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Wes Watkins: Still Making Things Better
New biography relays a life of service from a hardscrabble chidhood to the top of Capitol Hill
By Holly Bergbower
Wes Watkins is somewhat of a fixture on the Oklahoma State University campus. Because it's such a commonplace occurrence, it's easy to forget that he was an influential congressman for 20 years, serving on the three most powerful committees: Appropriations Committee, Budget Committee, and Ways and Means Committee. Watkins' journey has the makings of a movie and is chronicled in a new book by OSU alumnus Kim D. Parrish — Making Things Better: Wes Watkins' Legacy of Leadership.
Parrish’s book about Watkins’ life is peppered with intriguing behind-the-scenes thoughts titled, “Words from Wes,” regarding notable influences in his life (teachers and mentors) and thoughts on famed politicians (President Jimmy Carter and Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill, for example) and finishes with Watkins’ tactics and strategies regarding many of his policy positions. In talking with Watkins and reading the book, two things are certain: Wes Watkins has an almost tangible pull to help those in need and a passion for his beloved university, to which he attributes a great deal of his success and drive.
Watkins’ humble beginnings did nothing to hint at his storied future, although they had everything to do with shaping the man he’d become. He was born in Arkansas, but grew up in the small town of Bennington in southeast Oklahoma. His alcoholic father was mostly absent, and his mother did her best to keep the family going. Watkins, along with his two siblings, knew what it was to struggle in poverty. That struggle sank deep into his bones and served as a compass and passion that would drive his life. Watkins cites two influences on his life that made all the difference: “Our creator, of course, had the greatest influence on my life and my vo-ag teacher, Mr. Harold Chitwood.”
Bennington High School established an FFA chapter when Watkins was in the eighth grade. His older brother had already joined, and Watkins was intrigued by the travel and camaraderie. Wes Watkins’ first FFA trip was to Stillwater, where he was inspired by the state president’s speech. A dream began to grow in his mind, one that he shared with Chitwood — Watkins wanted to be FFA president someday. To Watkins’ surprise, Chitwood did not discourage him from pursuing that dream. Instead, he gave the young man with a fairly serious speech impediment articles to read aloud in class to practice public speaking.
FFA lent a structure to the young man’s life that hadn’t existed. And he did go on to realize that first big dream of becoming FFA president. Along the way, that blue and gold jacket with the emblem served to transform Watkins much like Superman’s cape transforms Clark Kent — it built up a boy who had come from very little into a young leader.
In 1956, Watkins made his way to Oklahoma A&M with $88 in his pocket and a drive to succeed. He found work at the poultry farm on the west side of campus and talked his way into living in a vacant room above the chicken coops.
His job began every morning at 4 a.m. for two years. Still, he managed to become involved on campus, including being elected to the student senate. Meanwhile, he was moving up in the world — or at least out of the chicken coop. He moved to the campus infirmary, where he again rose early to clean, but his lodgings were decidedly less odorous. During a hotly contested OSU Student Government Association presidential election in 1960, Watkins ran against Dan Draper, who later became Speaker of the Oklahoma House. Watkins came away the winner with a strong personal appeal.
At OSU, Watkins’ name often followed “president.” He was also elected president of the state FFA; Agriculture Student Council; Blue Key and Phi Delta Kappa, along with serving as chancellor of Alpha Zeta, the honorary agriculture fraternity.
While working on his master’s and doctoral degrees, his popularity on campus garnered him a coveted job as the head doorman of Edmon Low Library. There he met a serious young coed who would change his world. Encouraged by her reading selections of political science books, Watkins thought he had an opportunity to visit with young Lou Rogers based on a mutual interest. Lou, on the other hand, did not share that sentiment and promptly turned him down when he asked her on a date. In true Watkins’ fashion, he was undeterred and eventually the two began dating.
Watkins’ pluck and reputation as a hard worker took the Bennington boy on his next adventure where he would learn where real change could be made. Pfizer Pharmaceutical Scholarships were granted to outstanding graduate students from land grant schools with a high aptitude in rural development research. Watkins fit the criteria perfectly. The scholarship allowed him to choose the university to complete his doctoral studies. Watkins chose the University of Maryland because of its strong rural development program. The university was only 18 miles from the nation’s capital and allowed him to work as a data analyst in downtown Washington, D.C., for the Department of Agriculture.
