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Greater Tulsa Reporter

John Erling Keeps History Alive with Voices of Oklahoma

Editor at Large

VOICES OF OKLAHOMA: The Voices of Oklahoma website is at, where viewers can click on the site and listen to the voices of people with interesting histories being interviewed by John Erling.

We have the paintings so we know what Thomas Jefferson looked like. We have his writings so we know what he thought. But, says John Erling, “We’ll never hear Thomas Jefferson’s voice again.”

Born in Thief River Falls, Minn., Erling grew up in the Dakotas and came to Tulsa via Omaha, Neb. He immediately found himself interviewing virtually everybody of note in Oklahoma. He became immersed in the lore of the Sooner state. Erling who ruled morning radio for 30 years as the drive-time host for KRMG radio said, “For me the sound of a voice is a defining signature. It is greater than an autograph. The inflections, the pauses all come from within.” Following this realization has launched John Erling into a new project, one that will keep him occupied for the rest of his life.

“When I left KRMG, I went to work for the Ackerman McQueen advertising agency. The agency had a very inter-active website promoting Oklahoma tourism and I began to think about other possibilities. One such possibility came to me when I had lunch with Walt Helmerich. We talked about recording his interview possibly for a book. But as I was driving down the street one day, I thought about placing Walt’s voice on an Internet website. I could envision the site being a powerful educational tool. With today’s technology, we could preserve these voices forever and ever.” Erling’s next thought was “Where to start.”

Walt Helmerich liked the idea and interested his friend Henry Zarrow in the project of setting up a website based on Erling’s ideas. Zarrow agreed to be interviewed by Erling and was underway. To date, he has some 20 interviews edited and on the website. An additional sixty interviews have been done and are being readied for the website. The interviews which are 90 minutes to two hours in length include a wide scope of people and their activities: Peggy Helmerich talking about her Hollywood career, Henry Bellmon talking, of course, about politics, Oral Roberts talking about his ministry and the founding of ORU among others. Some of the interviews came just in the nick of time. Bellmon, Roberts, former Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation Wilma Mankiller, former University of Tulsa President Ben Henneke and television personality and State Representative Betty Boyd, have since died. But their voices and remembrances have been preserved forever.

Most of the people mentioned above are known to the bulk of Oklahomans but Erling wants to go further. “This site is not for the rich and famous only. All Oklahomans have stories to tell and we want to hear them. If any readers know of someone who has a great tale to tell, contact me. I feel like I’m doing the right thing here. This website is being built for the children being born today and for their grandchildren.”

The website was launched in April 2010 with minimal publicity but it is quickly becoming well-known. It has received a third of a million hits so far with thousands of visitors. Also the breadth of interest is larger than Oklahoma. It includes hits from people in other parts of the United States, of course, but the second largest “hitter” is from China. Third is the Russian Federation. Then most of Europe is included (Sooners in Latvia?) as well as South Korea, Indonesia, Israel, Mexico, India and the Philippines among others.

Though John Erling has donated his service, his operation takes money for equipment and materials. He has start up monies from the Grace and Franklin Bernsen Foundation, H. A. and Mary Kay Chapman Charitable Trusts, the Helmerich Foundation, the George Kaiser Family Foundation, the New City Foundation, the William K. Warren Foundation and the Williams Companies Foundation. He says he also has received enormous help from both the Tulsa and the Oklahoma Historical Societies. “They’ve never acted like I’m invading their turf,” he says. “I know there are others who are interested in this kind of thing and have contributions that I would welcome, financially and historically. I also invite students, teachers and the general public to listen to the voices of”

The 20 interviews John Erling has on the website are just the tip of the iceberg. “Wait until we have 50 or one 100 interviews,” he enthuses. Even THAT will only be the tip of the iceberg. The voice of Thomas Jefferson is forever stilled but the great figures of Oklahoma will live on and on and on.

Updated 03-08-2011

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