Having written numerous features on executives for our Sunday business section, I've noticed Oklahoma leaders frequently cite a former teacher for their success or inspiration.
I recently had the pleasure of thanking and saluting one of mine.
Bob Ambler, 88, influenced thousands of students and athletes over his 30 years (1952-1982) with Midwest City Public Schools. When he coached me in high school track and basketball, I adored him.
Friday night, at a surprise tribute for him at the Midwest City Community Center, I learned I was far from alone. Some 175 attended.
Gary White, who works in the fishing and outdoor department of ESPN, was known in the mid-1950s in Midwest City as “Mister Basketball” — thanks in part to Ambler's coaching. He recalled Ambler regularly requiring 100 hook shots with his right hand and then 100 with his left, “until I didn't know which hand I was using, which of course was the reason for doing it.”
Kerri Gilmore Harris, with whom I graduated in 1977, remembers Ambler standing under the basketball goal and slapping players' legs if they went off the wrong one on a lay up. He'd say calmly, “Next time jump off the leg that stings.”
A hands-on science teacher who brought science to life for his students, Ambler inspired the teaching careers of many, including my twin sister who taught science for 23 years here and in Boston, and 1960s student Deanna McCullough of Houston, whose thank-you letter was read Friday.
McCullough wrote that she put off biology until her senior year because she thought she'd hate it. Instead — thanks to Mr. Ambler — she loved it and went on to earn a bachelor's in biology at Oklahoma Christian University in 1967, a master's and doctorate in sciences at Oklahoma State University, and has taught 29 years at the University of Houston, where's she's assistant chair for the Department of Natural Sciences.
Seated at the head table, Ambler smiled, nodded, and obviously recognized the faces and names of all of his beloved former students who gathered to laud him. That didn't surprise me having phoned him only a few weeks ago about Judy Henderson, a fellow 1977 graduate and mother of the L.A. Dodgers' Matt Kemp.
“You mean ‘my' Judy?” he quickly replied of his former Bomber roundballer.
Science and the mechanics of sports aside, the biggest impact Ambler made on all of us was on our character.
He gave of himself, whether it was voluntarily teaching a night nature study class in which he showed students how to craft their own fishing lures or hunting bows, calling basketball practices for 6 in the morning, taking kids to Lake Tenkiller on fishing and camping trips, or trotting a class out to the parking lot to show them how to change a flat tire.
“I learned self reliance, not to give up and accept my shortcomings,” another past student wrote.
He used to fondly refer to us girls on the basketball and track teams as “weak sisters” — words that rang in my head when I gutted my way through three Boston marathons. And he taught us the importance of time management — once making my sister and I, who were starting guards on the half-court sophomore girls basketball team, sit the bench until three minutes left on the clock, because we were tardy for the pregame warm-up.
Though in the fourth period of his life, Ambler maintains an “active, brilliant mind and is still teaching,” said John Meyer, a 1960 graduate and retired office systems salesman who regularly visits with his former teacher and mentor over breakfast at McDonald's.
“The only difference is his detailed drawings of plant parts, fishing lures or combustion engines, are done on napkins versus blackboards,” Meyer said.
At a glance
All about Bob
Bob Ambler grew up in Texarkana, Ark., as the youngest of 10 children. He dropped out of high school after his sophomore year and, lying about his age, tried to join the military. But all forces rejected him because there were no uniforms big enough for him at 6 foot 8 inches tall and 225 pounds. He finally was accepted by the Army for an experimental glider program and later served as a demolition expert across most of Europe during World War II. After the war, he earned his GED and went on the GI Bill to the University of Arkansas, where he lettered in football, basketball and track. The New York Giants and Minneapolis Lakers wanted him to play professional ball for $5,000 a season, but he instead played basketball for General Motors, which paid $2,500 more. He came to Midwest City after his wife, Liz, now deceased, was transferred to Tinker Air Force Base. The most he earned was $17,000, the year he retired.