While he was soaking up the political policy happening all around him, he longed for Lou, who was in Missouri, earning her degree. Watkins proposed and navigated his ’58 Chevy Impala in an ice storm to St. Louis to present Lou with an engagement ring. They were married June 9, 1963.
The couple lived in a travel trailer in Maryland and continued their studies, Lou at American University and Wes at the University of Maryland. Those studies were soon interrupted by a job offer from OSU President Oliver Willham.
Oklahoma State University regents voted to dedicate a campus position to recruitment, and Willham knew just the man for the job. Watkins left Maryland without completing his doctorate to become the first and only (at the time) high school recruiter for OSU. He traveled annually to every high school in Oklahoma, offering up encouragement and advice as well as assistance in finding jobs, housing and scholarship money. The couple enjoyed their life in Stillwater immensely and knew they’d someday return, but the next chapter in their life was beginning.
While working as a homebuilder in Ada, Oklahoma, and beginning a family, Watkins reflected on a memorable college conversation: “I can’t remember who asked, I wish I could, but someone asked me when I was going to run for office?” Watkins says. That question had long been hunkered down in the back of his mind. He began attending area Democratic meetings and rallies and making connections that would serve him well.
In 1974, Watkins entered the race for the state Senate. While Watkins learned from his time in the chamber, he chafed against the limitations to affect change. So in 1976 when Carl Albert, a McAlester congressman who was Speaker of the House, decided not to run for re-election, Watkins pounced on the chance to influence legislation at the national level for those living in poverty or lacking in job opportunities.
Entering a crowded race, Watkins declared he was not beholden to any party, a sentiment he stands by today. Mirroring his college election days, Watkins forged a grassroots campaign reaching out to his FFA, church and community connections. His was a familiar face; his constituents knew what he was about and where he came from. Watkins won that election and joined the likes of other freshmen representatives Al Gore and Dick Gephardt.
He went on to serve a total of 20 years in the House and constantly worked toward “making things better” for those living in poverty. In an interview, Watkins says, “What I’m most proud of accomplishing during my time in Congress is changing the culture from ‘woe is me’ to solving problems or to a ‘can do’ attitude.
We were able to create an economic infrastructure in the most poverty-stricken area of the state.”
Since his retirement from politics, Watkins and his wife have focused on the university that has meant so much to them. Lou Watkins presently chairs the Board of Regents for the Oklahoma Agricultural & Mechanical Colleges.
“I love this place; I just have such a passion for OSU,” Wes Watkins says, “It’s opened so many doors for me.”
That passion for the university comes with Watkins’ trademark “dig in and get it done” drive. The purpose of his new book is not an endeavor in vanity or even reflection—it serves a purpose. Book sale proceeds go to Watkins’ nonprofit Matthew 25:40 Mission, which provides scholarships to OSU students wishing to work toward ending poverty and hunger issues around the globe.
The Matthew 25:40 Mission, established in 2010, strives to ignite the desire to serve those who have been forgotten or have lived in conditions that no human should have to endure. Students who have been benefactors of the scholarship speak highly of the time they’ve spent on medical, agricultural or other service-based missions.
Scholarship recipient Brianna Brassfield says, “Because of the Matthew 25:40 Service Scholarship, I was able to participate in a mission in Ghana, Africa, without financial concern. We were able to educate Ghanaian students about longterm resources for production and sustainability in agriculture.”
Brassfield is just one of many students who have been able to participate in improving the lives of those less fortunate thanks to the Matthew 25:40 Mission Scholarship. There are currently 12 scholarships available annually, and Watkins hopes to double that number. He continues to search out solutions and put them into practice.
“I’ve learned that you have to ask the next question, and you have to be willing to ask for help,” Watkins says. “If you ask for help, there are people at this university and connected to it who will help you, but you have to be willing to ask.”
For book proceeds to benefit Oklahoma State University Matthew 25:40 Service Scholarships, order Making Things Better: Wes Watkins' Legacy of Leadership for $25 from Matthew 25:40 Mission, P.O. Box 966, Stillwater, OK 74076.
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Uploaded on September 1, 2016