The big truth: we just needed 20k votes

Topeka Capital Journal
Aug. 4, 1986

Election Day is at hand again, and what better time to recall, painfully, my only venture into the world of politics: the 1964 campaign by Bud Wilkinson to become a US senator from Oklahoma. It was the first time for both of us and, thank God, the last.

Bud was a football coach running for high public office, but he was some kind of coach. In his 17 seasons, he had brought the Oklahoma Sooners what was then undreamed-of success. He was a tall, handsome, highly articulate man, a genuine local and national hero.

In terms of national prominence, he was what Knute Rockne had been and what Paul “Bear” Bryant later became. Because of his charm and intelligence, he was the guy you’d pick over all the rest as the football coach most likely to succeed in public life.

I had known Bud many years and was working for him in President Kennedy’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports when he decided to run. His friends in Oklahoma told him that because of his strong ties to the University of Oklahoma, he needed to name a key campaign worker from rival Oklahoma State.

“I know just the man,” Bud told them, referring to yours truly.

They asked, “is he famous, or even well known”?

“Not for anything we’d want to publicize,” Bud said, “but he will have to do.”

So it was that I joined the campaign by popular demand, long before Bud even announced. And he may have lost the election a month or more before he officially entered the race.

It was at a small meeting in the old Willard Hotel in Washington, and the question was whether Bud should change his registration from Democrat to Republican. Like most Oklahomans, Bud was a registered Democrat so he could vote in primaries. The Republicans in those days didn’t have enough candidates to have primary contests.

There was strong argument against the change. The more moderate Democrats would understand it, but a lot of “dirty dog” Democrats would resent it. But Bud, by philosophy and instinct, a conservative Republican, made the decision.

Soon after, he made the switch, and it got tremendous publicity. He also went into court and officially changed his name from Charles Burnham to Bud. Then he announced. The ball was teed up, and the game was on.

When it was announced that I was joining the campaign, one small newspaper from the “Little Dixie” section of Oklahoma made a gem of it. Ignoring the fact I was a native, and an Oklahoma State grad, it pointed out I had attended St Gregory High School and was coming out from Washington. Its headline read: “Eastern Catholic to help Bud.”

We hired Ed Turner, a local TV ace, to be our publicity man. Tony Calvert, a prominent oil man, was our finance man, and he raised more money than we could spend. We got top people to organize every county, and we had legions of volunteers. We had a good team and a hell of a candidate.

But we had problems. In the presidential race, Barry Goldwater was running against Lyndon Johnson, and in Oklahoma, as elsewhere, there were Republicans and Goldwater Republicans. Most of the Republicans didn’t like Goldwater, and the Goldwater Republicans didn’t like Bud because he had intruded into their parade.

We kept telling them privately we loved Barry, and they kept replying, Yeah, but you don’t love him enough. Finally, Bud publicly endorsed him, and an awful lot of Republicans took the trouble to write us and say, Count me out.

Still, we thought Bud would win. He flattened a primary opponent, a Goldwater man. Then, a late summer poll rattled our bones.

It showed Bud’s opponent, Fred Harris, leading statewide, 51 percent to 31, with 18 percent undecided. Harris led in every congressional district, and had 20 percent of the registered Republicans, probably those defectors. Harris’ campaign theme was simple: me and LBJ.

He was tough. Told he wasn’t as well-known as Bud, he replied, “After I beat him, I will be.” He debated Bud head-to-head and did well.

In the weeks that followed, Bud worked tirelessly seven days a week. In our final poll, he had cut the lead to two percentage points, but that was it. With close to a million voting, LBJ carried the state by about 120,000. And Bud last to Harris by about 20,000. Close, but no cigar.

Postscripts:
Bud and I made it to Washington after all, going there in 1965 to run a well-heeled operation called the Lifetime Sports Foundation. Bud went on to become an insurance executive, with a brief time out to coach the pro Saint Louis Cardinals. He lives in Saint Louis and spends most of his time traveling in Europe and playing golf.

Ed Turner, our publicity man, went back to television and today as vice president in charge of news for Ted Turner’s (no relation) Cable News Network. He once said of the campaign, “We took a household name and drove it into oblivion in six months.”

Fred Harris went to the Senate and immediately became involved with Bobby Kennedy and various liberal causes that alienated Oklahomans. In 1972, he resigned from the Senate and made a token run for President. He hasn’t been heard from politically since.

Tony Calvert, the finance man, still is in the oil business. He says people occasionally ask him, whatever became of what’s-his-name, the Easterner who came out to help Bud?

Bud Wilkinson: To a Very Rare Man

Topeka Capital-Journal
February 14, 1994

Last Wednesday night Jay Wilkinson called to say his dad, Bud, who made history as football coach at Oklahoma, was dying and probably wouldn’t make it through the night. He didn’t. Next morning we heard on the radio he had died.

Later in the morning I tried to call Charlie Hoag to tell him about Bud, but I couldn’t reach him. It wasn’t until the five o’clock TV news that we heard there had been a wreck on the Turnpike and that Charlie’s wife, Salli, was killed and he was seriously injured. The day had provided a double dose of bad news.

