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.
Norick noted that without Ackerman's relentless lobbying of state lawmakers, the North Canadian River as it flows through the city never would have been renamed the Oklahoma River. He also credited Ackerman with being a big supporter of including the creation of dams to revive the frequently dry riverbed into a recreational series of lakes.
In the 2005 biography, “Old Man River: The Life of Ray Ackerman,” author Bob Burke wrote that Ackerman had a long love affair with rivers dating from childhood in Pittsburgh when he swam in the Monongahela and Ohio rivers.
His advocacy of developing the riverfront did not end with the successful completion of the MAPS project.
Mike Knopp, executive director of the Oklahoma City Boathouse Foundation, said Ackerman's role in the creation of the Boathouse District cannot be overstated, adding “the story is not over with respect for his role in riverfront redevelopment.”
Knopp credited Ackerman and Pat Downes, development director of the Oklahoma City Riverfront Redevelopment Authority, with giving a fledgling rowing program the boost it needed to morph into a series of architecturally stunning boathouses that now attract regatta participants from across the country.
“Ray was like the enthusiastic coach or coxswain to our small team in the early days over development when the river was still being mowed,” Knopp said. “When the challenges of developing the river seemed so great, Ray, along with Pat Downes, really provided the enthusiasm and guidance that helped drive the dramatic river transformation forward that ultimately inspired others to join the team.”
Oklahoma City University President Robert Henry credited Ackerman with convincing the school to be the first to establish a rowing program on the river.
“As a trustee, he encouraged OCU to adopt rowing as a club sport in 2000,” Henry said. “It was declared a varsity sport four years later when OCU hosted the first annual Head of the Oklahoma Regatta.”
After successful efforts to promote the development of the Boathouse District and the renaming of the river, Ackerman continued to promote the city in his 80s with efforts to nickname the city “The Big Friendly.”
Longtime friend and civic leader Lee Allan Smith noted that just earlier this month, though unable to walk anymore, Ackerman was preparing to lobby civic leaders to support campaigns to fund improvements at the Softball Hall of Fame and completion of the American Indian Cultural Center.
“He was outstanding and never stopped thinking about what he could do for Oklahoma City and the state,” Smith said.
A heroic-sized statue of Ackerman was unveiled in April with more than 100 civic leaders in attendance. It was a moment that prompted a rare outing by the ailing promoter who used a wheelchair.
“Ray always dreamed of substantial civic contributions, whether it was running for office or it was his work at the chamber,” McQueen said.
“Ray was one of those guys who got up in the morning to go to work for no paycheck to make the city a better place.”
Services are set
A wake for Ray Ackerman is set for 7 p.m. Sunday and services are scheduled for 10 a.m. Monday, both at St. Eugene Catholic Church.
Survivors include his wife, Lucille “Lou” Frances Flanagan Ackerman, daughter Patricia Ann Mehring and her husband Mike Mehring; daughter Ann Carol Adams and her husband Ron Adams; son the Rev. Ray K. Ackerman of the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City; daughter Susan Marie Fuller and her husband Douglas Fuller; and son Mark Ackerman and his wife, Deanna Ackerman.