Overcast skies gave way to sunshine Friday as civic leaders unveiled a statue of Ray Ackerman, a longtime advocate of the Oklahoma River whose efforts earned him the nickname “Old Man River.”
The statue was created by artist Jack Nortz after an effort to recognize Ackerman's efforts was launched by Mayor Mick Cornett.
Cornett, joined by civic leader Lee Allan Smith, who led fundraising for the statue, credited Ackerman for ensuring river revitalization was included in the original 1993 Metropolitan Area Projects. The river, at the time, was jokingly referred to as needing to be mowed three times a year and was considered a barrier between north and south Oklahoma City.
Ackerman, as chairman of the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber, helped oversee the creation of a list of dream projects that turned into the MAPS ballot launched by then Mayor Ron Norick.
“We all agreed we had a mission,” Ackerman said Friday. “This city needed a heck of a lot of help in improving its quality of life.”
Ackerman told a crowd of more than 100 people attending the unveiling that two of the proposed projects — the river revitalization and creation of the Bricktown Canal — were not sure bets at getting included in MAPS. The veteran advertising executive — founder of Ackerman McQueen Advertising — lobbied heavily for both projects, and argued creating dams along the river and beautifying the shores was essential to healing the scar that separated the two sides of the city.
“All of the MAPS projects lived up to expectations,” Cornett told Ackerman at the statue unveiling. “The two that exceeded expectations the most were the river and the canal. Both had something to do with water and had something to do with you.”
Smith, meanwhile, noted Ackerman's advocacy continued beyond the river revitalization.
He noted his persistent efforts to lobby legislators to rename the waterway as the Oklahoma River.
Oklahoma City University President Robert Henry credited Ackerman, a school trustee, with helping establish creation of the boathouses that now line the north shore of the river south of Bricktown.
Even as the ceremony was under way, hundreds of athletes were competing nearby in trials for the canoe/kayak competition at the upcoming London Olympics — events drawn to the river with the openings of the Chesapeake Energy Finish-line Tower and Devon Energy Boathouse.
OCU was the first school to establish a presence on the river with the opening of the original Chesapeake Boathouse — a project proposed by Mike Knopp, now director of the Boathouse Foundation, with backing from Ackerman.
“He (Knopp) had a dream of using Ray's river to create a world-class rowing, skulking and kayaking venue,” Henry said. “And that has happened.”
The dream of a boathouse district, Henry added, started with Ackerman's vision and continues with plans for at least two more boathouses to be built by the University of Oklahoma and the University of Central Oklahoma.
“Ray Ackerman has been a visionary for a long time,” Henry said.
“In Oklahoma City, when you think of visionaries, you think of Dean A. McGee, Robert S. Kerr, and you certainly think of Ray Ackerman.”