The congregation at St. Eugene Catholic Church recently built a large new chapel for 800 — but it was barely big enough for the civic leaders, friends, family and schoolchildren who gathered Monday to say goodbye to Ray Ackerman.
The crowd, which included former Gov. George Nigh and U.S. Rep. James Lankford, was reminded about Ackerman, the father and husband; Ackerman the proud Navy veteran and rear admiral; Ackerman the advertising executive; Ackerman the Rotarian; and of course, Ackerman, the tireless advocate of the Oklahoma River.
There were hints, as well, about Ackerman the outsider.
Historically, Oklahoma City has long proven to be fertile ground for an outsider wishing to get a new start. After all, wasn't it 10,000 outsiders who created the city overnight with a single gunshot fired on April 22, 1889?
It's not uncommon to hear an ambitious young newcomer marvel at how easy it is to get involved in Oklahoma City's ongoing revival while also grumbling about some of our city's quirks.
Such frustration is understandable. I still remember the culture shock I experienced when I moved to Oklahoma City from New York as a kid with my family in 1977. My mother, who still carries a hint of her old New York accent, still marvels at various quirks in Oklahoma culture. Just the other day she noted state lawmakers don't trust Oklahomans to buy strong beer in grocery stores but do trust residents to openly carry firearms.
Yep, that's Oklahoma.
The legend of Ray Ackerman is a reminder to everybody that an outsider not only can join the discussion of such quirks — they can effect change, as well.
Ackerman, who grew up in Pittsburgh, moved to Oklahoma City and lamented the dry river bed that for decades was known as the North Canadian River. Long story made short (many of you have heard it anyway): Ackerman successfully lobbied to restore the river as a true waterway and then, in his 80s, outmaneuvered politicians in getting the seven-mile section that runs through the urban core renamed the Oklahoma River.
Ackerman, always the salesman, repeatedly argued that with the investment made by taxpayers in restoring the waterway and the development of shoreline boathouses, it would eventually draw national attention.
Skeptics who grew up thinking the river could never fill with water because it would leak into downtown building basements scoffed at the thought of the North Canadian River becoming an attractive waterway. They scoffed at the idea that an eyesore that divided north and south Oklahoma City would earn respect even among locals.
But the Oklahoma River is making headlines nationwide and was featured prominently on national network television when the Oklahoma City Thunder made the NBA playoffs last year.
Ackerman, the one-time outsider, could only smile and say: “Steve, did you see that article in The New York Times? Steve, did you see Charles Barkley on the river cruiser?”
I admired Ackerman; I considered him a friend. Yet I, too, was one of those skeptics. Ackerman, the outsider, showed us all that with perseverance — and some slick promotion — the outsiders can bring wondrous change to our city.