Category Archives: Interviews

Gayla Peevey’s Hippo Song…Still Going!

I’m always honored to write another article about Gayla Peevey.  This one was published in Outlook Magazine Dec 2017 (see link). After it came out, I escorted Gayla and her family to the Oklahoma City Zoo’s Sing-a-Long.  You’ll see a teaser that the Zoo planned to make a “big” announcement.  As you might have guessed– we got a new hippopotamus for Christmas this year, and Gayla was on-hand to welcome her second hippo in her lifetime~Amy

Photo provided by Gayla Peevey

“I Want A Hippopotamus for Christmas….”

What is it about this chipper little song that has stood the test of time? Oklahoma radio stations have kept the song alive for 64 years because of its distinctly historical roots. It was sung by an Oklahoma child-star, Gayla Peevey. She presented such a darling request that the community jumped on a promotional band wagon to actually buy Gayla a hippo! The Oklahoma City Zoo gladly accepted the responsibility of caring for Mathilda for the next fifty years.

But it takes more than a good back story for a song to reach the status of American holiday classic. The song’s original artist, Gayla Peevey Henderson, has her own insight into the song’s longevity. “The hippo song is a well-written, well-constructed song. The arrangement, the storyline and everything about it was quality. That’s why it’s stood the test of time.”

In the last 10 years, the song has not only seen a resurgence, it’s become a pop culture presence. Hallmark can’t keep its annual hippo ornaments, which play the song, on the shelf. A growing number of modern artists, including Kasey Musgraves and LeAnn Rimes, have recorded the song. In December, the hippo song is one of the most highly-downloaded holiday ringtones on iTunes. The United States Postal Service used the song in their holiday advertising campaign last year, which ranked as the #2 National Television Commercial by Billboard.

“All of a sudden, the song got rediscovered,” Gayla said. “I started getting calls from DJs around the world–Canada, Ireland, Great Britain, and Australia–claiming it as the most popular Christmas song on the air.” (This line was cut from the published version, for spacing)

Gayla Peevey with 2017 hippo merchandise at the OKC Zoo. Photo by A Stephens.

The song’s resurgence also changed Gayla’s life. For 50 years, she’d pretended that the song had little significance. Most people in her life had no idea she’d sung it as a child. “I didn’t want to be a “has-been” because that felt like being a failure, so I just never mentioned it.”

Following Gayla’s hit song, Columbia Records pigeon-holed her into singing kiddie songs, like “Kitty in the Basket.” Even Gayla thought they were silly and poorly written. Belting out country songs like “Your Cheatin’ Heart” was how she’d landed on “The Chuckwagon Gang,” a local WKY-TV show, and later, national shows including “Saturday Night Revue” and “The Ed Sullivan Show.”

Gayla’s parents, lacking show business savvy, were overwhelmed by her popularity. They uprooted her to California, and by the time she was an adult, her recording career had ended. Her adult friends had no idea that she’d once performed on stage with Dean Martin, Jimmie Durante, Grace Kelly and the Count Basie Orchestra.

The hippo song, however, continued to live a life without her. In 2007, Gayla was visiting family in Oklahoma and she chanced to meet an Oklahoma City Zoo employee who was aware of her role in securing the zoo’s first hippopotamus. The zoo began planning a live sing-a-Long event for 2011 to celebrate the song’s story. Gayla was nervous that no one would show up to see her, but a large, enthusiastic crowd arrived, and Gayla was surprised by the long line for autographs.

Gayla Peevey and Amy Stephens, Dec 9, 2017 at the OKC Zoo ZooZeum.

This year, the zoo is again hosting Gayla for a live sing-a-long on Saturday, December 9th. Gayla will perform and share her memories of receiving a 700-pound Christmas gift in 1953. Afterward, attendees are invited to meet Gayla in person and view artifacts from her personal history. Gayla will also be sharing a big announcement on behalf of the zoo.

“After an ordinary life, this is like stepping back in time. I’ve been so rejuvenated to know that people remember my connection to the zoo. It’s a happy, positive, joyful song to be remembered by, and I now treasure that.”


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Filed under History, Interviews, Published Article Announcement, Zoo

Family Memories from the 1930s Dust Bowl

In 1994, I was one college class short of having a minor in history. The professor allowed me to do an independent study and write a thesis about Oklahoma during the Great Depression.

After some research, I decided to do oral interviews of people who remembered living through the 1930s. I set up a group interview at Tealridge Manor, a retirement center hosted by Oklahoma Christian University. I also talked to both my grandmas, Edna Eades and Myrtle Davidson, and they shared some wonderful stories. I’m so glad to have their words preserved. My mom, Phyllis, also shared insight and memories as a child born to parents who lived through the depression.  

I’m so thrilled to have this written record—and when I found it buried in a file cabinet recently, I decided it needed to be shared. Although this is different than what I usually post, I’d love it if a descendant of one of these people might find this paper and read the words of their ancestor–maybe stories they’ve never heard before.     ~Amy

“I Never Thought They Were the Good Old Days”

Memories of Life During the Depression in Oklahoma

By Amy Dee Smith, November 1994

My great grandparents holding my grandfather, Garvin Davidson, in 1921.  Just a decade later this family would live through the Great Depression in Oklahoma.

My great grandparents holding my grandfather, Garvin Davidson, in 1921. Just a decade later this family would live through the Great Depression in Oklahoma.

Table of Contents:

  1. What We Take for Granted
    1. Living Without Luxuries
    2. Living Without Food
    3. Living With Sickness
    4. Living With and Without Animals
  2. Dust Bowl Dilemma
    1. Why the Storms Came
    2. Keeping Dirt Out
    3. Dust Bowl Doozies, The Big Storms
  3. The Migration Situation
    1. In Oklahoma I Busted, In California I Trusted
  4. Relief Programs
    1. Governmental Assistance
  5. Enjoying “Depression”
    1. A Guide to Inexpensive Entertaining
    2. Dust Bowl Funnies
  6. Ending
  7. Bibliography and Sources


I Never Thought They Were the Good Old Days

“I never thought they were the good old days.”

Most Oklahoman’s who lived through the nineteen thirties agree with the sentiments of Myrtle Davidson (my paternal grandmother) from Cement, Oklahoma. Economic challenges, compounded by environmental changes, caused double hardship for a majority of Oklahoma families. The label of “lower class, middle class and upper class” disappeared; everyone was in the “poor class.” Although the Oklahoma panhandle faced the most difficult challenges with the dust storms, every family felt the impact of the depression.

  • What We Take for Granted


Living Without Luxuries

Oklahoma people from the twenties and thirties learned to live with a lower standard of living. Today’s society is often accused for not appreciating what we do have. These people did without many things that we take for granted today.

Maurietta J. Patterson lived in a shanty in Cleveland, OK, and shared it with animals. They had a borrowed divan which made into a bed. They had no table, chair, hardly any dishes or silverware, scarcely anything to cook in, no towels, clothes, money or anything else. “After getting an emergency government wheat loan on the crop, a government permit to get building material, and a gift from friends, we planned a house on a paper napkin as we drove to purchase materials. The time living in that makeshift place was pure horror, so moving into our unfinished house was delightful.”

In 1933, Roosevelt appoint young men as "soil soldiers" to begin to repair the damaged landscape.  Workers also built many community structures at parks.  This photo from the OKC Zoo Historical Archive, 1935.

In 1933, Roosevelt appoint young men as “soil soldiers” to begin to repair the damaged landscape. Workers also built many community structures at parks. This photo used with permission from the OKC Zoo Historical Archive, 1935.

Phyllis Davidson (my mother), native of Blue, OK, and daughter of Edna Eades recalls that her grandmother, Nanny Duncan, reused her dishwater in Chandler, OK. She would put it under the sink until the next washing. “I don’t know how we kept from getting more sick back then. We didn’t have no soap, and after we washed dishes, we could just wring the grease out of the dish rags,” said Edna Eades.

What are considered necessities today were considered luxuries back in the thirties.

“We had no Chapstick back then. Kids used to go around with a red ring around their mouths where they had licked their lips. Daddy would tell us to put ear wax on our lips. I’m not sure if it was to help our lips, or because it tasted so bad that we wouldn’t lick them,” said Phyllis Davidson. “We didn’t have hand lotion or Kleenexes; things we take for granted today. I remember one time we found a bottle of hand lotion real cheap, so we got it. It sat around until it turned sour. We felt like it was the only lotion we had, and it had to last for the rest of our lives, or that we had to save it for company.”

“I think people from our generation are awful pack rats. We didn’t have much, so we were very careful with what we did have,” said Myrtle Davidson.

“That may be the reason it is hard to spend money. I think your raising had an effect on how you are through the rest of your life,” continued Edna Eades. It is hard for her to get rid of old clothes because, “They’re perfectly good clothes, they just don’t fit anymore.”

Phyllis Davidson remembers cleaning through her mother’s closet a few years ago. “We found several electric blankets in there that she’d received for Christmas; all of them were unopened. She said that she was afraid of those new electric things, plus she was saving them in case someone came over.”

Lois Marshall of Sayre, OK, feels like rough times made better people. “Now when we get something, we appreciate it and make a dollar go a long ways. Some people may call us stingy but the thirties made us that way.”

