“He just charged ahead.”
Janna Rousey, the daughter of J. Leland Gourley, remembered her dad as a man who always pushed forward, no matter what.
Gourley, the editor and publisher of Oklahoma City Friday newspaper and a longtime journalism, business and civic leader in Oklahoma, has died. He was 94.
Gourley broke his hip after taking a fall while on a trip to Columbus, Ohio, said his wife of 37 years, Vicki Clark Gourley. The couple returned home, and Gourley was on the way to a rehabilitation center Saturday when he died, Vicki Gourley said.
“We've traveled, published the newspaper, served on boards and just had a fabulous life,” Vicki Gourley said.
His life did not come without obstacles.
At 12, Leland Gourley became an orphan. His mother had died of tuberculosis and his father left for the oil fields and never came home. It was the height of the Great Depression when Gourley was shuffled from town to town, state to state, relative to relative. He started his working life at 12, shoveling coal to fuel the fire at his school in the mornings. But in the ninth grade, his life took a new path. He was hired as a high school correspondent for a small-town Missouri newspaper.
“When he got that job on the school newspaper, when they were looking for a high school correspondent, that gave him the opportunity to see where he could go with his gift of writing,” Vicki Gourley said.
His passion for journalism led him to the University of Oklahoma and eventually to The Associated Press, where he became state editor before being drafted into the Army for World War II. He kept reporting for the military while he served the country.
“Going on to OU and working on The Oklahoma Daily, it was all he ever wanted to do after that,” Vicki Gourley said.
Upon his return to Oklahoma, Gourley bought a daily paper, the Henryetta Free-Lance.
He earned a reputation as an innovator who took risks and never shied from controversy, said Mark Thomas, executive vice president of the Oklahoma Press Association.
His life took a different turn when James Howard Edmondson invited Gourley to run his campaign for governor.
The slogan “Big Red E,” a reference to Edmondson's red hair and OU's powerhouse football team, was “classic Leland Gourley way of communicating,” Thomas said. Edmondson was elected in 1958.
Former Gov. George Nigh was running alongside Edmondson for lieutenant governor when he met Gourley. They became lifelong friends.
“I was able, from my position, to see up close and personal that Leland Gourley was a tremendous contributor to the modernization of Oklahoma government,” Nigh said.
As Edmondson's chief of staff, Gourley shored up the governor's effort to ensure state jobs were given based on merit and helped him enact a central purchasing system that cut the major source of kickbacks.
“He was dedicated to his public service. He was dedicated to his country for military service. He was dedicated to his family. He's been dedicated to his friends and certainly has been dedicated to his state,” Nigh said.
“He'd always been a reformer and that's what attracts anybody to journalism, is the desire to improve the quality of life for everybody around us,” Thomas said. “He was really privileged to be able to do that for much of his life and passed on a great legacy to all of us.”
Vicki Gourley met her husband in 1976, two years after he founded Oklahoma City Friday, which covers The Village and Nichols Hills.
They published the paper together for nearly 40 years. The couple had a blended family with four children, Janna and Jay Gourley and Kelly and Brandon Clark. Their brood expanded to include grandchildren, great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren.
Gourley served in leadership roles on numerous journalism, civic and business leadership organizations, such as the Oklahoma Press Association, Rotary Club and Greater Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce.
His columns and editorials during a half-century as a publisher in the news industry have captured hundreds of awards.
A recent column, published in The Oklahoman in July, asks Oklahoma colleges to better prepare teachers to teach low-income students to read.
Kelly Dyer Fry, editor of The Oklahoman and vice president of news for OPUBCO Communications Group, said Gourley will be missed by all.
“Leland was a close friend and colleague. He carved out a niche in Oklahoma City and brought a strong sense of community. He was a voice of reason, and we welcomed his guest commentary on our opinion pages. I, along with many others, will miss him.”
Gov. Mary Fallin released a statement after his death, calling him a talented and committed journalist who loved Oklahoma.
“He left his mark on Oklahoma,” Fallin said. “He was a personal friend who I admired and respected. My prayers and deepest sympathies go out to his family and friends during this time of loss.”
At 94, her husband went to the Friday office every working day, Vicki Gourley said.
“He was first and foremost a newspaperman, one that made it on his own,” Vicki Gourley said.
Plans are pending for memorial services.
Adam Kemp, Staff Writer