A good man died last week. John Henry Ward was 64, known mostly as a two-sport star at OSU, football and wrestling, back in the he-man days of the 1960s.
But Ward was more than that. Ward was an Oklahoma hero. The real kind.
In a den of vipers, Ward stood tall. In perhaps the biggest political corruption case in Oklahoma history, the County Commissioners scandal of 30 years ago, Ward was an honest man.
“John was a brave, dedicated Oklahoman,” said Tom Daxon, our state auditor and inspector from 1979-83. “At a time when county government was rife with corruption, John, almost alone, conducted himself honestly.”
After an NFL career that included five seasons with the Minnesota Vikings, Ward returned to northeast Oklahoma (he grew up in Tulsa) and became a Delaware County commissioner.
Bill Price was the U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Oklahoma and led the prosecution in the County Commissioners scandal, which led to more than 200 convictions for kickbacks.
Price said the feds joked that their operation was called Diogenes, after the mythical Greek cynic who carried a lamp in the daylight, claiming to look for an honest man.
Price's investigation uncovered suppliers who were bribing commissioners. Price said when the FBI began flipping those suppliers, they would have long lists of commissioners. The lists would be grouped by honest and dishonest.
Price said the lists might be 60 names strong. Maybe five of the 60 would be labeled honest. And Ward's name would always be among the honest.
“We absolutely knew he was one of the honest ones,” Price said.
Ward helped with the investigation. He didn't go undercover, didn't wear a wire, but Price didn't blame him for that.
Price convicted commissioners from 60 of the 77 Oklahoma counties. But he estimates that out of more than 200 commissioners total, only 10 were honest.
Later, Ward served as executive director of the Association of County Commissioners and helped to restore some credibility to the office.
Ward even asked Price, the great villain to county commissioners, to speak at their association meeting.
“He was definitely a good guy,” Price said. “One that ought to serve as a great example.”
Since 2002, Ward had been vice president of The Poultry Federation and director of its Oklahoma City operations.
“I used to cheer for John Ward at OSU, both on the field and the mat,” Daxon said.
“A lot of county governments today leave much to be desired, but few are outright crooks. Oklahomans thankful for the improvement should be thankful that we had John Henry Ward.”
Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at (405) 760-8080 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. He can be heard Monday through Friday from 4:40-5:20 p.m. on The Sports Animal radio network, including FM-98.1. You can also view his personality page at newsok.com/berrytramel.