May 26, 1978, remains the darkest day in the history of the Oklahoma Highway Patrol. Trooper Houston F. Summers, a Chelsea and Rogers County native, and two fellow officers lost their lives during an exchange of gun fire on a lonely country back road.
A pair of Oklahoma State Penitentiary escapees killed the three officers and wounded another in two separate shootouts before being killed themselves. Already referred to as “thrill killers”, both had sworn not to be taken back alive. That day’s infamous events ended a month long reign of terror in which five other people were killed over an area that stretched to Alabama.
While it has been almost 41 years since Summers’ death, several Chelsea residents and family members will not forget his sacrifice. Born and raised in the northern Rogers County community, Summers was the son of Frank and Nancy Summers. They owned and operated Summers Market. Sparky Summers, another son, would later purchase the business.
Houston Summers knew as a young man he wanted to join the Highway Patrol. He did so in 1946 at the age of 20. He was issued badge number 153. Shortly afterwards he was assigned to the Enid area.
Wherever he was stationed Summers quickly established the reputation as a firm and tough-but-fair officer. As his years of service climbed over the three decade mark he was respectfully tagged with the nickname “Pappy.”
It was a Friday the start of Memorial Day weekend. Normally Summers, age 62 at the time, and partner trooper Billy G. Young would have been performing regular duties as members of the Motor Inspection Division. Today, however, they and other troopers across the state were assigned to assist in the state-wide search for two escaped prisoners.
Claude Eugene Dennis, 35, and Michael Lancaster, 25, escaped from McAlester’s “Big Mac” on April 23, by tunneling under a wall. They left dead victims in Texas and Alabama before working their way back to Oklahoma. Both were known to have family in the Caddo-Kenefic area of Bryan County.
Later investigation would show Summers and Young were patrolling a back county road when they drove up behind a pickup. They had received radio contact that a local famer’s pickup had been stolen along with several weapons.
A short chase followed before the convicts suddenly stopped and open fired on the approaching patrol car. Gun fire exploded the glass of the patrol car’s front window and both officers were fatally wounded as they attempted to return shots. Evidence would later prove the officers simply didn’t have the firepower to answer the attack.
The escapees fled the scene in the pickup and raced to the town of Caddo. There they set up an ambush spot and waited for any additional lawmen. They probably realized they had been sighted by an overhead OHP airplane and were being surrounded.
The first officers to arrive in Caddo were Lt. Pat Grimes and Lt. Hoyt Hughes. Fired on from the ambush, Grimes was instantly shot and killed. He was 36.
At the same time Hughes was hit in the arm and shoulder, but still was able to exit the passenger side of the car and return point-blank fire. He killed one escapee. Lt. Mike Williams, arriving moments later as backup, fatally shot the second one.
This ended a 34-day bloody path of horror that raced over a six-state path that reached to the southeast of the nation and back to Oklahoma.
The name of Houston F. “Pappy” Summers will not be forgotten by the people he watched over during a 32-year career. His name will continue to live on. Five months ago a road sign in Summers’ honor was erected on a bridge on U.S. 412 near Enid. It is about a half mile past Imo Road.
A monument for all three fallen troopers has been dedicated in the small town of Caddo. Engraved on one of the monuments are the words, “It’s only the inspiration of those who die that makes those who live realize what constitutes a useful life.” Will Rogers.
I wish to think dear friend Barbra Summers Pool for sharing this family memory with me. Trooper “Pappy” Summers was her uncle. As another Memorial Day approaches let all of us not forget the services and sacrifices added up by the ones who have gone before us.
Larry Larkin is a columnist for the Claremore Progress.