travel. But Baxter would rather make sacrifices so that he can be close to home and care for Rebecca
who has health issues. Just another example of how he puts others before himself. Of course, what else
would one expect from the real Santa? He is a true believer in “the magic” of Christmas and that keeping
Christ in Christmas is Santa’s job; an ambassador of sorts for its true meaning.

He has a long list of activities this holiday season, and so he will be around the area spreading cheer and
making children smile. And though I can’t promise you will meet him while he is out and about, I can
promise that you will realize he is the true Santa if you do meet him. He won’t be the one with a fake
beard asking for a donation in front of the mall, but the one offering to share the true spirit of Christmas
with you between bellows of ho-ho-ho and granting wishes with his stainless steel candy cane. Merry
Christmas to all and to all a good night!

Oklahoma’s Own The Church Studio Former Stomping Grounds of Leon Russell

Oklahoma’s Own The Church Studio Former Stomping Grounds of Leon Russell


CL Harmon, Lead Author, Osage Nation Member




As she sat there amid the hustle and bustle of the diner’s morning breakfast rush sporting a red Church Studio tee and a slight sense of anxiety, I couldn’t help but feel as though I was sitting with a celebrity. Dipping her tea bag into a hot cup of water, she soon appeared relieved to have made her appointment with me and offered a warm smile once we were seated. She had already been meeting people since 7 a.m., and it was now 10, and she was right on time. I admit I felt a bit nervous at first, but that feeling soon faded as we began to converse. I had been hoping for quite some time to have the opportunity to write about Teresa Knox. I learned some time ago about her and believed that she is the very definition of vision; a woman who sees value in what is broken, beauty in what is decaying and faith in what can be. With a fresh cup of coffee before me and pen in hand, I jotted down bits and pieces of her life in my notebook. Each stroke of the pen confirmed my belief that I certainly was in the presence of vision.

Allow Me To Introduce Teresa Knox

Although I consider her a celebrity, she would never refer to herself that way. The reason is, in part, because she is too humble to see herself that way and partly because she is too gracious to admit it even if she did. She would probably say that she is a person who finds purpose in everything she does; a person raised on the wrong side of the tracks who understands we define ourselves by our actions, not our circumstances. For those who may not know her name, she can be recognized from her accomplishments and causes. The list reads as an impressive resume of ingenuity and preservation. We met to talk about her latest project, the restoration and eventual reopening of famous Tulsa musician Leon Russell’s recording studio The Church Studio which she purchased in 2016. And, we will get to that project soon. But to understand her reason for taking on such a challenging project, it is necessary to know about Knox, the person.

She is the founder of Community Care, Oklahoma Technical and Clary Sage Colleges in Tulsa. She founded Community Care first under the name of Dental Directions, The School of Dental Assisting which she started while working as a dental assistant. She got into this profession at 18 years of age after growing up in what she called “poor.” She explained that people in that type of situation often live with low self-esteem and tend to make poor choices due to that feeling. Unlike many people in her situation who found escapes in drug dependency or crime, she had a willingness to work hard and to let her mistakes become a teacher. She spent three years as a carhop for Sonic Drive-In building a work ethic and learning business lessons from books she checked out from the library that still follow her to this day. These experiences gave her the confidence to move in a new direction.

Becoming A Better Decision Maker

“Dental assisting probably saved my life,” Knox said. Initially heading down a negative path in life, the profession gave her a sense of pride and self-worth that had been lacking in her life to that point. This new perspective allowed her to become what she called “a better decision maker” which ultimately led to her as an advocate for others who needed an opportunity to make better decisions in their lives. She realized early in her chosen profession that she had a knack for training and decided to market that skill. So she placed a four dollar ad in the classified ads of Tulsa World offering to train people to become dental assistants. As a young single mom working in a dental practice, she borrowed some equipment from the dentist for whom she was working and began training people at her Riverside Drive apartment on Saturdays. Things were going well…for a while anyway, she explained. Then her first snag hit when the state attorney general sent her a “nasty” letter informing her she was operating a school illegally and would have to stop and pay back the money she had accepted from her students.

The School of Hard Knox

“I was scared. I was devastated. I didn’t know I had to be licensed.” She said. She then spoke with her employer and offered to work for free if he would allow her to use his office to teach her dental assisting classes. He agreed, and she became licensed a short time later eventually turning that into the for-profit school Dental Directions. From that endeavor, Community Care College was developed with the other two schools following a few years later. With her confidence and desire to give others opportunities, she, along with others who shared her vision, created a learning legacy that continually grows while offering multiple programs of varied studies to hundreds of students each year. The schools have produced thousands of graduates since its inception in 1995.

