Voices of the Past Whisper to the Future with John Erling

Author: C.L. Harmon
Category: People
Date Published: January 31, 2019
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.

C. L. Harmon

Lead Author

C.L. Har­mon a jour­nal­ist and author.

He Has worked for sev­er­al news­pa­pers as a reporter and was the man­ag­ing edi­tor for a dai­ly before start­ing his own paper, The Man­n­ford Reporter in Man­n­ford, Oklahoma. 

The Man­n­ford Reporter came with many life lessons and expe­ri­ences that I may share one day. For now my focus and my love is Uniquelahoma!

C.L. Harmon

C.L. Harmon

C.L. is an award-winning journalist who spent many years in the newspaper and freelance fields. In addition to holding reporting and editing positions throughout his career, he also owned and operated a newspaper for several years. He was born, raised, and continues to reside in Oklahoma.

1 Comment

  1. Spencer Heckathorn

    I’ve lis­tened to Mr. Erling for decades now. I used to lis­ten and think I want­ed to be a radio host. Thanks for all your years of ser­vice and I look for­ward to check­ing out the Voic­es of Oklahoma


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