Wilkinson and Hoag had closer ties than you might think. In the early 1950s, Bud was one of the best coaches in the country and Charlie was a superb running back at KU , as well as being a key member of a national championship basketball squad. Continue reading

Fitness for the Rest of Us

Metro News
March 19, 2004

Lee Iacocca was an automobile executive who at one time was better known than Henry or Edsel Ford, Orville Olds, Burl Buick, Chief Pontiac, Carl Cadillac, Abe Lincoln, Harry Honda, Tom Toyota, Ed Bozarth or Laird Noller. Iacocca created the Ford Mustang and got that auto empire out of a rut, and then literally saved Chrysler’s rear end, not to mention it’s flywheel.

He was Mister Detroit in 1962 when he had one of his underlings called the national Physical Fitness and Sports office in Washington. Iacocca had a hot idea, and wanted to present it to Bud Wilkinson, who was football coach at Oklahoma, but also President Kennedy’s consultant on such matters, and the boss of the office.

Wilkinson actually spent only the summer months in Washington, so the Iacocca call came to yours truly, the administrator of the operation. The auto magnate wanted an appointment with Wilkinson, so I set it up for a date a couple of weeks later, when Bud would be there. Continue reading

An Evening With Dean Smith and Other Kansas Superstars

Topeka Capital-Journal
Feb. 6, 2002

Saturday evening, Gerry Barker and his wife, Lois, picked up my wife and me for a trip to Lawrence to have dinner with the 1952 Kansas basketball team, celebrating the 50th anniversary of its national championship season. The 87-year-old Barker drove like there was nothing to it.

I wasn’t worried. He had plenty of advice, back seat and front, and I know he’s physically sound because in golf he has shot his age 125 times, and is still doing it. I can’t shoot my age, but I can shoot our combined age with a little to spare, and on a good day can shoot my temperature and my 1948 IQ. Continue reading

Chicken Fat: A Hit in Schools, Though JFK Hated the Title

Topeka Capital-Journal – August 25, 2000

There’s a connection between Bud Wilkinson and a song called “Chicken Fat,” but I never expected to be reminded of it this week when I was in Oklahoma being interviewed for a TV biography of the late Sooner football coach. But it was there, in the Oklahoma City Daily Oklahoman, on the same morning I faced the camera.

Some background is in order. In 1961, soon after President John F. Kennedy took office, he asked one of his aides, Ted Reardon, to figure out what he should do with the fitness program inherited from the Eisenhower administration.

Eisenhower was concerned because American children lagged far behind Europeans in strength and fitness tests, so he created the President’s Council on Youth Fitness.

To lead it, he named an orator, Shane McCarthy, who went around the country extolling the merits of a strong mind in a strong body, and attending a lot of meetings and seminars on what should be done to get American youngsters leaner and tougher.

Reardon studied the problem, then wrote a memo to the president, saying what the program needed first was a sports personality who presented an image of both physical fitness and personal integrity.

Reardon would tell me later that as he dictated the memo, the next sentence just rolled off his tongue without him having to even think about it. “What the program needs,” he said, “is someone like Bud Wilkinson.” Continue reading

Millionaires and Me

Topeka Capital-Journal – 1999

Just looking at me and my possessions, you wouldn’t think I was a millionaire, but it so happens I fit the mold — with one notable exception: I haven’t been close to a million bucks since the last time I shook hands with my doctor. Maybe it could be said I was even closer when he pulled on the rubber glove and gave me the examination guaranteed to cure you of being cross-eyed.

Probably because there were no more groups left to study, such as left-handed piano players or pilots with pacemakers, a Georgia State University professor has been researching the affluent for about 25 years, and his main conclusion is that most millionaires shun the trappings of wealth. Continue reading

Now the Wilkinson Task is to Develop All-America’s Fitness

Oklahoma Today, Fall 1961

At Oklahoma, Charles B. (Bud) Wilkinson has produced many great athletes. Now, he has taken on an added task that is far more awesome in both responsibility and opportunity. He has been assigned by the President to produce a nation of physically-fit Americans.

It may surprise some to learn the two jobs have little if any, relation to each other. The answer to the physical fitness problem is not more football players. The pressing need is a program that will raise the millions of physically-deficient Americans up to minimum acceptable physical standards.

It is a tribute to Wilkinson, and to the coaching profession, that he was chosen March 23 a Special Consultant to the President on Youth Fitness. His appointment came after several conferences with President Kennedy. Although he is admittedly no expert in the field of physical education, Wilkinson outlined what he thought had to be done. The President told him to get it done. Continue reading

Columnist Dick Snider dies at 83

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With Will Snider

By Rick Dean, Topeka Capital-Journal

It once was said that the mark of a good newspaper columnist was the ability to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.

By that criteria alone, as well as several others, Dick Snider was a great newspaper columnist.

Snider, the longtime Topeka Capital-Journal columnist and former sports editor, died Saturday after a short battle with cancer. He was 83.

A former oil industry executive, he worked briefly in the Kennedy administration before producing “College Football” — a long- running highlights show for the ABC network in the 1960s.

A man who walked comfortably in the world of sports, politics and business, Snider’s ability to apply a sharply pointed needle to people in power, as well as to himself and those he loved, made him as popular with readers as he was pilloried by politicians. Continue reading