“I made so many mistakes. But I would build on each success, and I learned from trial and error. I have a silly blog called ‘The School of Hard Knox’ a play on my last name and it literally was the school of hard knocks.” She quipped. She added that she loves to work with start-up businesses now and share all she has learned. She admits that she was a “screw-up” and knows how difficult it is to keep going when money is tight, and entrepreneurs can’t afford to pay for services such as attorneys and accountants that are so beneficial to business owners. She used her knowledge and experience to help business owners understand that the business principles of old are still the best. Treating others better than you want to be treated, the customer is always right, giving back to the community and truly showing gratitude are just a few of the ideas she offers to others. These, along with perseverance, are what bring about success, she said.

“I made so many mistakes. But I would build on each success, and I learned from trial and error. I have a silly blog called ‘The School of Hard Knox’ a play on my last name and it literally was the school of hard knocks.”

Graduating To Greater Things

“At our 20 year anniversary, I was going to sell the colleges, and then I just chickened out. I panicked. I thought about it, prayed about it and went to bed one night to awaken with the decision to make the organization a non-profit. It made sense. We employed the most generous team, hadn’t raised tuition in over a decade, gave millions away in scholarships, and I really felt like we were running a mission at the campus,” Knox said. It took two years to make the change, but upon completion, she stepped down as CEO, moved out of operations and voted on to become a board member. She had been tied to the schools for over 20 years, and now they would no longer be a part of her daily life. She found herself in a “funk” and realized that she was going through the grieving process. She also realized that the future was waiting with open arms.

She was already enjoying commercial real estate development but wanted to expand that business and pursue her love of historical preservation. She first purchased a property near the historic Circle Cinema in Tulsa and began restoring that with a friend. Soon to follow was various properties in the Pearl District including the Church Studio. Her love of Leon Russell’s music would be the hook, and the studio would be her greatest historical catch.

Finding A New Church

“First off, I am a huge Leon Russell fan. He was so talented, and I don’t think a lot of people truly realize the talent that he was. He wasn’t just a singer but a brilliant songwriter, composer, and entrepreneur. He was a top musician in the country in 1972 and could have gone anywhere. But, he chose to come back to his hometown. That alone is incredible,” she said. For her, it was as though she was drawn to The Church Studio as almost hearing Russell’s melody of ‘Stranger in a Strange Land’ beckoning her to turn the forgotten stranger into a new friend. With a nudge from her big brother, Larry-another huge Leon Russell fan—she found herself driving past it and even picking up the garbage that drifted onto the property. She sought out the owner and bought the studio without even going inside.

“At that point, I wanted it so badly! I wanted to bring it back to its original glory. I wanted it to be a positive reflection on Leon Russell.” He hadn’t passed away at that time but did a couple of months later. Russell had turned the church into a studio in the spring of 1972. It was also home office to Shelter Records. Russell closed the studio in 1976, and it was eventually sold. Knox purchased the studio in August of 2016 and decided to breathe new life into a withering landmark. She did not know Russell and was “purely a fan” but held his legacy in high regard as someone who mentored and propelled so many artists including Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, Dwight Twilley, and the Gap Band to stardom and for developing the “Tulsa Sound” with Tulsa native singer/songwriter J.J. Cale. Famed guitarist Eric Clapton would pick up this sound and record Cale’s songs ‘After Midnight’ and ‘Cocaine.’ Lynyrd Skynyrd would also record his song ‘Call Me The Breeze.’ Leon’s magnetism and the other Tulsa Sound musicians like Walt Richmond, David Teegarden, Carl Radle, Jamie Oldaker, Jimmy Markham, and Chuck Blackwell to name a few also attracted greats to Oklahoma such as Willie Nelson, Tom Petty, Bob Seger, Peter Tosh, Freddy King, George Harrison, Ringo Starr, Kansas, Eric Clapton, Taj Mahal, Bob Dylan, and Bonnie Raitt.

“I not only want to honor Leon’s legacy but have a place that inspires a younger generation of musicians and is an incubation center for these artists. I am very excited about this and believe the studio will be a destination for veteran musicians and new talent alike,” she said. The studio will be an analog, and digital state-of-the-art recording studio after the restoration is complete next year. She has hopes to make The Church Studio a beautiful and functional facility that can compete with the major studios around the world. In addition, Knox has also been able to get the studio listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is making it the home to the Church Studio Archive, a 4,000 piece collection associated with Leon Russell, The Tulsa Sound, Shelter Records, and the historic church.