Living Without Food

Food shortage was a common problem for Oklahoma families. Ida Stevens, a school teacher in Cromwell, OK, remembers going home and crying because she knew her children were hungry. “I told the children to bring a bowl and spoon to school. My mother and I cooked a pot of stew for them. We went to the school board and asked for apples and oranges–apples one day, oranges the next–every other day. The principal went to the President of the board to ask if they would, and they did. From them on we did it until the children could bring their own.”

A teacher from Elmore City, Fan Joe Potts, had similar experiences. Her children liked cornbread, so she told them, “Bring cornbread in your school lunch tomorrow and I’ll bring beans.” She would then cook the beans on a pot-bellied stove in the classroom.

Dr. Richard Lowitt, historian, blames food as the original cause of the depression. According to him, over-production and under-consumption was the problem that ushered in economic failure. Women were largely responsible for this because when the flapper style became popular in the 1920s, women began dieting, lowering food consumption. (9)

Food became short for people and livestock. “The government shipped in hay by the cartloads, and the men lined up for their quotas. Then the government started giving out commodities, which gave people something to eat. Schools began receiving canned meat, and children would bring a few vegetables, mostly potatoes, and the hot lunches were born. We got an old coal oil stove and someone brought a wash boiler in which we cooked our stew,” said Thelma Bemount Campbell of Woodward, OK.

“There was the lunch the government gave us at school. We had two cups, one for soup and the other for wheat pudding, which sometimes had raisins in it. We were very thankful for the warm food,” said Lois Marshall.

Many kind-hearted families shared what little they had, such as the family of Ernestine Scoggins of Tulsa, OK. Her dad got up early in the morning to get helpers for the farm, people without jobs. “This is the good way mamma and papa carried it out. Negroes stood by the mailbox waiting. Dad would take about ten. The wives of these men loved to help mamma cook. She did not skimp on their food, either. They had the same thing we did, and my mother had seven kids of her own.”

Juanita Kemena recalled her father’s concern for the hungry as well. He was working at a building job. At lunch, he and the other workers noticed that one man ate his sack lunch in the corner by himself. They went to find out why, and all he had was “a boiled or baked potato, then he saved the peelings for his lunch for tomorrow.” The men took up a collection for him that day.

Some families found themselves so hard up that they turned to stealing food. Ida Stevens relayed one story of a man going into her father’s general store. The man was poor, but he filled a sack full of groceries. “It come to almost twenty dollars. The man said, ‘I can’t pay you, but if you try to take it from me, I’ll fight you.’ The man left with the groceries, but later he sent a check for thirty dollars after he got a job somewhere.”

Some Oklahomans didn’t have such trouble finding food. Farmers with land in the southern parts of the state, away from the dust bowl, were able to provide good food for their families. According to Edna Eades and Myrtle Davidson, they weren’t effected much by the depression.

My grandmother, Myrtle Roberson Davidson was born in 1930, so the Great Depression effected her entire childhood.

My grandmother, Myrtle Roberson Davidson was born in 1930, so the Great Depression effected her entire childhood.

“We were basically self-supporting and we grew our own food. We saved our own corn seeds. Nowadays, they use this hybrid seed that you can only use one year. We’d gather our crop, then get out and help other people for money to buy our clothes,” said Edna Eades. “Often we read in the paper about how other people were in soup lines, but it’s not much different than today with the Jesus House and all those places.”

“Except everyone did it back then, except farmers,” added Myrtle Davidson.

However, farmers in the panhandle had problems with growing crops. According to Allen A. Aaron of Woodward, OK, it rained less than five inches during a three year period. “Pastures were ruined. The wind had blown the soil away from the grass roots and finally the plants themselves were blown out of the ground. The fields were just mounds of blowing dirt without a plant of any kind alive as far as we could see in any direction.”

“In the last of March 1935, we had a duster which destroyed most of the wheat crop in Nebraska–half of it in Kansas and a fourth of it in Oklahoma,” said Maurietta Patterson. “It had so much static electricity that it burned the wheat to a crisp brown before it continued all the way to the Atlantic Ocean.” She remembers that the food they did eat had to be consumed carefully. Paper towels were laid on the plates at dinner time. When a bite was eaten, the paper cloth was lifted quickly, then put back down before the dust could get on the food.

Canned food was a staple diet for many families. Troubled farmers relied on the food saved from past crops. Canned food even posed difficulty. Ernestine Scoggins remembers canning peaches that weren’t fit to can. “They were more like dried peaches, grown after only one rain on them, but nobody ever complained about eating them.”

For the most part, people in need were assisted by friends and neighbors, although Myrtle Davidson does remember one case otherwise. One of the richer farmers was trying to sell a crop of potatoes, but he had them priced so high that no one could afford them. “He got mad, and instead of helping all the hungry people, he dumped the whole bunch in the river and ruined them all.”

The government did develop a system to help out the hungry. Food stamps, or rations books were born on March 13, 1939. For some people, this and the soup lines were the only hope for being fed.

Living With Sickness

Disease was a large problem and a great fear of early Oklahoma people. Medical technology was limited and costly. Lack of food, poor sanitation, and exposure to the elements all contributed to the problem of illness. Infancy death rate was high, and dust suffocation was prevalent. Lola Moor Long felt lucky to have even made it. “I started life in a dust storm. When it was time to make my arrival, it came up a dust storm. Mom was scared to death. My dad took her down into a half dugout– half a house and half a dugout–and that’s where I was born.”

Children braved the element when walking to school. Stories of getting lost because the dust was so thick, and walking backward so that the sand would not sting their faces were common. Winter time posed other hazards. Fan Joe Potts remembers her students coming to school frozen. “Kids who rode horseback to school would be frozen when they got there. It took the first half of the day to thaw their feet out.”

“I remember putting cardboard in my shoes to keep out the cold snow, and making sure I kept my feet on the floor in school so that the others couldn’t see the holes in my shoes,” said Lois Marshall

Edna Eades made her children’s shoes with a heavy khaki, lined with unbleached muslin. She cut out the shape, put little lace-up holes and “run” a string through them. “Houses were so cold. Mom took legs of pants to make comforters and heavy quilts.”

She also remembers cold rides in the wagon. “It’s what caused my sick spelling. When we got a cold, we were scared that we might die—today we just figure we’ll go to the doctor. That’s when I developed the habit of worrying.”

Dust storms in the panhandle caused numerous health problems.

“Instead of viral pneumonia, dust pneumonia was a problem. Coughing and blowing the nose brought forth mud. Hospitals were full and many older people and babies were dying,” said Maurietta Patterson. In some areas, the Red Cross distributed gas masks to dust bowl families. The mask had been made during World War 1 to protect soldiers, but they took on the duty of covering children’s faces during the night to protect them from suffocation. Tents made of sheets were hung over the beds at night to keep the dust out.

Homemade cures and traditions often dictated the medical procedures for preventing sickness. Maurietta Patterson remembers the cure her dad prescribed to her husband, Frank. “He cooked a big iron skillet full of onions and put them in a sugar sack. He told Frank to remove his shirt and lay down. Dad put that very hot sack of onions across Frank’s chest. After the first complaints of being burned alive, Frank endured the treatment and got over the pneumonia. To this day, however, he cannot stand the taste or smell of onions.”

Women, during “that time of the month” were taught not to take a bath or wash their hair. It was believed they would be more susceptible to illness.

Living conditions partly contributed to sanitary problems. Squatter camps, or ditch camps, were breeding grounds of disease. Epidemics grew and spread. Ida Stevens, who lived in Cromwell, OK, remembered a time when the town was little more than a squatter camp. “The judge of Seminole county in 1926 cleaned up Cromwell. The place was full of wild shootings outside saloons. There was a lot of fighting and drinking.” They were compared to living like animals. Those lucky enough to have shelter often had little more than a roof over their heads. Ida Steven’s visited one such place. “They had a dirt floor in their house—I called it a shack. They cooked on top of the heater. It was pitiful.”

Living With and Without Animals

Animals served as help and hindrance during the depression. An article in the Daily Oklahoman reported, “A Tahala farmer offered to give away 100 hogs to anyone who would take them, so he wouldn’t have to watch them starve to death.” (8)

Edna Eades remembers pouring used dishwater into buckets and giving it to the hogs. “It couldn’t hurt them, we didn’t use no soap back then.” Farmers were known to haul water up to 20 miles in an attempt to save their stock while others drove their cattle as far as 10 miles to water.

According to Thelma Bemount, “The government sent crews to kill the cattle and hogs because there was no feed for them. They paid a small fee for each one killed. People followed crews and butchered the better cattle, taking the meat home to can. It wasn’t prime beef by any means, but we were grateful to have it.”

Lois Marshall remembers similar circumstances. “President Roosevelt gave the farmers five dollars a head for their cattle, then shot them. They let people have what they wanted of the meat. I remember my mother and aunt set up all night canning beef…men killed rabbits which were eating up the crops. I never could eat wild meat, so I ate greens.”

Controlling animals was another problem all together, whether it was keeping them in or out.

