Oklahoma historian, educator, poet and author Alvin O. Turner likes to say he’s a “Class AA,” or minor league historian, “as opposed to a Big League or Triple-A historian.”
The humility and the baseball analogy are typical for Turner, who is known for his storytelling approach to research and writing about history.
Turner’s storytelling and modesty likely will get a workout when he receives the Arrell Gibson Lifetime Achievement Award at this year’s Oklahoma Book Awards banquet, set for Saturday at the Jim Thorpe Museum and Oklahoma Sports Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City.
Twenty-eight books have been chosen as finalists in the 25th annual Oklahoma Book Awards competition. Winners in the categories of fiction, poetry, design/illustration, children/young adult and nonfiction will be announced at the banquet.
Sponsored by the Friends of the Oklahoma Center for the Book, the awards recognize books written in the previous year by Oklahomans or about Oklahoma. Of the 28 book finalists, 20 are by authors, designers or illustrators who reside in Oklahoma. This year, 102 books were entered in the competition.
Turner said receiving the Arrell Gibson award will be especially meaningful for him because he personally knew the Norman historian. Gibson served as the first president of the Oklahoma Center for the Book.
“I admired him and I talked with him about what I was doing,” Turner, 70, said during a recent telephone interview from his home in Norman. “Arrell Gibson was one of those people who was a mentor to young people. Having this award, because his name is on it, means a lot.”
Born in Guthrie in 1943, Turner earned a bachelor’s degree in history at Central State University (now the University of Central Oklahoma); a master’s degree in history from Central Missouri State University; and his doctorate in history from Oklahoma State University. During his career, he held a variety of teaching and university administrative positions, including dean for the School of Humanities and Social Sciences and professor of history at East Central University in Ada from 1997 until his retirement in 2006.
Life’s great questions
Critics and admirers alike have said Turner’s historical research and writing is based upon a holistic vision of the world. For him, it is not enough to merely relay the facts pertaining to a particular period or historical incident. Throughout his career, Turner has searched for a deeper understanding of the people, places and events that have shaped Oklahoma, the nation and today’s society.
“I think the kind of history I’ve done is not so highly regarded as other kinds,” Turner said. “But I’m OK with that. I’ve always been interested in the great questions about life and the meaning of life, and that’s what I’ve looked for in the letters, diaries and memoirs of ordinary people that I’ve run across in my work.
“I think I’ve benefited from what they said, and I think other people can benefit from it too.”
The author of six books, three books of poetry and numerous articles, Turner has focused his scholarship primarily on regional history. His work has proved to be an asset to researchers, historians and general audiences who want better insight regarding Oklahoma’s story. Much of Turner’s research has been devoted to the collection of what he calls “non-elite memoirs.” These are stories of ordinary Oklahomans who have published their autobiographies or memoirs. His current work involves the annotations of more than 250 of these memoirs.
Three of Turner’s books have been college textbooks and three were geared to the general public. Turner edited a compilation of writer Caroline Henderson’s work into the book “Letters From the Dust Bowl,” which was a 2004 finalist for the nonfiction award from the Oklahoma Center for the Book and for the Centennial Oklahoma Reads Oklahoma Initiative.
“Caroline Henderson was an amazing woman,” Turner said. “I think she was the smartest woman I ever got to know. I never met her because she was dead, but I read 3,000 of her letters, so I got a pretty good sense of her mind.
“I tend to fall in love with everyone I write about,” Turner added. “I enjoy the research more than the writing.”
With Bob Blackburn, executive director of the Oklahoma Historical Society, Turner co-authored “First Family: A Centennial History of the First Baptist Church of Oklahoma City.” Turner’s latest book, “L.W. Marks: A Baptist Progressive in Missouri & Oklahoma, 1862-1943,” was published in 2009.
Turner’s poetry also has focused on regional themes. In “Waiting for the Rain,” Turner’s poems about the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression help to preserve “memories of people’s responses to hard times.”
“Re-Membering Journeys” also is a reflection of hard times. For Turner, however, the times are “journeys,” the products of “an increasingly conscious process of re-membering, taking old memories apart and putting them back together again.” In “Hanging Men,” Turner takes a poetic approach to the history of Ada, from its birth to the late 19th century. Particular emphasis is placed on the events surrounding the hanging of four men in Ada in 1909.