Charity Begins At Home

There is also The Church Studio Music Foundation which focuses on the preservation of the studio as a landmark, the legacy of Leon Russell, the promotion of the Tulsa Sound and engage the general public through music, programs, film, video, recording, and activities. She is an avid lover of her home city of Tulsa.

She has recently completed the restoration of a historical building in the Kendall Whittier neighborhood and is in the process of restoring the Harwelden Mansion in Tulsa. The three-story mansion was built in 1923 by Tulsa oilman and philanthropist Earl Harwell. In recent years it has been used to host weddings, fundraisers, and other events. Knox plans to keep that tradition, along with adding a boutique hotel element, while preserving its historical significance. “In the future, I’d like to continue identifying historic properties that need attention, care and love and bring them back to relevance,” she said.

Writer’s Church Sermon

Much can be said about Knox, much more than can be written here. Her life with its interests, passions, and beliefs weave together in this complex and beautiful pattern making it difficult to categorize her and explain her with a simple definition. This pattern of hers connects and reconnects to everything in her life continually building a legacy while preserving the legacies of so many others and then offering the opportunities for so many more to create new legacies. Whether it’s a student from one of the schools she founded, a new musician who will be given a chance to make a mark in the music world, a historian who appreciates her restoration efforts or just a fan who believes he had coffee and tea with a celebrity at a Tulsa diner, I believe we could all agree that landmarks are created when someone takes the time, effort and passion to build them. Teresa Knox has become one of those Tulsa landmarks. I bet Leon would be proud!

For more information about The Church Studio and its history, visit https://thechurchstudio.com/

To learn more about The Church Studio Foundation, visit https://thechurchstudio.com/foundation/

Teresa Knox has kindly donated some items that we will give away! To join the giveaway click here: https://uniquelahoma.com/go/the-church-studio-giveaway/

People Are Freaking Out After Hearing the History of Halloween

People Are Freaking Out After Hearing the History of Halloween

Trick or treaters with their little pumpkin buckets or brown bags soliciting candy, tales of a headless horseman stalking the innocent in the chilly air of darkness.

Horror movies that bring to life the ghouls and goblins that rest dormant in our psyches have all different meanings for each of us on the night we call Halloween.

But to countless others, it has meant many different things over the last several thousand years.

The Real History of Halloween

It appears that the holiday originated umpteen centuries ago as a holiday of a different sort by the Celts who called it Samhain or their new year on October 31 as part of their belief, came the notion that the dead could walk the earth on that day stirring up mischief with their free pass to leave the realm of the dead and walk among the living.

Not to mention as well, that their presence made it easier for the Druid priests to predict the future. Perhaps a few secrets from the other side made it a little easier to know what’s coming just around the corner.

The Activities to Die For

As Samhain festivities progressed, a big bonfire would be built and sacrifices were made to the dead, while the locals would dress up in animal skins and try to tell their own fortunes. The skins would go on to become early costumes which were destined to become one of Halloween’s most enduring traditions.

Only for them, without the specialty shops and Walmarts in which to pick the most frightening skin. Their purpose was probably intended to either to calm the spirits or to blend in with them, as to not incur their wrath.

In A.D. 43 the Roman war machine felt like dancing with the dead too and so after rolling through Britain, conquering a large population of the Celtic people.

The Romans, always the master conquerors, blended two of their own holidays with the Celtic Samhain to make the transition to Roman rule more seamless.

After paganism lost its luster and the Romans found Christianity, the holiday would find a new direction where they could bend its meaning into a holiday fit for a prospering religion.

Like their pagan predecessors, the Christians incorporated their own holidays into the Samhain tradition. November 1 became All-hallow’s, a day to celebrate the saints and martyrs and October 31st became All-hallow’s Even (“Even” being short for “evening,” but providing the “n” in “Halloween”).


Halloween in a New Country

Through the course of time with different people putting their specific twangs and dialects towards and meanings, all-hallow’s even became Halloween.

By the time America rolled on to the world scene, the Halloween holiday had become a well-established holiday and as with all good holidays. Everyone adds a little of their own personality to the tradition. But it didn’t happen right away. Puritans in New England suppressed the superstitious holiday and fun became a dirty word.

But hanging witches did seem to catch on in a big way. In the South, down in the land of cotton (candy) where old times there were not forgotten, the Puritans could just look away, look away and look away some more because religious piety was a bit less important down there and so Halloween continued on American soil and was celebrated in much the same way as in Europe.

As the melting pot of America became a big kettle of witch’s brew stew with the great migration of immigration in the late 1800s, new life was given to the holiday and no amount of piety was going to keep sugar-loving citizens from their date with the dead…be them spirits Christian or pagan.

