It was George Nigh's rule of thumb No. 2.
Brad Henry, who served as a summer intern for Nigh in 1982, had just been elected governor the first time. At a benefit, Nigh, who had four times been sworn in as governor, had five rules of thumb derived from his experience to share with Henry, who was seated next to the lectern.
“Two, read the language when people are talking to you, not just what they are saying, but what they mean,” Nigh said. “When they say, ‘I've always voted for you,' stop and listen to the music, because they really want to talk to you.
“When they start by saying, ‘I'm a taxpayer,' run, because you're getting ready to have a royal a-- chewing right then and there.”
After showing a video clip of Nigh reciting his rules, Henry said rule of thumb No. 2 proved true many times in his two terms as governor.
The two governors were among those at a symposium on “The Governorship and Legacy of George Nigh” Monday and Tuesday at the Oklahoma Historical Society.
The symposium was the second in a series featuring Oklahoma governors and is sponsored by the Oklahoma Historical Society, the University of Oklahoma Center for Studies in Democracy and Culture and the OU Center for Political Communication.
The first, held in 2012, recognized the late J. Howard Edmondson. Next year's seminar is scheduled to focus on the late Henry Bellmon.
State Supreme Court Justice Steven Taylor, who grew up in McAlester admiring Nigh, spoke of Nigh's ongoing public service. Nigh is 85.
“If you go back to the United States Navy, it's nearly 70 years of public service to the state and to the nation,” Taylor said. “United States Navy, state representative, lieutenant governor, governor, president of the University of Central Oklahoma and since that time, statesman. And that is what he is today as a public servant, a statesman.”
Throughout the symposium, those Nigh has worked with, as well as family members, talked of someone with a knack for handling situations with the betterment of all in mind. Sometimes that meant not allowing a potentially explosive situation to ignite.
Neal McCaleb was the House minority floor leader in Nigh's first term. McCaleb said it was tough because of the small Republican contingent in the Legislature. He said about all they could do was toss “vocal grenades” the way of the Democrats, including the governor.
McCaleb remembers one day when Nigh made some kind of a statement in a news conference.
“I came out immediately with a rebuttal,” McCaleb said at the symposium with Nigh in attendance. “It was a slow news day, George, and the reporters ran up to you to get a response to my rebuttal.
“I never will forget George's classic retort. He said, ‘Well, if you stop at every barking dog you'll never get to town.'”
Among finest hours
John Greiner, a longtime Capitol reporter for The Oklahoman, said he feels one of Nigh's finest hours occurred when Nigh was lieutenant governor, and the governor was out of state.
Students at Langston University, worried about not getting enough funding for their university, went to the state Capitol in droves, Greiner said. They made their way to the fourth floor and the fifth floor and sat in front of the doors so that the House of Representatives couldn't get out, and neither could the reporters.
They wanted to persuade the House to give Langston more funding.
With the governor out of state, Nigh was acting as governor. Greiner was covering the Senate, so he was able to walk around and observe.
“It's kind of like fate said, ‘Tag, you're it, and there he is,'” Greiner said. “I felt his approach to things had pretty much saved the day, because that could have been a very explosive situation.”
Nigh told Greiner years later that as governor that day, he got the Capitol police together and told them, “I do not want to see a New York Times tomorrow morning with a picture of a Capitol police officer slugging one of these Langston students.”
“So Nigh set the tone,” Greiner said. “The kids were very polite. I just felt like he acted very responsibly, and he really made sure nothing happened that day that would have caused harm to anybody, and then of course I found out later why I felt that way.
“I thought it was one of his finest hours, and he hadn't even become governor yet.”
Bob Blackburn, executive director of the Oklahoma Historical Society, said the symposium speakers took him back to the 1960s, '70s and '80s.
“In looking at those times, it was a time of division,” Blackburn said. “There was Watergate, riots across the country and the Vietnam War splitting us apart. It was a period of division.
“I think George Nigh was a force for unity in the state, and I think he did it through his policies. He wanted to serve everyone in the state.
“He wanted to include women in government. He wanted to include minorities. He helped reorganize boards and commissions. He created some diversity we'd never had before.”
Some speakers noted how Nigh led the state in times of boom and in bust and adjusted appropriately.
“It wasn't just ideology, it wasn't governing by the next headlines. It was governing for what's the greatest good for the greatest number of people,” Blackburn said.
The lucky one
Even when he wasn't in office, Nigh was winning people over.
Bob Burke, in “Good Guys Wear White Hats: The Life of George Nigh,” wrote that on Jan. 14, 1963, Bellmon was sworn in as governor. Nigh was out of government and out of a job.
So Nigh started a public relations firm and opened offices in downtown Oklahoma City. It was there he met Donna Mashburn, who worked for Trans World Airlines as a ticket agent at its desk in the Skirvin Hotel.
Donna was a single parent with a 10-year-old son from a previous marriage. Nigh, known as an eligible bachelor, was introduced to Donna.
They began dating.
“Everybody kept telling me how lucky I was, and I thought ‘Well, OK, maybe I better do this,'” Donna Nigh said. “But then later, when we married, I kept trying to figure out where this lucky stuff came in, because he had just finished a campaign and was a hundred thousand dollars in debt.
“He did not have a house and he did not have a car. I had a house, I had a car, and I wasn't in debt.
“I never could figure out why I was the lucky one. But as it turned out, I really was the lucky one.”