Fern Pounds of Elmwood, Oklahoma, recalls trouble keeping the cows in. “The fences had blown full of weeds and then the blown dirt drifted in to cover the posts and wire. Cattle could walk over the fences and go any place they wanted, looking for food.”

Maurietta J. Patterson had trouble keeping animals out. She was living in an unused garage shortly after her house burned down. “One day while getting dinner, I heard a slithering noise and looked around to see three big bull snakes enjoying my living quarters. I cautiously moved toward the door, grabbed a hoe, and chopped down on all three, each trying to get into the same hole. Fearful that one would get away, I was afraid to life the hoe for another whack, so I held it down with all my strength and cried, screamed and called for help. No one showed up until about 45 minutes after I had killed them.”

Rattlers, bull snakes and diamondbacks were a common sight to Frank and Maurietta Patterson, but not one snake ever got away. “One morning…less than a quarter of a mile from the house they saw a rattler. Frank drove back to the house for a shovel and gun. Instead of one snakes, he killed 448 in that one den.” Shortly after that they moved into a new chicken house. “The two or three chickens we had were a lot better company than snakes.”

“Chickens helped keep the bugs down. We never had problems with cockroaches because they ate them up before they got to the house,” said Myrtle Davidson. “It’s amazing how nature can take care of itself. I always thought the cats and dogs were just around for pets, but now I know that the cats kept the mice away, and the dogs scared off the coons and other predators. Even the snakes helped keep the mice down. I just wish I knew how nature takes care of flies. There was never anything we could do about that.”

  • Dust Bowl Dilemma


Why the Storms Came

Often, the dust bowl is mistakenly taken as the cause for the depression. Actually, the dust bowl caught the tail end of a chain of events during the depression era and extended hardship for those in its path. A troublesome economic crisis was the first blow to farmers. The stock market crash of 1929 was the fateful day when the bottom fell out of the market in New York City. Farmers suffered from surpluses, low prices, excessive debts and high costs throughout the 1920s. Despite Herbert Hoover’s Federal Farm Board, wheat and cotton prices fell to disastrous levels.

A severe drought was the next step. Intense hot, dry weather hit first in the northern plains and spread gradually to the south and west. As summer came to Oklahoma in 1934, the state set new records almost daily for high temperatures and the longest period without any rainfall. There were 83 days of temperatures over 100 degrees, with the high being 116. It rained less than five inches during a three year period. (8)

Problems of drought were compounded by the practice of unsound farming techniques.  Erosion and over-cropping had damaged the soil. Farmers had not given the land a chance to rejuvenate.

The frequency and severity of the dust storms during the 1930s became major news items. Following the April 14, 1935 Black Blizzard, Robert E. Geiger of the Associated Press released a series of articles, the first from Guymon, Oklahoma, for the Washington (D.C.) Evening Star. In his story, Geiger inadvertently, but appropriately used the term “dust bowl.” Geiger ignored this term in his next two articles, and in his last story from the area, he referred to the region as the “dust belt.” The public and the Soil Conservation Service, however, adopted the term Dust Bowl almost immediately and used it when referring to this windblown, drought-stricken area. (4)

Keeping the Dirt Out

Dust storms were nothing new to farmers on the Great Plains, they had just never reached such magnitude. Geologist worked out a method of determining the origins of each storm: “If the dust was black, it was from northeast New Mexico; when the dust was golden, from Colorado and western Kansas, and when white, from the alkali beds of northern Nebraska and the Dakotas.” (5)

Those in the path of these storms, particularly Oklahomans from the western  panhandle, had to readjust their living conditions. There are many stories to draw upon that depict life during the dust bowl. A common problem was keeping the dust out of the house. Maurietta Patterson explained that, “No matter how well the house was built, trim was needed. Masking tape was a common trim around windows and seldom-used doors. For wider cracks, we tore rags into strips and tightly packed them into cracks. Even wet towels or blankets wouldn’t keep the dust out during the high winds.”

Thelma Bemount Campbell dipped gunny sacks into old tractor oil and tacked them over the windows to keep out as much dirt as possible. She covered the furniture and bed with sheets and shook them out before going to bed. She remembers scooping the sand out of the attic because it got so full it was causing the plaster to fall.

Allen A. Aaron learned his dust lesson the hard way. He had been warned to go to the lumber yard and buy a roll of brown, sticky tape to tape around cracks in the house. He did not buy the tape, and sure enough, after the next storm, he came home to a house covered with dust inside. “On closer inspection, we noticed small mounds of dirt on the floor near the baseboards. Soon we observed that there were several small nail holes in the walls, through which dust was coming and piling up on the floor below, much like water from a sprinkling can.” The next day he purchased the sticky tape and puttied the holes in the walls.

The dust caused destruction to more than just houses. Cars also experienced damage. Sand filtered into the air filters and carburetors, down cylinder walls, past the rings and into pans. The rings were sometimes completely eaten away by the sand particles, or the cylinder was so scarred that it needed reboring. Motors were often replaced. (17) Farm machinery also faced similar repairs. Overall, the dust filtered into every nook and cranny of peoples’ lives.

Dust Bowl Doozies

Getting caught outside during a storm was even worse. Thelmas Bemount Campbell remembers Black Sunday, April 14, 1935. “We could see it rolling toward us at a terrific speed like a prairie fire—except there was no fire. Then it became still and black; it was rolling and boiling and the air was full of static electricity. And since we lived on a high hill, we could see it coming three miles away. My father was changing clothes to do chores before the storm reached us. I remember telling Dad it was coming fast and asked if I should put the car away. He said he would do it as soon as he could get his shoes on. I looked again and said, ‘You don’t have time. It’s here right now!’ And it was upon us. The wind was so strong that we heard later it had broken the wind gauges…When it hit, everything became very still and we were enveloped in this terrible blackness. We couldn’t see our hand in front of our face. Some people thought they had been struck blind. …I wanted to light a lamp but father said, ‘No, better not even strike a match.’” Some of her neighbors had been caught in their cars for over an hour, saying that the car lights couldn’t penetrate the darkness, so they had to stop at the side of the road.

Allen A. Aaron had a similar experience. One time he got caught in a duster during church. It was so severe that no one could leave, so they went to the basement to fellowship. “By three o’clock, the wind had subsided sufficiently to give ten-foot visibility so, within thirty minutes, we all left the church. We had to drive no more than ten miles an hour with the headlights on.” Several weeks later he experienced the worst storm of his life. “Within two minutes it was so completely dark I couldn’t see my hand when I placed it before my eyes. It was total darkness. It raged for seventeen days, during which time we never saw a trace of the sun. It was light enough most of the time so we could see to walk, and we continued having school, but no one could drive a car. Once inside a building with the lights on, business could be carried on as usual. People became accustomed to this pattern and learned to live with it.”

  • The Migration Situation


In Oklahoma I Busted, In California I Trusted

“The Arkies and Okie in nineteen thirty six,

Cranked up their flivers and came west Sixty-six…” (6)

Most experts agree that Oklahoma migration was due to a variety of reasons, although a common myth is that the dust bowl was the primary reason. In 1940, Oklahoma Governor Leo. C Phillips appointed a committee to study the problem of migration. The reasons ranged from excessive freight rates to drought. The committee also noted that Oklahoma was the youngest state at the time, thirty years old, and settlers of Oklahoma tended to be migratory anyway. It was typical for Oklahoma farmers to pull up stakes every year or two. Incidentally, the Depression was never noted as a cause of migration by the committee.

Farm laborers were needed less with the increase of tractors and machinery. “We didn’t hire our work done, but did it with old machinery and every penny saved went for interest,” said Thelma Bemount Campbell.

“The ‘Dust Bowl,’ as popularly perceived, affected a relatively small portion of Oklahomans…without question, drought and dust storms caused many people to leave the farms, but many other reasons can be cited.” (2)

Allen A. Aaron explains his reason for moving on. “We liked the people and were happy with our jobs, but at the end of the school year, we’d seen enough of the dust storms in the panhandle and decided to leave. Those were hard years.”

The California migration is the best-known, largely because of John Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes of Wrath, although migration often occurred within the state as people began to gravitate to cities. “By 1935, a network of “squatter camps” began to emerge around the city (Oklahoma City). One of the worst of these was the May Avenue Camp.” Camps such as these were the breeding ground of disease and poverty. (2)

As Oklahoman’s flocked to California, the state experienced the same problem as squatter camps cropped up around major cities. California residents highly resented “Okies.” This term also grew to include migrants from Kansas, Texas and Arkansas, but Oklahomans comprised the largest group of these people by far. The term “Okies” was an insult meaning lazy vagrant. In 1939, a sign appeared in the foyer of a local theater that read, “Negroes and Okies upstairs.” One letter written to President Roosevelt said:

“Knowing the character of migrants, from my experience in dealing with them, I object to these hordes of degenerates being located at my very door.

These ‘share croppers’ are not a noble people looking for a home and seeking an education for their children. They are unprincipled degenerates looking for something for nothing.