The holiday prospered and developed yet another personality. Through the years, the old meanings of Halloween slipped away and were replaced with a more wholesome community feel where trick-or-treating, horror films, costume parties, creepy home and yard decorations and of course the occasional Halloween prank became the holiday that defines its meaning we all know today.

As for the tradition of pumpkins and jack- o’- lanterns, a legend of old also appears to be at its root.

According to an Irish myth, a man named Stingy Jack once had a drink with the devil and when he didn’t want to pay for it, convinced the devil to turn into a coin.

However, Stingy Jack lived up to his name and pocketed the coin next to a cross, keeping the devil locked in a monetary state until he struck a deal with Jack to leave him alone and not claim his soul for Hell upon his death.

When Jack did die, Heaven rejected him and–true to his word–so did the Devil. But giving the devil his due, he proclaimed as punishment for Stingy Jack’s trickery, that Jack be out to wander the earth forever with a single coal in a hollowed-out turnip to light his way.

To Irish children, he was Jack of the Lantern. But Jack-o’-lanterns were not a part of Halloween celebrations in Britain; it would take a new country to cement that tradition.

However making vegetable lanterns can be traced back to the British Isles, where carving turnips, beets, and potatoes had been a fall tradition for many centuries. Pumpkins became a favorite in America because they were bigger and easier to carve.

The first mention of a Jack-o’- lantern being part of a Halloween celebration comes from a Canadian newspaper, which in 1866, wrote: “The old time custom of keeping up Hallowe’en was not forgotten last night by the youngsters of the city.

They had their maskings and their merry-makings and perambulated the streets after dark in a way which was no doubt amusing to themselves. There was a great sacrifice of pumpkins from which to make transparent heads and face, lighted up by the unfailing two inches of tallow candle.”

And so the ages have spoken leaving each new generation a bit of its darker side in which to ponder. A new tale to be told of a trick or possibly a treat in the darkness of night with all its ghosts and goblins of the past.

Oklahoma Restaurant Gives Former Inmates a New Lease on Life

Oklahoma Restaurant Gives Former Inmates a New Lease on Life

Angela Ellis’ Garden Grows Prosperity & Harvests Hope

CL Harmon, Lead Author, Osage Nation Member

22 March 2016

Saying that something is criminal has been an expression that gets tossed around to describe a situation in a negative light. But Angela Ellis of Tulsa is giving a whole new meaning to that old expression…and it tastes so good it ought to be illegal.

“I wanted to create a business model that directly affected the women in the state of Oklahoma that were coming out of incarceration,” Ellis said. She had some insight that most people aren’t aware of because of her job with the Oklahoma State Department of Career Tech where she worked in economic development on the state level. In this capacity, she learned that every industry in the state had issues with acquiring a quality workforce. The issue got her thinking about a solution which led to the realization that an entire sector of the population was overlooked. This was an idea that she would put to good use at a later date.

She would eventually move from Lawton to Tulsa where she found it difficult to gain employment in her chosen field. Ellis would turn this problem into an opportunity to put her theory of utilizing that overlooked sector of the population to the test. She began her first business out of her church and started the Sugar Rush Bakery. But instead of looking at resumes when it was time to hire employees, she began looking at ex-convicts. She knows that it is difficult for people who make good choices to succeed in life and so it must be exceedingly more difficult for those with a criminal record. This knowledge brought her to the realization that she had to do something to help these people. She believes in her heart that these people deserve an opportunity to better themselves if they are willing to try.

System Failure

“The system is set up for these people to fail and go right back to what they were doing that initially landed them in prison,” Ellis said. She explained that she began focusing on women who had children. As a mother of four, she understood the desire for these women coming out of prison to provide for their children. They needed a chance to prove they could be productive parents and members of society; a virtually impossible objective to achieve when every employment door is slammed on them because of their history.

She believes in this endeavor as being a recipe for success, and she has been right. The bakery was working, and for over 2.5 years she was able to employ women in a part-time capacity. But this was not enough. She understood that if these women were ever going to be able to make it, they would need full-time employment. Last year she took a huge leap of faith and began setting up shop in a brick and mortar that would be her very own. Eight weeks ago Le Jardin Eatery opened in Bixby staffed with ex-convicts and a menu full of unique cuisine. Sugar Rush Bakery is also still in operation and continues operating out of her church.

