As an advertising executive, Ray Ackerman may best be remembered for overseeing the creation of the B.C. Clark's Christmas jingle or the “Thank Heaven for 7-Eleven” campaign.
As a civic leader, Ackerman is fondly remembered as “Old Man River” — the man who more than anyone else made the Oklahoma River a reality through sheer will power. Others may recall him as a proud Navy veteran, a fighter pilot who later rose to the rank of admiral.
Moreover, Ackerman, who died Wednesday morning in his northwest Oklahoma City home at age 90, is being remembered.
Ackerman's passing was observed Wednesday by Gov. Mary Fallin and Lt. Gov. Todd Lamb, both of whom noted his promotion of the city and efforts to bring life to the Oklahoma River.
Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett called Ackerman a “can-do guy,” adding that he was part of a minority of civic leaders who pushed for development of the river against the skepticism of many others who thought it could not be done.
Larry Nichols, executive chairman of Devon Energy Corp., called Ackerman “a true leader” and “shameless promoter” of all matters involving Oklahoma City.
“He had a heck of a life, an incredible life,” said Angus McQueen, chief executive officer of Ackerman McQueen, the firm built by Ackerman. “His 80s were as exciting as his 30s. He had a heck of a company here before I came here.”
A lover of rivers
Ackerman was born in the riverside Pennsylvania city of Pittsburgh — a detail cited by himself and those who knew him as a key to his love of the Oklahoma River.
He served five years in the U.S. Navy as a fighter pilot, and once survived a fiery crash with another plane. He moved to Oklahoma City in 1947 and worked early on as an advertising salesman with The Oklahoman while earning a degree during night school at Oklahoma City University.
After graduation, he joined a staff of four at the George W. Knox Advertising Agency, a firm he acquired in 1954. Two years later, Ackerman's firm created the B.C. Clark Christmas jingle, a song that remains an annual holiday favorite and is widely considered the most well-known local advertising campaign in the city's history.
Between 1954 and 1970, Ackerman grew the firm's annual billings from $250,000 to $6 million. In the early 1970s, he was joined by the father-and-son team of Marvin and Angus McQueen.
Under their combined leadership, the agency grew from handling only local accounts to serving major accounts such as the National Rifle Association, Daisy Air Rifles, Nocona Boots, Resistol Hats, Food and Wines from France, Holland-based Droste Chocolates, Pizza Hut and Sheraton Hotels.
When Ackerman retired from active leadership and became chairman emeritus of the agency in 1992, its billings topped $92 million. It is now the largest agency based in Oklahoma and ranked in the top 2 percent of all agencies in the United States, with annual billings topping $200 million.
Ackerman's dedication to civic service was noted early on, and included an unsuccessful run for mayor in 1967. For 20 years he served as chairman of the hosting committee for the National Finals Rodeo.
Friends note Ackerman never retired.
Roy Williams, president of the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber, noted Ackerman is unique in that he served a brief stint as president just before serving as chairman in the late 1980s. He is also the only person to have an annual award issued in his name by the chamber.
“We've not had someone like him before, and likely never will again,” Williams said. “Ray lived and breathed the chamber. I don't know if we ever had anymore more supportive of the chamber.”
It was as chamber chairman that Ackerman helped lead planning for quality of life improvements to the city that ultimately became a part of the Metropolitan Area Projects fathered by former Mayor Ron Norick.