The fact that they are leaving their native land unfit for human habitation is not surprising. Their ignorance and maliciousness in caring for trees, crops, vines and the land is such that California will be ruined if farming is left to them…” (2)

Overall, the migration of Oklahomans was viewed as a very negative experience. Oklahomans who stayed felt like they made the correct choice. Thelma Bemount Campbell may express it best. “Those that stayed and hung onto their land were far better off than those who gave up…It wasn’t easy trying to pay mortgages and interest. My folks were among the stayers and saved their land—and passed it down to me…It took several years to get the land back into production…and we can grow almost anything.”

  • Relief Programs


Governmental Assistance

The government started several programs to help struggling Oklahomans to feed their families during the depression. In September of 1930, 500 farmers in Latimer County passed a resolution requesting aid, and reported that six out of seven families needed assistance.

Programs of federal relief, crop rotation, and soil conservation mandates were instituted to prevent future problems. Roosevelt created the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in 1933 to provide work for unemployed single men, and to work on project restoring farm lands. The Shelterbelt Project, planting hundreds of miles of trees, was instituted to slow high winds. According to Myrtle Davidson, some areas of the Shelterbelt remain, and rows of trees can be seen by airplane.

In 1935, Congress passed the Social Security Act. U.S. Rep. Henry Ellenbogen, D-Pa., explained that, “The idea will be security of the individual from birth to death.”

One highly-beneficial program was the Works Progress Administration, which was begun in the mid-1930s by Roosevelt. WPA, known as “wuppa,” provided public service jobs to men who needed a job to provide for their families. Community improvements were the main service that the WPA workers provided. Many of these are still evident today. Parks were created, the North Canadian River was straightened, 1,010 statutes were built, bridges and roadways were improved, and libraries, jails, city halls, armories and swimming pools were built. WPA was also responsible for converting an abandoned railroad yard in the center of Oklahoma City into the Civic Center Music Hall, as well as starting the first Oklahoma Symphony Orchestra. (7)

Will Rogers, Oklahoma entertainer and columnist, volunteered his service to raise money for drought stricken families. During a twenty-day tour, his traveling appearances and newspaper articles raised a total of $193,382 in relief aid. (1)

  • Enjoying “Depression”


A Guide to Inexpensive Entertaining

Most of the memories from the thirties are of hardships and trials, but a few good things could be found. Oklahoman’s relied on each other to make the times more bearable.

“There was no money to go to shows,” said Thelma Bemount Campbell, “So we had parties, programs, and the church held everyone together.”

Edna Eades recalled the parties they had in Chandler, OK. “One of my brothers played the guitar, one sister play the mandolin, and one played the piano. People would come to hear music and play that Carom game. (Carom is similar to pool, but chips are hand-flicked into side pockets). When we all got to be young folks, old enough to go out and date, we’d go to each other’s houses and play music.”

Some farmers did not have neighbors close enough to associate with often. Family members then had to rely on each other for entertainment and companionship.

“All of the children had certain chores to do,” said Myrtle Davidson. “When those were finished, we had free time. Often, several family members would get together and make up games. We had a few fights, but for the most part we got along.”

“That’s what an American-style family is all about—sticking together through good times and bad times,” said Lois Marshall of Sayre, OK.

There was more time to relax in the early nineteenth century.

“The only good thing about it (the thirties) was the leisure time. We weren’t so busy all the time like things are now,” said Myrtle Davidson. “Once the sun went down, kerosene lamps were the only source of light. When it got dark, farming stopped. “People think it sounds terrible for us to have gotten up at the crack of dawn, but we went to bed a lot earlier back then. When it got dark, there wasn’t much else to do.”

Dust Bowl Funnies

The term “Depression” says a lot for the mood of the twenties and thirties. Oklahomans caught in the dust bowl had even less to be cheerful about, however. Those who remained to face the storms developed a bitter and ironic sense of humor to cope with their individual tragedies.

Women, who learned to turn their plates upside down to keep out the dust when they set their tables, told about the woman who cleaned her dishes, pots, and pans by putting them out the window to be blasted clean by the blowing sand.

“Farmers laughed about the rancher who went to the bank to secure a loan and looked up to see his farm blowing past the window.” (2)

According to Woody Guthrie, Oklahoma entertainer, “Every time you sneeze out the wrong window, a bank fails.”

There were stories of frogs who drowned when they were thrown into a pond because they had never learned to swim.

The story was also told about the man who fainted when he was hit by a drop of rain and had to be revived by throwing a bucket of dirt in his face.

Farmers insisted that they gauged the intensity of the great storms by tying a log chain to a tree: if the chain blew straight, the wind was calm; if it popped like a whip, there was a breeze; if it uprooted the tree, there was a blizzard.

In Kansas, a newspaper reported that the blowing dust was so thick that Lady Godiva could ride through the streets without even the horse seeing her. (5)

It is rumored that one woman gave her children teaspoons and let them play in the dirt on the dining room table.

Fan Joe Potts told the old joke that cow ranchers had an awful time during the dust bowl. When the cowboys went to round up the herds, they couldn’t find them because they were buried in the sand.

Others told the story of a rancher who bought a bucket of gravel to throw on his rooftop at night so that his children would know the sound of falling rain.

This joke leads perfectly into a true story of a similar case. Allen A. Aaron was teaching one March morning when it began to rain. “Several boys and girls in my room would look occasionally at the water running of the window panes. There was a knock on my classroom door. I answered it and saw Miss Bull, our first and second grade teacher. She said, ‘Mr. Arron, I need some help. Do you have time to come to my room?’ I asked if she were having trouble and she replied, ‘I surely am. My kids are all crying and I can’t get them to quiet down. I’ve tried everything I know.’ I asked why they were crying and she replied, ‘my pupils can’t remember ever having seen it rain before. The rain hitting the window panes is scaring them to death.’”

We returned to her room, and it was a serious problem. Everyone was crying and some were screaming for their mothers. I got the middle-grade teacher and the three of us worked for thirty minutes to quiet them and make them feel at ease.”


In retrospect, the Depression was a difficult time for Oklahoman dwellers. Financial constraints, poor living conditions, and extreme weather situations caused many hardships. Statements given by people who lived during this era demonstrate every-day routines that were quite different from what we face today. Although we hope to never face problems of such magnitude, the courage and tenacity that these Oklahomans showed gives us hope that we, too, can confront any situation that life throws our way.

It would be improper to say that the Depression brought nothing but disaster. Past mistakes in economy and soil conservation practices now give us better insight on how to prevent a recurrence in either of these areas.


  1. Collines, Reba Neighbors. Will Rogers: Centennial Year Celebration, 1979.
  2. Hendrickson, K. Hard Times in Oklahoma: The Depression Years, Oklahoma Historical Society, 1983.
  3. Hull, W. H. The Dirty Thirties, Stanton, 1989
  4. Hurt, R. Douglas. The Dust Bowl: An Agricultural and Social History, Nelson-Hall Chicago, 1981.
  5. Schuyler, Michael. The Dread of Plenty: Agriculture Relief Act of the Federal Government in the Middle West 1933-39, Sunflower, 1989.
  6. Stein, W. California and the Dust Bowl Migration, Greenwood, 1973.

Other Sources

  1. Jones, Charles T. State Response to Great Depression with Resourcefulness, Sunday Oklahoman Centennial Edition III, April 24, 1994.
  2. Jones, Chris. Dust Bowl Defined Worst of Times, Sunday Oklahoman Centennial Edition III, April 24, 1994.
  3. Oklahoma Passage Telecourse: The Great Depression.

Personal Testimonies

Personal testimonies were taken from current Oklahoma City residents, November, 1994. Former residence, referring to the time period of the 1930s, is stated.

  1. Phyllis Davidson, Blue, OK
  2. Edna Eades, Chandler, Ok
  3. Myrtle Davidson, Cement, OK
  4. Lola Moor Long, Ok
  5. Fan Joe Potts, Elmore City, OK
  6. Ernestine Scoggins, Tulsa, OK
  7. Ida Stevens, Cromwell, OK

Other Testimonies

The following testimonies were personal letters written for publication in The Dirty Thirties.

  1. Allen A. Aaron, Woodward, OK
  2. Thelma Bemount Campbell, Woodward, OK
  3. Juanita Kemena, OK
  4. Lois Marshall, Sayre, Ok
  5. Maurietta J. Patterson, Cleveland, OK
  6. Fern Pounds, Elmwood, OK


Filed under History, Interviews

Interview with Amy about “OKC ZOO: 1960-2013”

Thank you to fellow-writer, Regina Garvie, for posting this interview about my book.  Please visit her site to view the full interview—this is just her introduction.

A cool look at the OKC Zoo

Today I have the pleasure of featuring a different type of book on my blog!SCBWI Oklahoma member Amy Dee Stephens writes fiction, but is also the author of two books on the Oklahoma City Zoo. I got a chance to look at her book recently, and it’s a must-see for anyone who has interest in animals, Oklahoma history, or a first-class zoo’s transformation through the years.

