| June 2, 2011

‘Smile, Though Your Heart Is Breaking’

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 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.”

Then, 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.”

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.

As the years pass, I have agreed with McIntyre a few times, disagreed often. As a reporter, she is fun to cover, has an incredible smile, and often a hug to give. After next year’s session, Judy the cheerful warrior and cancer survivor will head to the door with dignity and her eclectic brand of Oklahoma principles intact. And, that smile.

Jabar 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.

Last year, state Rep. Shumate survived “an all-out war” with labor unions, who 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 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.”

He noted, “I have supported teacher union positions about 81 percent 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 children made them determined to defeat me. I know they donated $5,000 to my opponent. I am confident in saying that I can discern $65,000 to $70,000 in various forms of soft money they spent to defeat me. It didn’t work.”

Keep an eye on Jabar Shumate, and that smile.

A 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 successful 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, 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, and I learned the Tisdale boys (three of them, and Baptists) were graduates of grades 1 through 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.

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 sandbox. I wanted to build sandcastles. I didn’t want to play basketball.”

April 2011: The Knights in Oklahoma City cosponsored 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, was named NCAA men’s freshman basketball player of the year. A little star-struck, I shook hands with Toby Keith, and embraced Wayman’s beautiful widow, Regina.

But 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.

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.

Patrick McGuigan (M.A. in medieval history, Oklahoma State University) is editor of

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