Three former Oklahoma governors and the current office holder shared their views on leading the state, their post-gubernatorial lives and business during a joint appearance at the Oklahoma Venture Forum.
Gov. Mary Fallin hosted the event Monday at the Governor's Mansion in Oklahoma City, and led off the event by touting the state's job growth before greeting former governors George Nigh, David Walters and Brad Henry.
“I'm also very excited because, after reading all of the good things that you're doing, I know that there's hope so that when I exit from office, maybe I can go out and make money, too,” Fallin said.
Nigh said he had little to share on the topic of building personal wealth but said public service remains the highest ambition. Nigh said he told a vocational counselor when he was in the ninth grade that his goal was to become governor of Oklahoma.
Nigh, who won his first political race as a college senior, was Oklahoma's youngest legislator and later its youngest lieutenant governor, “and, as I said the other night, the oldest living ex-governor,” he said.
“I ran on service, and that's what I would like to say even after being governor — you need to serve,” he said.
Nigh and his wife, Donna, spend much of their time working for developmentally disabled Oklahomans.
“I don't mind standing up in front of a high school graduating class and my opening line will be this: ‘I am a professional politician,” he said. “In this day and age, it bothers me why we just attack somebody just because they offer their name.”
To those who complain about elected officials at any level, Nigh said he offers this advice: “OK. You run.”
“Let's talk about service. Let's try to get people to serve, and let's quit attacking those who want to serve. That's our country. The roots of this country is a democracy, a republic, in which you elect your officials, only if they offer themselves for office,” Nigh said.
Walters said he would say little about his time as governor, other than to quote former Gov. “Alfalfa” Bill Murray: “It was just one damn thing after another.”
Walters said he was able to attend Easter church services with his three daughters and two grandchildren because his children are able to pursue their careers in Oklahoma, in part because of the efforts of groups such as Oklahoma Venture Forum.
“There are a few of these organizations, but I'm not sure they're this vibrant, this long-lasting and do this much good,” Walters said. “The work that you do — day in, day out — to do this thing called networking, which is complicated and hard to make a template out of, to try to build this economy so our children can stay close and the economic opportunities can stay in Oklahoma is something I'm going to congratulate you for.”
After recounting some of the business accomplishments of his family, Walters said, “That's what life after governor is — it's about families and enjoying the success and the challenges of your children and grandchildren.”
Now head of Walters Power International, Walters was governor when the state launched its Quality Jobs program. Walters, whose company operates in a dozen countries, joked that he could offer a couple of investment opportunities in Pakistan “that would turn your faces ashen white.”
Walters' hometown of Canute honored him after his term with a granite obelisk erected in a highway median outside the local cemetery.
“When I got out there, it was quite evident a number of my fellow Canutians thought I had died — stacks and stacks of faded plastic flowers,” he said. “So if you see anyone from Canute, tell them I'm still very much alive and
Walters said, unlike Nigh, his ambition as a high school freshman raised in a strongly Democratic household was to “buy a big house from a rich Republican.”
“I'm proud to announce this week I'm buying (former Oklahoma City Mayor) Kirk Humphreys' home at Lake Eufaula,” he said. “I've now achieved my life goal.”
Henry, who works with an Edmond law firm and also runs a consulting business, said there is a sense of freedom associated with leaving the governor's post, but the change raised at least one challenge — parking.
“For eight years, somebody drove me right to the front door of every place I needed to be,” he said. “Now, on a daily basis, I have to figure out where in the heck to park, and it's just driving me nuts.”
“I'm always late anyway, but now I'm doubly late,” Henry said.
Henry said he still spends much of his time promoting Oklahoma, although “people don't listen as much.”
His consulting firm is working with the Chickasaw Tribe and other businesses to bring jobs to the state, Henry said.
“I'm having the time of my life,” he said.