From the book’s description: What started as a small menagerie in 1902 officially became Oklahoma City Zoo in 1903. Journey through the second half century of its illustrious history in Oklahoma City Zoo: 1960–2013. Meet the staff and animals and explore the exhibits that propelled it from a third-class animal facility to one of the best zoos in the United States. In the 1960s, its animal population exploded as knowledge of animal care improved. The zoo soon assembled the largest-known collection of hoofed animals. Later, a rare mountain gorilla named M’Kubwa stole newspaper headlines, a third leopard escaped, and the zoo met its first cheetah babies. The opening of Aquaticus in the 1980s “brought the ocean to the prairie” in the form of a dolphin and sea lion show. Elephants, however, remain the queen attraction at the Oklahoma City Zoo. In 2011, the birth of the zoo’s first baby elephant baby, Malee, was a crowning achievement in its 110-year history.

Personally, I remember a lot of the changes that took place at the zoo, like when they built the Great EscApe when I was a kid, and the transformation of the big cat areas and new habitat for the elephants. It’s pretty dang great. If you’re in the area, you owe it to yourself to check out our zoo – and maybe pick up a copy of Amy’s books while you’re at it!

Amy was nice enough to share a press release with me about her newest book, including an informative Q&A that I enjoyed reading. Hope you do too!

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Jerry Bennett, Comic Book Artist

 Jerry Bennett, an Oklahoma comic book artist, is drawing for Marvel Comics, Lucasfilm and Power Rangers.  He’s an artist living a dream–working full-time doing what he loves.  I met Jerry and his wife several years ago as fellow members of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI). I enjoyed visiting him in his how studio to learn more about how he draws lines that create action and emotion.     

"Storylines" is the cover story for Outlook Magazine, November 2014, by Amy Dee Stephens.

“Storylines” is the cover story for Outlook Magazine, November 2014, by Amy Dee Stephens.


Storylines: The Comic Book Art of Jerry Bennett
Written by Amy Dee Stephens in the November 2014 Issue, Outlook Magazine

Comic books and superheroes-they aren’t just for kids! Adults love them, and Hollywood has introduced them to a whole new generation. Meet Jerry Bennett, an Oklahoman who is making a full-time living as a comic book artist. His designs have been licensed by the biggest companies in the industry, including Marvel Comics, Lucasfilm and Power Rangers.

No surprise—Bennett’s small home studio is an explosion of color. Movie posters, superhero drawings and inspiration pieces cover the walls. Boxes of his art prints line the floor, and action figures set on a shelf along with a very real-looking light saber.

But Bennett isn’t outflanked by the kaleidoscope of supernatural memorabilia—no, it’s his joyful personality and booming laugh that captivate one’s attention. He has good reason to be joyful. He’s living an artist’s dream, rubbing elbows with some of the biggest names in the business, and gaining a following of fans—including Stan Lee, the creator of Spiderman, Iron Man and X-Men. Lee recently saw one of Bennett’s Spider-Man drawings at the Salt Lake City Comic Conference (known as Comic Con). He invited Bennett to create an exclusive print for the Stan Lee Foundation for literacy. Bennett calls it one of his greatest honors.

Bennett’s career didn’t start with a BAM!

Amy with Jerry Bennett, featuring his Stan Lee poster.  Photo by Marshall Hawkins.

Amy with Jerry Bennett, featuring his Stan Lee poster. Photo by Marshall Hawkins.

“I went to art school, but like so many people who have aspirations for a dream job, I took a regular job,” Bennett said. “For 16 years, I worked at a door and plywood company, doing art as side work.”

Jerry Bennett

Then finally, POW! Bennett’s big break came six years ago when he drew a movie fan design which parodied Ghostbusters and Star Wars. A friend suggested that it would make a great t-shirt design—and 3,000 sold in 24 hours.

“Someone told me my image had gone viral, and I asked, ‘What does that mean?’ because it was a new phrase then.”

Shortly afterward, as Bennett was about to turn 40, he decided he didn’t want to work his regular job anymore. “So, I quit and took a leap of faith.” It was a leap without a cape or superpowers. Bennett created a portfolio and purchased table space at a Comic Con in order to gain exposure for his art. He entered contests. He took on small projects.

Now, Bennett’s award-winning artwork is popping up all over, from a licensed Power Rangers t-shirt and Oklahoma City Thunder basketball team image, to the annual report cover for the Oklahoma Pioneer Library System.

Currently, Bennett is serving as a fill-in artist for Larry Latham, author and illustrator of a popular online comic called “Lovecraft is Missing.” In former years, Latham produced cartoon television shows such as Disney’s Talespin and Hanna-Barbera’s Smurfs. After a recent cancer diagnosis, Latham hired Bennett to carry on his comic book series during his recovery. Jerry Bennett's Comic Art

“I’ve followed ‘Lovecraft’ since 2012, so I understand his vision and his art,” Bennett said. “Readers know that I’m filling in, so I’ve remained true to his style while infusing my own.”

Bennett just wrapped up an art show at a gallery in the Paseo district. He is also working on two educational projects. The first is a non-fiction graphic novel called “Felix Faces His Fears.” It’s the true story of Felix Bumgartner, who skydived from outer space in 2012. Bennett is also designing college course booklets for a business professor at the University of Oklahoma who believes that students are more likely to read assignments written like a comic book.

As glamorous as it sounds, the outgoing Mr. Bennett spends much of his working life in solitude. He listens to music or audio books while he draws, and he walks his dog each day. He uses this time to take a break from his contracted work to think about the personal projects he’s trying to pursue—an original graphic novel, an illustrated children’s book, a comic book version of a spiritual hymn.

Jerry Bennett's Comic Art

“I have so many ideas I’m playing with,” Bennett said. “Ultimately, I want to be known as a comic book artist, but my style is constantly growing and changing based on my interests or a client’s needs.”

Several years ago, Bennett tucked away his drawing easel and art pens—replacing them with a high tech computer graphics program. A digital pen allows him to “draw” on a special monitor, like he used to do on paper.

“Most people don’t realize that creating a commercial comic book page takes a team of people, because while I do the initial line drawings, someone else writes the scripts.”

When Bennett first gets a script, he visualizes each panel like a movie shot, making sure that each scene has action. He then allots space for written text bubbles and adds scenery details that keep readers grounded in the setting. After several digital pencil sketches, he draws the final lines and fills in details.

“Art brings stories to life and gives them heart, soul and expression,” Bennett said. “I’m dying to tell emotional stories that make people laugh and cry,” Bennett said.

Jerry Bennett's Comic ArtThat emotion is exactly why Hollywood has latched onto comics, Bennett believes. And it’s working, if the rising number of fans at Comic Cons across the country is any indication. Bennett enjoys socializing at the Comic Cons and meeting celebrity actors. More importantly, it has been his door into the publishing industry, and he has several big prospective projects on the horizon. He’s hopeful that in the future he’ll establish his own graphic novel series—one that might land on the big screen someday.

Bennett may not be leaping tall buildings in a single bound, but that crucial leap of faith to pursue art full time has quickly escalated his career to enviable heights.

“It seems like so many people give up on their aspirations—I’m blessed and fortunate to be one of the few living my dream.” WOW!


If you enjoyed this, check out another story I did about a year ago that mentions Jerry’s artwork and how he is inspired by animals.

Artists Inspired by the Zoo



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Time With Farrah Love

Written by Amy Dee Stephens in the July 2014 Issue, Outlook Magazine

Meet Farrah Love Sinclair, a two-year-old girl whose middle name is prophetic. Her life story is spreading a message of love to families across the country and causing parents to rethink their evening routines. Because of Farrah Love Sinclair, some children are spending more quality time with their moms and dads, who previously rushed them through dinner, homework, bath and bedtime.

Farrah with her father, mother and grandmotherStep back and value your children,” said Farrah Love’s father, Daxton Sinclair. “Parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles—you have such a short period of time with your kids. Think about saying ‘yes’ when they want to play catch or walk around the lake. Say ‘yes’ and realize that you can be tired later on.”

Sinclair, who works in the oil industry, and his wife Jenna, a counselor, have adopted an unusual parenting philosophy—they never tell their daughter ‘no.’ Sound crazy? Read Farrah Love’s story and you’ll understand why…

“Farrah has always been the perfect child,” Sinclair began. “Happy, good sleeper, only had one crying fit during her first year, the kind of child who springs around instead of walking.” That changed on April 1st. Farrah Love was eating cereal in her parent’s bed while they got ready for work. She crawled off the bed, walked into the bathroom and stumbled into the shower door. She took a few more steps and ran into the clothes hamper. “We looked at each other and said, ‘What’s wrong, Farrah? You’re walking around like you’re drunk,’” recollected Sinclair.

That afternoon, the daycare provider also said that Farrah Love acted dizzy and kept falling. A severe ear infection was the obvious culprit—but after a week of antibiotics, the stumbling continued. And then, the Sinclair’s perfect child started throwing raging fits, rolling on the ground, inconsolable. She started tilting her head and couldn’t walk far without falling down. Traditional testing came back normal, so an MRI was scheduled for April 15th.

“We anticipated that she was going to need tubes in her ears, so imagine our shock when our pediatrician said Farrah Love had a brain tumor. My wife and I tried to focus on the positive, so we decided to get her to OU Children’s Hospital immediately and get started on a treatment plan so she could get better.”

Farrah with her mother and father

The next day, a team of eight oncology doctors came into the Sinclair’s room and began the conversation with, “This is the worst part of our job…” The diagnosis was that the rare tumor was growing deep in her brain stem, wrapping around her nerves. No known cure. An average of 9 months to live.

