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May 1, 2011

Former radio broadcaster now dedicates time to recording oral history

CLAREMORE — John Erling, long-time radio broadcaster in the Tulsa area, was one of Oklahoma’s voices for three decades. Now he is dedicated to preserving the historical voices of Oklahoma for posterity.

Erling is the founder of the Preserving Oklahoma’s Legacy Institute and Voices of Oklahoma. The Voices of Oklahoma web site, www.voicesofoklahoma.com, debuted last spring and is dedicated to preserving the voices and the stories of Oklahoma’s oral history.

“I am the boy who turned into a bear...” says N. Scott Momaday, in John Erling’s recent interview with the writer, artist, and teacher.

Born in Lawton, Momaday is enrolled in the Kiowa Tribe of Oklahoma but also has Cherokee roots on his mother’s side. He won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1969 for “House Made of Dawn,” a novel attributed with creating a resurgence of interest in Native American literature. He is the Oklahoma Centennial Poet Laureate.

Momaday is only one of the many voices of modern history Erling is recording.

Erling describes himself as a “voice collector” and “story collector.”

“This is not necessarily for the rich and famous,” said Erling, who said he will continue to collect voices of Oklahomans both famous and ordinary citizens. “There are hundreds of stories.”

Ironically, advances in technology make Erling’s collection in the tradition of oral history possible. Today’s technology allows the voices of modern history to be put on the internet for everyone, including voices of people like Henry Bellmon and Wilma Mankiller who are no longer with us.

“Having been in radio for 45 years, 30 years at KRMG, obviously voices are very interesting to me because that’s all you have to project is voices, so I’ve always been very voice conscious,” said Erling. “I thought, ‘wouldn’t it have been interesting if we could have heard the voices of Thomas Jefferson and George Washington?’”

That idea has become a passion that drives Erling. In particular, he attempts to meet with and record our elders, those whom time deems are the most vulnerable, before their voices are lost.

Babies born today will appreciate having those voices down the road, said Erling.

While books have been written about many of the people he records, Erling believes that voice “adds another dimension.”

“It comes from the heart,” he said.

It is important that the stories are accurate so Erling lets people tell their own stories.

“I let them speak, and they do that,” he said.

Erling interviews people weekly.

“In 2009, I started interviewing people for this web site. Unfortunately, since I started interviewing people for this web site, five people (interviewed) have died.”

He believes it is very important to talk to these people before their voices are lost to us.

Locally, Frank Robson of RCB Bank has been interviewed and will be on the web site soon.

The late Justice Marian P. Opala died just four days after Erling’s interview in October last year. Opala served as Justice of the Oklahoma Supreme Court for 32 years after being appointed by then Governor David Boren in 1978.

In some cases, people may think some of these Oklahoma elders have already passed on or younger generations may not realize who they are.

“That’s what I hope to do, is bring these people out,” said Erling. “Charles Banks Wilson turns 92. I’m sure a lot of people didn’t know he was still around. N. Scott Momaday, hopefully, it will make students want to read his books. He won the Pulitzer Prize. He’s still writing and very active.”

In addition to preserving their voices,  Erling’s oral history on the internet brings these people to the attention of a new generation.

“A lot of these folks have had books written about them, but I guarantee you I will get more people listening to them now than will probably read about them in books, thanks to the internet.”

Because the project is about preserving oral history, Erling does not deal with video, but slide shows of photographs do accompany the voices as they tell their stories.

Erling wants the next generation to hear Charles Banks Wilson, for example, talk about his life and work. Wilson “painted pictures that are in the state capitol and painted Will Rogers in life,” said Erling.

“He talks about those murals and you’ll be looking at those murals as he’s talking about it.”

Erling went to New Mexico to interview Momaday. He learns as much as possible about the person and his or her life, work and interests before an interview.

“I do as much research on them as possible,” said Erling.

Those details allow him to lead the conversation and get people talking.

“The preparation is real key to it,” he said.

In the case of a lesser known person whose biography might not be available he will research the era. Erling wants to record as many World War II veterans as possible. He has also interviewed Holocaust survivors such as Oklahoman Eva Unterman whose recordings detail the history of the Holocaust as a Polish Jew who survived. Eva and her parents were liberated in 1945.

Erling said during his years on the radio, he didn’t really think about the historic value of his work.

“We’re forced to deal with history when were in high school or college,” he said, then life gets in the way.

Erling said we get busy with our lives, our families and our jobs. When we are older, we are more likely to turn to history again.

He did some oral history with his father and is grateful to have those recordings. Recording family history is something he highly recommends to people.

“I set microphones up with family members years ago.“

Erling said he’s become so passionate about recording these histories that he has to get out of the house to get away from it.

“I’m free to think about these things. It’s my only job,” he said. “I’ve put more hours into this job than any job I’ve had.”

Students of history and those who value the contributions of the people he’s recording will be forever grateful. It’s a lasting legacy that’s available for anyone who will take a few minutes to click on the web site and listen.

Just sit and listen, and hear the history of our state, our nation, our world.

For Erling, there’s a long way to go before he’s done.

“I have a long long list that have been suggested by many people,” he said.

His work will continue, “As long as I have life to breathe...”

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