AT A GLANCE
Oklahoma Book Awards finalists
“Vampire Baby,” by Kelly Bennett, Houston; published by Candlewick Press, Somerville, Mass.
“The Year of the Turnip,” by Glenda Carlile, Oklahoma City; published by New Forums Press Inc., Stillwater.
“The Dark Between,” by Sonia Gensler, Norman; published by Alfred A. Knopf, New York City.
“Nugget & Fang,” by Tammi Sauer, Edmond; published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Boston.
“MOJO,” by Tim Tharp, Midwest City; published by Alfred A. Knopf.
“How I Became a Ghost,” by Tim Tingle, of Canyon Lake, Texas; published by The RoadRunner Press, Oklahoma City.
“Chikasha Stories, Volume Three: Shared Wisdom,” illustrated by Jeannie Barbour, Ada; published by Chickasaw Press, Ada.
“The Impossible Dream: The Miracle of the Jasmine Moran Children’s Museum,” designed by Nathan Dunn, Edmond; published by Oklahoma Heritage Association, Oklahoma City.
“Proudly Protecting Oklahoma: The 75th Anniversary of the Oklahoma Highway Patrol,” designed by Skip McKinstry, Oklahoma City; published by Oklahoma Heritage Association.
“Modern Spirit: The Art of George Morrison,” designed by Tony Roberts and Julie Rushing, both of Norman; published by University of Oklahoma Press, Norman.
“Devon,” book design by Jenny Chan and Lisa Yelon with Jack Design, of Hamden, Conn; photography by Alan Karchmer, Washington, D.C., and Joe C. Aker of Houston; published by The Images Publishing Group.
“Kind of Kin,” by Rilla Askew, Hartshorne; published by HarperCollins, New York, N.Y.
“A Map of Tulsa,” by Benjamin Lytal, Chicago; published by Penguin Books, New York, N.Y.
“The Hanging of Samuel Ash,” by Sheldon Russell, Waynoka; published by Minotaur Books, New York, N.Y.
“Che Guevara’s Marijuana and Baseball Savings and Loan,” by Jack Shakely, Rancho Mirage, Calif.; published by Xlibris, Bloomington, Ind.
“The Southern Chapter of the Big Girl Panties Club,” by Lynda Stephenson, Edmond; published by Outskirts Press, Parker, Colo.
“Sweet Dreams,” by Carla Stewart, Tulsa; published by Faith Words Press, Nashville, Tenn.
“Banking in Oklahoma Before Statehood,” by Michael J. Hightower, Charlottesville, Va.; and published by OU Press, Norman.
“Came Men on Horses: The Conquistador Expeditions of Francisco Vazquez de Coronado and Don Juan de Onate,” by the late Stan Hoig; published by University Press of Colorado, Boulder.
“Main Street Oklahoma: Stories of Twentieth-Century America,” edited by Patricia Loughlin, Stillwater, and Linda W. Reese, Norman; published by OU Press.
“Riding Out the Storm: 19th-Century Chickasaw Governors, Their Lives and Intellectual Legacy,” by Phillip Carroll Morgan, Ada; published by Chickasaw Press, Ada.
“The Fifth and Final Name: Memoir of an American Churchill,” by Rhonda Noonan, Sand Springs; published by Chumbolly Press, Sand Springs.
“Trail Sisters: Freedwomen in Indian Territory, 1850-1890,” by Linda W. Reese, Norman; published by Texas Tech University Press, Lubbock.
“When the Wolf Came: The Civil War and the Indian Territory,” by Mary Jane Warde, Stillwater; published by University of Arkansas Press, Fayetteville.
“The White Bird,” by William Bernhardt, Midwest City; published by Balkan Press.
“Red Dirt Roads: Sketches of Western Oklahoma by the Custer County Truck Stop Poets,” by Yvonne Carpenter and Nancy Goodwin, Clinton, Catherine McCraw, Weatherford, Clynell Reinschmiedt, Edmond, and Carol Waters, Cordell; published by Haystack Press, Clinton.
“Poetry Unbound: Words by and About Women Inmates,” by Beth Robinson, Oklahoma City, and the Mabel Bassett Correctional Center Writers of McLoud; published by CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, Seattle.
“Black,” by Sarah Webb, Burnett, Texas; published by Virtual Artists Collective, Chicago.