Heroes Journey

7 minutes

My friend Paul Ankenman is one of my heroes. Paul’s son Eric has been one of my best friends since the seventh grade, so I’ve had a lot of time to observe. Paul is a retired Oklahoma City firefighter who helped rescue people after the Oklahoma City Bombing. After the attacks on 9/11, Paul went with many of his comrades from the Oklahoma City Fire Department to help in rescues at the World Trade Center. While he was there, a journalist took a photo of Paul praying in the makeshift chapel set up at Ground Zero; you can’t see Paul’s face in the image, but if you know him, you know you’re looking at. The back hunched in exhaustion as well as strong faith is unmistakably him.

I’m lucky to know someone like Paul—in fact, I know several someones whom I’d call hero. Certainly I’ve got my own pantheon of mythological figures who’ve helped shape me: Maya Angelou, Bill Watterson, Tina Turner, David Bowie, James Baldwin, Rich Mullins, my uncle Earl McAfee—all heroes of mine for various reasons. But as I write this, it’s September 11, and I’m thinking about some of my heroes. Turns out, quite a few of them are from Oklahoma, and you can learn about them for yourself. So here are a few of my Okie heroes—and the places you can go to learn about them.

Thomas P. Stafford

Oklahoma has many heroic astronauts to choose from, but Thomas P. Stafford may have been my first actual hero. I mean—you try growing up in the same town as the guy who copiloted Apollo 10, commanded the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project, and shook hands with a Soviet cosmonaut in orbit of the moon. Stafford grew up in my hometown of Weatherford and already had accomplished all that and more by the time I was born. The house I grew up in was across the street from the Weatherford municipal airport, which today houses the Stafford Air & Space Museum, which is a Smithsonian-affiliated treasury of all things aerospace. In these 63,000 square feet, visitors can view test-fired Saturn V and Soviet N-1 rockets, watch a real working radial engine, and discover why the guns on World War I fighter planes didn’t destroy the propellers, to name just a few fascinations. It’s a perfect destination for your science-loving, future-astronaut kiddos.

Get There
Stafford Air & Space Museum, 3000 Logan Rd Weatherford, OK 73096 or TravelOK.com

Clara Luper

There is a special kind of pain that comes from feeling like you have to ask for basic human dignity, and Clara Luper knew that pain as well as anyone. The civil rights activist and educator grew up in Hoffman and went to school in the all-black town of Grayson before earning her degree at Langston University. Her personal experiences with racism and segregation resonated with the larger Civil Rights Movement happening nationwide, and Luper became the advisor for the Oklahoma City NAACP Youth Council. In addition to helping lead the famous Katz Drug Store sit-ins in Oklahoma City, Luper wrote and directed the play Brother President about Martin Luther King Jr.’s nonviolent philosophy—a play she was invited to stage for the NAACP in New York. She had a multi-decade teaching career, which alone qualifies her for hero status, and left a long legacy of civic involvement that continues to inspire Oklahomans today. The Freedom Center of Oklahoma City carries on Ms. Luper’s legacy and will open a five-acre campus in northeast Oklahoma City later this year. In the meantime, she is honored at the Oklahoma History Center, the Oklahoma Hall of Fame, and Greenwood Rising.

Get There
Oklahoma History Center, 800 Nazih Zuhdi Dr Oklahoma City, OK 73105 or TravelOK.com

Will Rogers

Will Rogers was the OG everything: The OG political pundit, OG comedian, OG movie star, OG multi-hyphenate, OG OG. I mean—in the time before smartphones, laptops, and even television sets in every home, Will Rogers was the biggest star on the planet, appearing in more than seventy films and writing thousands of syndicated newspaper columns. Known as “Oklahoma’s Favorite Son,” Rogers got his start in the Ziegfield Follies vaudville act before moving on to conquer all the media of his day. Before his death in a plane crash in 1935, Rogers had developed a reputation for speaking truth to power in a way that actually made people sit up and listen—a skill much needed in today’s times. Get to know him now by visiting the Will Rogers Memorial Museum in Claremore and the Will Rogers Birthplace Ranch near Oologah.

Get There
Will Rogers Memorial Museum, 1720 W Will Rogers Blvd Claremore, OK 74017 or TravelOK.com

Ralph Ellison

In 1965, a Book Week poll of two hundred authors, editors, and literary critics named Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man the most important book since World War II, and though quite a number of years have passed since then, in my mind, the distinction still stands. Ellison’s account of a young Black man’s experiences of prejudice is one of the most compelling American narratives there is, and if you haven’t read it, may I suggest you add it to the top of your list of must-read books? If you’d like to learn more about the man behind the words, visit Oklahoma City’s Ralph Ellison Library.

Get There
Ralph Ellison Library, 2000 NE 23rd Street in Oklahoma City or Visit the Ralph Ellison Library homepage
Written By
Nathan Gunter

A sixth-generation Oklahoman, Weatherford native, and Westmoore High School graduate, Nathan Gunter is the magazine's editor-in-chief. When he's not editor-in-chiefing, Nate enjoys live music, running, working out, gaming, cooking, and random road trips with no particular destination in mind. He holds degrees from Wake Forest University and the University of Oklahoma. He learned how to perform poetry from Maya Angelou; how to appreciate Italian art from Terisio Pignatti; comedy writing from Doug Marlette; how to make coconut cream pie from his great-grandma; and how not to approach farm dogs from trial and error. A seminary dropout, he lives just off Route 66 in Oklahoma City.

Nathan Gunter
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