A Different Perspective

Not all of her employees are ex-convicts, but they are the majority, Ellis noted. She further knew that the spectrum for those who needed a helping hand extended beyond those with felonies. These include substance abusers, those suffering from poverty and others with dramatic life-changing events. An example of such an event might be a divorced housewife with no marketable skills to enter the workforce. All of these people deserve a chance to prove themselves, Ellis stated. She has an old-fashioned view when it comes to hiring. She looks at the person and sees their capabilities, willingness to succeed and drive as opposed to so many businesses in today’s job market that focus on education, experience, and appearance. She has even hired those who have committed violent crimes because she feels that if these people seek her out for employment as opposed to returning to a criminal element, they are attempting to make a positive go for the future.

Her compassion aside, Ellis is a realist and will do what she must when employees don’t follow the rules. Le Jardin and Sugar Rush Bakery are businesses after all, and there are expectations to be met. In addition, she does not tolerate gossip and attitudes reflecting ‘that’s not my job.’ Those are quick tickets to unemployment because she knows that for the endeavors to succeed, they must be a family and work as a team. She explained that those who struggle with drug addiction are the ones most likely to fail, but as long as they make an effort she will help them. As a Christian, she reaches out to these people and goes beyond just being an employer. She talks with them, reads devotionals at work, offers to take them to court dates and even provide raise incentives to those willing to take classes which offer betterment to their lives.

“I love doing this. It’s rewarding, frustrating and heart-wrenching at the same time. But it’s an honor to get to serve the Lord. For me, it’s a privilege to impact someone else’s life in a positive way, but there is no pedestal in the workplace upon which I stand because we are all sinners and I am very transparent and talk with them about mine”

A Labor of Love

“I love doing this. It’s rewarding, frustrating and heart-wrenching at the same time. But it’s an honor to get to serve the Lord. For me, it’s a privilege to impact someone else’s life in a positive way, but there is no pedestal in the workplace upon which I stand because we are all sinners and I am very transparent and talk with them about mine,” Ellis said. She keeps a humble attitude, following the Christian fundamental of humility. She leads by example even keeping with the dress code she expects of her employees. She asks nothing of them that she will not do herself and treats them with the same respect she expects.

“I believe this my calling,” Ellis said. She seems to have taken this calling with open arms. Her life is revolved around helping others to live happier and healthier lives. In addition to helping ex-convicts and down-trodden, she has even started a non-profit organization to help anyone. Life’s Food – Nourishment for the Soul takes ones’ spirituality, family, intelligence, recreation and physical fitness then analyzes each to see how each can be better. It focuses on the whole person and works on the philosophy that each person is a circle. For the circle to remain unbroken, there must be a balance in the person’s life. The organization works to help people find and maintain that balance. They accomplish this by teaching classes about finances, parenting and other aspects of life educating them as to methods that help them find and maintain that balance. It also offers fellowship with others which opens the doors for friendships and social activities. Ellis funds this organization through profits from her bakery and restaurant. She has recently begun fundraising as the organization continues to grow.

Time Served

As for that taste which is so good, it should be criminal; Le Jardin offers what she calls global cuisine. She explained that is a compilation of her children’s favorite foods and hers which is comprised mostly of breakfast foods. She also wanted to add a European café feel with a variety of coffees and serving breakfast and brunch all day. They have a smoked salmon eggs Benedict, Belgium waffles, hot cakes filled with ricotta cheese served with maple bacon syrup, caramelized bananas and fresh berries and a big breakfast burger with a fried egg to name a few. She said the food is amazing and quips “it’s almost like a five-star restaurant…almost.”

“You can’t compare us to other nice restaurants because our mission is different. We are more of a training ground than one of the four or five-star restaurants in Tulsa that focus heavily on both food and service. We may look like one of those restaurants when you walk in and taste like one when you eat, but our service has had its challenges. But we are overcoming that challenge,” Ellis said. Oh, and if you are wondering what Le Jardin means, it translates to ‘The Garden’ in French. A fitting name considering Ellis uses hydroponic towers to grow her herbs and is preparing to buy property where she will grow a full garden to supply the restaurant. Of course, there is the connection to the Garden of Eden too which Ellis also mentioned during the interview.

Saint & Sinner

During the interview, the topic of how one person can make a difference, even change the world came up. What was so interesting to me was not that we share this view, but the realization that so few people seem to place faith in those who have failures or are lost in misfortune. Ellis not only realized this but chose to become that one person who would help change the world. She has made a difference by changing the world of everyone she employs and that offers them an opportunity to do the same in another’s life. You might say she is a saint with just enough sinner in her to know falling in the garden makes convicts of us all, but falling doesn’t always have to be a life sentence.

Le Jardin Eatery is located at 12345 S. Memorial Drive and is open 6 am to 3 pm Tuesday – Sunday.