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.
-CL