“The doctor looked us straight in the eye and said that this cancer wins every time,” said Sinclair. “It was so devastating to hear that our child wouldn’t live to see her third birthday. Every parenting rule goes out the window when someone says nine months. She doesn’t hear ‘no’ anymore.”

Amidst the shock, the Sinclairs had to make tough, quick decisions about how to proceed. Farrah Love’s brain tumor, called DIPG, only affects 2 or 3 Oklahoma children each year, so little is known about its treatment, and she is one of the youngest cases. She is currently undergoing experimental drugs and 30 radiation treatments, followed by a chemotherapy plan—and that’s just to keep the tumor from growing.

“My wife and I believe in God and we’ve seen miracles happen, but we are also realistic. We know that the odds are stacked against us, but one thing is clear to us—the minute the bad outweighs the good, we’re pulling out and ending the treatment. We won’t watch her suffer to keep her on earth for another day. We hope for quality days in the time she has left.”

Along with the torrent of emotions, Farrah Love’s condition has wreaked havoc on the family’s schedule. They arrive at the hospital each morning at 6:30am, after having administered medication at midnight. Because Farrah Love is only two, it is impossible for her to sit absolutely still for the 60-second radiation treatment, so she must go under daily anesthesia.    

Sinclair is thankful that he works for a family-oriented company that has allowed him to work from home when possible. Jenna is an independent contractor who had just taken off to prepare for the birth of their next child, due in July. Welcoming a new child while facing the loss of their oldest has created a new level of anxiety—especially realizing the amount of attention required by a newborn. Sinclair’s mother, who felt a calling to retire early, just one month before her granddaughter’s diagnosis, has moved in to help them manage the household so that Farrah Love’s parents can focus on her.

The Sinclairs chose to stay in Oklahoma instead of moving out-of-state to a children’s specialty hospital for several reasons. First, they appreciate the care they have received from OU Children’s Hospital physicians. Secondly, they decided to remain among their support group. One friend set up a fundraising site to help with medical expenses, which will likely leave the family in debt for the rest of their lives. They also have an online site to document their life’s journey without having to return the hundreds of encouraging emails and texts they receive daily. 

Farrah Love

Eventually, Farrah Love will begin to stop eating and start sleeping more as the tumor takes over her nerves. They are told that she’ll have a final “burst of life” day in which she will be herself, play and have a great day. The next day, she will stop breathing and have a painless death.  

“I will never understand why my daughter is being taken away so early,” Sinclair said, “but I will always have two daughters. One just won’t be here. It makes you value every second.”

“We watch her breathe at night. Every time she grabs my finger I study her hand. We try not to cry in front of her, because we’ll have plenty of time to cry in the future—but I want everyone to know that in my daughter’s two short years, she’s touched lives. I get messages from parents who are worrying less about housework and homework, and enjoying their children. Every moment they spend together is special. I want our sadness to have that positive impact. That’s what will bring value to Farrah Love’s short life on earth.”

Visit to learn more, or to help the Sinclairs with medical expenses.

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500-Year-Old Musical Mystery

Written by Amy Dee Stephens (Outlook Magazine, April 2014)

Amelia HamrickAmelia Hamrick never expected to become famous for discovering and recording a line of music hidden in a 500-year-old painting—especially since the music was located on the rear end of a naked man. But funny things happen to college students in the middle of the night.

The discovery occurred in February on the campus of Oklahoma Christian University. You might expect this to happen to a student working in a darkened library, poring through books to find a thesis-worthy project, but no, the scene was far different. Instead, imagine a white-walled conference room in the honors dorm, with a few tables, chairs and a white board with calculus written on it. It’s one o’clock in the morning, and the room is occupied by a few scattered students. Amelia and some friends are chatting about the odd 1500s Hieronymus Bosch painting they learned about in history class. She pulls up a high-resolution version of the painting and scrolls around for a closer look. She finds a unicorn, a porcupine, and, lo and behold, musical notes.

Composition“Hey, guys, this dude has music written on his rear end,” Amelia says. “I’m totally going to transcribe it.” Within thirty minutes, she has entered the notes into a musical composition software, and she and her friends are the first to hear a piano version of a five-centuries-old tune.

After posting the audio file to her blog, she’s surprised by the online response—over 200,000 plays, inquiries from around the world, and an interview with Anderson Cooper of CNN. Everyone wants to know—is it true that Amelia is the first to ever play Bosch’s song? It seems likely, at least to Oklahoma Christian music professor, John Fletcher. “This is a well-documented painting. I thought someone might come forward with doctorial research, but interestingly, nothing has surfaced in the weeks since this has been publicized,” said Fletcher.

Although Amelia accidently stumbled onto this discovery, Fletcher isn’t surprised because of all the factors influencing her. “Both of her parents were students of mine, both music majors who now work as research librarians. Amelia is my first second-generation student,” Fletcher said. “Considering her upbringing in a research-oriented family, it’s natural for her to explore something like this.”

It does seem that a rare combination of circumstances came into play that night while studying. After all, how many students have a double-major in music and information sciences—oh, and have a father with a doctorate in musicology who specialized in music from the 1500s? Amelia noticed right away that the musical notes in Bosch’s painting looked different from modern music. She felt confident that they were written for Gregorian chant, a form of early religious music. Her conclusion rang true with art historian, Delaynna Trim, curator of collections at the Mabee-Gerrer Museum of Art in Shawnee, a museum begun by an art-collecting monk. “Although most musical notation was seen in churches, that style was starting to show up in paintings during the late Middle Ages.”


The Bosch painting, named “The Garden of Earthly Delights,” is filled with nude humans and fantastical creatures engaging in a variety of activities. Painted around 1500 AD, it is speculated to be either a narration of creation or a commentary on social temptations. “Bosch included little details and symbolism typical to the time period,” Trim said, “But he added in, shall I say, crazy stuff.”

Amelia describes it in modern terms as a “Where’s Waldo from 500 years ago.” She wonders if Bosch was being symbolic or just being weird. “I’d like to clear that up and learn if those notes are an actual song significant to the painting, or if we’re reading too much into his painting.”

Unsurprisingly, Amelia is already looking ahead to her senior project and is hoping to transcribe the other musical notes from the painting, albeit they are found in less interesting places. “This is a fresh discovery that’s only a few weeks old,” Fletcher said. “Amelia’s transcription caught all of us off guard in the midst of a semester. We haven’t had time to research this yet.”

Amelia, who is finding great humor in the uproar, finds it particularly funny to hear the university’s highly-respected professors discussing the man’s naked rear end in her classes. Other students at the university have already found creative ways to expand upon the music, such as a choral arrangement with “interesting” bare-bottomed lyrics, and the idea of creating a sweat band version of the song to play at basketball games, although the tune is fairly tuneless.

According to Amelia, “The first thing I thought was, ‘This is a really bad Gregorian chant.’” She speculates that the notes might have been randomly painted for their looks, not their musicality. However, the song has gained cyberspace fans who have begun recording their own versions, including one sung in actual Gregorian chant. For Amelia, she’s unsure if this historical discovery is going to have a long-term effect on her life, but it has made the semester exciting. “It’s a little overwhelming to be goofing around and accidentally making a historical discovery.”

The question remains, did Bosch intend this now-internationally-famous song to ever be played? It’s too early to tell, but Amelia might be the perfect person to get to the “bottom” of this 500-year-old mystery. She can certainly take credit for bringing this posterior story to the forefront.

Garden of Earthly Delights

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Artists Inspired by the Zoo

I was honored to interview these four wonderful artists who use the zoo as a resource for creating their nature-inspired paintings and drawings. ~Amy 

Jan McGuire, Acrylic Paintings

Jan McGuire painting, printed with permission.

Jan McGuire painting, printed with permission.

Jan McGuire (Bartlesville) paints so that viewers can step into a scene and feel as if they are there. Not surprisingly, she uses photographs and travel experiences to make her acrylic art very realistic.

“I study nature. I go outside every day. Nature is so diverse that I never have trouble coming up with ideas to paint,” McGuire said.

McGuire, who specializes in bird and mammal paintings, has exhibited her art globally, from Tanzania to the Smithsonian. She and her husband, a professional wildlife photographer, visit the zoo multiple times each year, seeking to capture the fine details that cause people to step into a scene, to feel the velvet moss, and to smell the flowers….

Jan McGuire painting, printed with permission.

Jan McGuire painting, printed with permission.

“What I appreciate about the Oklahoma City Zoo is the bird aviary in Oklahoma Trails. So many zoos focus on non-North American species. I’m fortunate enough to travel to Africa every year, so I’m much more interested in seeing native species up close. Songbirds are hard to view from a distance, but in the aviary, the birds are acclimated enough to people that we can get great photos.”

Her scissor-tailed fly catcher painting is a direct result of a visit to the zoo. She added tall grass prairie wildflowers to create an accurate habitat for the background.

“We have great wildlife in this state,” McGuire said. “When people see us at the zoo with our big cameras, they always ask us animal questions. I can’t help but educate people about animals. My husband has to keep reminding me, ‘You don’t work here.’”

Jay Tracy, Acrylic Paintings

Jay Tracey painting, printed with permission.

Jay Tracey painting, printed with permission.

It’s no surprise that Jay Tracy (Oklahoma City) became a painter, because his parents have owned an art company since 1968. After experimenting with different mediums since childhood, he now specializes in realism, landscapes and animal portraits.

“My entire life has revolved around art, all types of art,” Tracy said. “My most popular commissioned paintings are landscapes, florals, and animals. I’ve always loved animals, and I’m a big dog person.”

Working as a graphic artist for ten years at the Oklahoma City Zoo has allowed him to dabble in many different styles, from designing event posters on the computer to carving foam props for Haunt the Zoo. He particularly enjoys creating the ZooZeum exhibit panels.

Jay Tracey painting, printed with permission.

Jay Tracey painting, printed with permission.

As an evening job, Tracy teaches painting classes at the Paint Your Art Out gallery. He creates an original design, and then he leads the students in creating the same painting, but with their own unique style. His most requested themes are nature paintings.

In an effort to help animals, Tracy shares his artistic skills by offering special painting classes, in which the proceeds go toward the zoo’s rhino conservation fund. Each year he creates a new design, like the Serengeti landscape or this year’s popular peacock design.

“Working at the zoo has taught me to have a greater concern for animals that are near extinction. I realize how important conservation is and the important role we can play in saving animals.”

Jerry Bennett, Comic Illustrations

Jerry Bennett painting, printed with permission.

Jerry Bennett painting, printed with permission.

From superheroes to children’s picture books, comic art is a pop-culture craze, and Jerry Bennett (Edmond) is making a living drawing it.

“I grew up on comic books, cartoons and Disney,” Bennett said. “Now I draw licensed comic books and t-shirt designs for Marvel, Lucasfilm, and most recently, Power Rangers.”

Many of Bennett’s original science-fiction characters are created by combining animal features, like a recent lizard/cat creature for his Nadir’s Zenith series. He often visits the zoo to seek inspiration, because he finds that, “Sketching real animals helps me discover their personalities and attitudes.”

Jerry Bennett drawing, printed with permission.

Jerry Bennett drawing, printed with permission.

Early in his career, when Bennett’s “real job” was working at a door store, he did picture books and portraits as a side job. His big break came when he designed a Ghost Busters/Star Wars t-shirt design.

“That was when the Internet was still new. I sold 3,000 shirts in 24 hours. Someone said, ‘Your image went viral,’ and I asked, ‘What does that mean?’”

Now Bennett sees his drawing skills coming together, because many children’s books are starting to rely on comic book style art. However, many adults are familiar with Bennett’s art. Last year, he created a popular illustration of the Thunder basketball team for the cover of the Gazette and an Avengers design for the cover of the Oklahoma Humanities magazine.

Jerry Bennet drawing, images used by permission.

Jerry Bennet drawing, printed with permission.

Don’t be surprised to see Bennett at the zoo with his sketch book and fellow artists. He’s found that the zoo is a great location for “sketch crawls.” Artists go from exhibit to exhibit, drawing animals and creating story ideas.

“I think all kinds of artists are inspired by animal life and nature,” Bennett said. “My next goal is to write and illustrate a graphic novel about alien cats!”

Cliff Casey, Pencil Portraits

Sometimes people cry when they see Cliff Casey’s artwork. That’s because Casey (Norman) specializes in drawing favorite animals and special moments in people’s lives.

Cliff Casey horse drawing, printed with permission.

Cliff Casey horse drawing, printed with permission.

“I did a dog portrait for a client at Christmas. He said his wife cried when she saw the gift, because the dog’s facial expression was captured exactly.”

Casey works from photographs, sometimes combining people, animals, or locations together into one scene.

The zoo recently commissioned Casey to paint a portrait for Byron J. Gambulos, upon his retirement from the Zoological Trust. Gambulos and his wife, Patricia, had their first date at the zoo in the 1940s. Using an early photograph of 1940s visitors and the zoo’s original entrance, Casey recreated that special moment on canvas.

Cliff Casey giraffe painting, printed with permission.

Cliff Casey giraffe painting, printed with permission.

Casey has worked as a graphic artist at the zoo for 14 years. He really enjoys creating two and three dimensional artwork. Right now he’s carving a new sign for the Dan Moran Aviary out of a sign material that looks like wood.

“When I’m doing animal art, I take a lot of research photos at the zoo, looking to see how an animal has its head or body positioned.”

He nearly went to college to train as a park ranger, until a counselor talked him into going to art school instead. Now, Casey’s wildlife illustrations of turkey, deer and bears are published in many sportsman magazines.

“I grew up in the woods and on the lake,” Casey said, “but I can’t get outside or go fishing as much anymore, so drawing nature gives me a chance to connect with nature.”

(Note: This is a longer version of the text, as seen first in ZooSounds  Summer 2013, printed with permission)


Filed under Inspiration for Writers, Interviews, Published Article Announcement, Zoo

My Lifelong Love Affair with NASA

Standing with coworkers in front of the Orion test spacecraft. Photo by Anna Hintz.

This week, I joined the Mars mission (no alien wisecracks, please).  My name is on the Orion test spacecraft—the full scale prototype that actually tested the landing methods used upon reentry into earth’s atmosphere. 

 NASA made one-of-three scheduled stops atScience MuseumOklahomaon Jan 25 so that visitors could view the Orion as it travels from the testing site at White Sands, New Mexico to its destination at Kennedy Space Center in Florida.   

 A Historic Autograph

I went to see the capsule with co-workers from the zoo—we walked the short distance to theScienceMuseumOklahoma, and had uninterrupted time to view Orion before the museum opened to the public.  According to the spokesperson traveling with the test module, adding our signatures to the metal panels of the capsule provides inspiration to NASA, the engineering crews and the astronauts working on the project. 

 For good measure, I added the names of my two favorite little guys, Cooper and Brayden, who will soon be old enough to watch live footage of Orion’s mission as it unfolds in history.     

 The first unmanned mission into orbital space is scheduled for 2014.  If all goes well, astronauts will then travel farther into the solar system than ever before, with the goal of eventually landing humans on Mars.

My autograph on the Orion test spacecraft panel. Photo by Amy Stephens.

Back When I Trained Young Astronauts…

I have a special fondness for space exploration.  During college, I taught classes at the Air Space Museum of Oklahoma (then housed at the Omniplex).  I even had a brief career working for NASA, when I wrote teaching curriculum for their Young Astronauts program.  I was immersed in space travel for years; watching children’s eyes light up at the idea of becoming astronauts some day.  My favorite lesson was about the inventions that came about to combat zero-gravity in space—items that now benefit us every day, such as Velcro, bar coding, ear thermometers, ski boots, and cordless tools.

 Of course, I also remember the horror of seeing the spaceship Challenger explode before my eyes, as I watched the live broadcast from my 7th grade classroom.     

Contact with Mars

Even now, space exploration creeps back into my life when I least expect it.  In 2009, Distinctly Oklahoma magazine asked me to write an article celebrating the 40-year anniversary of the moon landing.  I researched seven Oklahomans who were critical to the space industry; men and women who were test pilots, engineers and astronauts.

 I had the pleasure of conducting an email interview with Donna Shirley, who managed the Mars Exploration mission, in which the Sojourner robot transmitted the first pictures from Mars’ surface in 1997.    

 Shirley and I shared little in common—she was a daredevil pilot prior to her NASA career, and I don’t even like going down a slide.  But we both have the same taste in reading, loving author Laurie King and Carolyn Hart (who is another Oklahoman I interviewed). Carolyn Hart, text only; Carolyn Hart, Oklahoma’s Agatha Christie

 In her book, Managing Martians, Shirley said, “The generation that had grown up watching Star Trek and Star Wars hadn’t seen a planetary landing in its lifetime.  Even if my feet weren’t going to make their mark on Martian soil, Sojourner’s tracks would be the next best thing.”  

 Although Shirley is now retired, she too, watches as NASA takes its next step toward Mars exploration.  That step will be viewed by a new generation of space hopefuls, such as Cooper and Brayden.  Although they are too young to understand that now, I hope that someday they will feel proud to have their names signed onto the test capsule that will likely be displayed in some museum—a show of support for the next “giant leap for mankind.”

 Further information and video from NASA is available at


Here’s the opening excerpt from “Fly Me To The Moon and Mars” by Amy Dee Stephen, published in Distinctly Oklahoma, July 2009 (I think it’s one of my best pieces):

It’s surprising that the television show Leave it to Beaver survived, because it debuted the same night the Space Age began.  While freckle-faced Beaver worried about expulsion from school, Americans faced a much larger threat. 

That night, Oct. 4, 1957, the Soviets launched the world’s first satellite into space.  Radios across the globe picked up the transmitted beep…beep…beep of Sputnik 1; a pulsing proclamation that Russia, “the enemy,” was more technologically advanced than the United States…  Oklahoma Astronauts; Oklahoma Astronauts, text only             

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Four Days with Gayla Peevey

Gayla Peevey Henderson and myself at the unveiling of her exhibit. Photo by Lisa Lee.

 Looking back, I know that meeting Gayla Peevey Henderson was not an accident.  A series of events led to our introduction in the middle of a gift store.  That culminated into the “Gayla Gala” event that occurred last weekend at the Oklahoma City Zoo.  Now, I’m honored to say that Gayla and her husband, Cliff, are treasured friends. 

 Nearly ten years ago, I researched Gayla’s childhood recording of “I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas” for my book Oklahoma City Zoo; 1902-1959.  Every time I’m asked to speak to a group about zoo history, Gayla’s hippo story is the most popular topic.  On occasion, the audience bursts into spontaneous singing of the song; at other times, I must give my best imitation of Gayla’s performance. 

 In April 2007, I received an unexpected phone call at work.  The quick-thinking cashier working in the gift shop called to say that I should rush down to meet Gayla Peevey.  I scrambled to grab an autograph pen and pull the 1953 “I Want a Hippopotamus” record album cover out of its archival box. 

 On any other day, the cashier might have paid no attention to the conversation going on near the register.  This particular girl (I don’t remember her name), had actually read my book, so her ears perked up when she heard Gayla tell her friend, “Look, my story’s in this book.”

Gayla at the ZooZeum. Photo by Lisa Lee.

 Two years later, the opening of the zoo’s history museum, the ZooZeum, was approaching.  I knew that we simply had to feature an exhibit about Gayla and how her Christmas song brought the first hippo to the Oklahoma City Zoo.  I called Gayla to ask if she would be willing to fly from California to unveil the exhibit.  She said yes!

 We began the planning for various special events to celebrate Gayla and her music.  In addition, I oversaw the research and installation of the ZooZeum exhibit, “A Hippo for Christmas” (huge thanks to Sherri Vance, who made everything happen behind-the-scenes). 

 Gayla’s visit spanned November 17-20, 2011.  Her arrival was heralded with a rash of media interviews; sharing her story and advertising the public sing-a-long and autograph session.  She did a question-and-answer session with zoo staff, and was the guest of honor at a private exhibit-unveiling, called the Gayla Gala.  In all cases, she proved herself charming and friendly.  Her ability to field questions, chat easily with DJs and burst into song and dance on cue showed that the knack for show business is still in her blood.    

  The day of the sing-a-long was nearly freezing, but about 350 people came to sing the hippo song, led by Gayla.  Almost 250 of them then visited the ZooZeum to meet Gayla and get autographs on a variety of hippo items custom-produced for the zoo gift shop (including my favorite, a snow globe music box).

 Gayla was very touched by all of the visitors’ stories about why the song was special to them.  Many of the children sang it for her; some had traveled many miles to see her. Gayla couldn’t believe that the song still had such a following.  In fact, she expressed to me that one of her fears about coming to the zoo was that no one would attend.  Instead, Gayla found herself treated like a celebrity.  “And I’m just a regular person at home,” she said.  “I’m a grandma, and I do dishes.”    

 I thoroughly enjoyed chauffeuring Gayla and Cliff around for four days.  They were delightful every second!  We sang together at the radio stations, experimented with different autograph pens, visited Bricktown by trolley, and ate Sonic hot dogs.  The hippo keepers even allowed Gayla to put food out in the yard for the zoo’s pygmy hippo.            

Gayla featured on News Channel 4. Photo by Tara Henson.

 Since I’m writing this on Thanksgiving Day 2011, I must say that I’m thankful that the gift shop cashier was paying attention that spring day in 2007; otherwise I might never have met Gayla Peevey.  She and Cliff are some of my favorite people, and I’m glad Gayla’s song lives on.

A few links from Gayla’s zoo visit:

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Filed under History, Interviews, Zoo

Interview with Jillian Harris


One year ago, I was standing in the freezing cold at the “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” jobsite in Oklahoma.  By persevering for hours after the rest of the media left, one other interviewer (from a county paper) and I managed to score an exclusive interview with celebrity designer, Jillian Harris.  I’ve been unable to sell the story to any magazine—so I’m releasing a transcription of the interview to the online world.  Jillian was excited and delightful as she talked about her then-secret design for the Skaggs’ ranch house.

Jillian Harris on the site of the Skaggs' Extreme Makeover. Photo by Amy Dee Stephens.

Jillian Harris, a Canadian who landed a role on an American reality show called The Bachelorette, is an interior designer by trade.  When the opportunity arose to use her skills as the celebrity designer for a 2010 episode of Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, she tackled the task with alacrity (and very little sleep).  In an exclusive and emotional interview at the construction site, Jillian explained why it was personally important to her to design the perfect home for a struggling rancher in Oklahoma.   

Jillian Harris Interview:

Amy: How did you “get into the heads” of the Skaggs family to design a home that they would love?

Jillian: What was great is that we got to spend time with (the) family, interviewing them, and took a little tour of the home.  Because I’ve done design in the past, it was so easy to see what really was special to them.  I think Audra did great job of managing with what she could and could see little bits of her in the house.  I could tell she loved teal, and loved the family, and had that rustic cowboy taste, but still with polished charm to it.  Walking through the house, talking to Audra and talking to Merritt gave me such a good indication of how to design it.  

Amy: Are there any specific treasures you can tell us about that will be featured in the home?

Jillian Harris reading architectural plans for the Skaggs' home. Photo by Amy Dee Stephens.

Jillian: I can’t tell you specific treasures, but can already tell you that this will be such a tear-jerking episode in the happiest ways possible.  The house will be beautiful.  I’ve watched the show since day one, and I can already tell that this home is going to capture the family beautifully (I’m already tearing up).

Amy: How did you volunteer to do this?

Jillian: I’ve watched the show forever, so I’ve been a huge fan, but having this crazy life in the last year–appearing on the Bachelor and Bachlorette–my life has changed a lot.  And I realize how fortunate I am (I’m such a baby, I’m tearing up again).  I’m so, so fortunate for the things I’ve been able to experience, and love the support I have not only of friends and family now, but my fans. 

I’ve always loved interior design, obviously, but I love being part of charities.  I love giving back, I love family, I love design, I love construction. To me it’s a perfect fit.  I’ve been here a couple days now, and I’m having the time of my life.  It feels so good to see everyone else giving back and for me to be able to give back.

Jillian Harris in a lift above the Skagg's construction site. Photo by Amy Dee Stephens.

I said to my mom the other day, it seems like the world needs a lot of love right now.  People aren’t giving enough love, so with this, you see how people are giving back and it’s so inspiring.  Makes you want to pray for strangers.  And smile at strangers and ask them how they are doing—and go back to the good old days. 

Amy: Is there something you will want to say to the family when you see them?

Jillian: If I can keep back my tears and keep from sounding like a baby—I’d thank them for inspiring me. I think sometimes we take life for granted and we think we’ve got it tough, and then you see a family like that who clearly is so strong and has so much love to give, and is just having a tough time, but they still keep their heads up and are still proud.  Very inspiring, So if anything, I would just thank them.

Other Interviewer: Has this been a good time?

Jillian: I think anyone who has the opportunity to volunteer, this is something that sticks with them forever, an incredible opportunity to be part of it.

Other Interviewer: Would you do this again? 

Jillian: I hope so, I said to them earlier, Yep, I’ll take the job, where do I sign? 

Other Interviewer: What do you think about this Oklahoma weather?

Jillian Harris with Merritt Skaggs. Photo by Amy Dee Stephens.

Jillian: As you know, I’m Canadian, so when we rolled out the other night, I said to a cab driver, “So, is this pretty typical?”  He said, “No, not at all.”  But I’m Canadian so I’m used to the weather.  The only downside to that is that I’m thinking I’d be on the construction site wearing a cute little plaid shirt, my new little white boots and I’m in marine-type boots and jacket.  But that’s not what matters.  That’s not what matters.  It’s cold, but people are running around, their blood’s pumping.

Amy: What will you be doing the next few days?

Jillian: In between building, you see we’re doing a lot of filming, but between filming, we still have to do a design.  You stay awake late at night to make sure the design is being done right and you’re working with the right people to get it done.  Because it’s my first time, so I want to be very, very involved and to make as many decisions as I can.   I’m not sleeping much because I’m so excited for the family—just energy everywhere.  Hard to lie down and fall asleep.

Amy: Are people out buying [decorator] things for you right now?

We actually went yesterday.  We bought a lot of stuff.  I think, well, I hope someone’s out there buying stuff–otherwise this interview is over and I have to go!

(Link to article “One Extreme Ranch House” by Amy Dee Stephens:  Extreme Ranch Makeover, article scan; Extreme Ranch Makeover, text only

Other celebrity photos taken at the Extreme Makeover: Home Edition site

Ty Pennington. Photo by Amy Dee Stephens.Ty Pennington. Photo by Amy Dee Stephens.

Xhibit. Photo by Amy Dee Stephens.Xhibit. Photo by Amy Dee Stephens.

Xhibit, Jillian Harris and Michael Moloney. Photo by Amy Dee Stephens.

Xhibit. Photo by Amy Dee Stephens.

Ty Pennington. Photo by Amy Dee Stephens.

Michael Moloney. Photo by Amy Dee Stephens.Xhibit, Jillian Harris and Michael Moloney. Photo by Amy Dee Stephens.


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