Piece of OU history finds its way home [news feature]

Published in The Oklahoma Daily on February 18, 2013

It was sitting in a dark corner of warehouse north of campus in 1966 when he found it: a piece of OU’s history.

David Harper was working for OU that summer, having recently graduated from Norman High School. He said he was working with a crew of 15 summer hires and six “grown-ups” in the area they called the “north base.”

His crew was dusting classroom desks in a dark warehouse when he found a piece of granite, engraved with the year 1892, a list of names and a word he didn’t recognize: “regents.”

The next year, working in the same warehouse, he came across the stone again. When he asked his boss about it, Harper said his boss offered to let him take it home, thinking it likely had little value.

Harper saved it from destruction and kept it safe for more than 40 years. He said it has been in his possession all that time, except for a brief stint in the air force — during which his brother-in-law attempted to carve a peace sign into it.

It wasn’t until October, when Harper saw a photo of the university’s first building, that he understood the significance of the stone he had been using as an end table.

The stone is a plaque that once hung on the university’s first building before it burned down and is engraved with the names of OU’s first regents and Oklahoma’s territorial governor, A.J. Seay.

“It was lost in time,” Harper told the audience at the plaque’s unveiling during a press conference in Gaylord Hall’s auditorium on Monday.

OU’s first building, which was located behind the current chemistry building facing east, was ready for student use in 1893 and housed all functions of the university. Classes were taught there, students lived there and administrators worked there.

“It was the first thing that really rooted the university into the ground,” said OU President David Boren.

OU historian David Levy said the local residents were pleased with the building, but not everyone felt the same way.

“Opinions varied about the beauty of its architecture,” Levy said, noting that Vernon Parrington, OU’s second head football coach, called it an ugly building with “a wart” on top.

For better or for worse, the architecture can be attributed to the Kansas construction firm chosen to build the university’s first building, because the first regents were all Republicans with ties to Kansas, Levy explained. Harper’s plaque bears the firms mark.

When Harper saw a photo of the building, he said he knew the plaque he had belonged to this part of early university history. And he knew what he needed to do.

“I immediately thought, ‘This has got to be at the university,’” he said. “And my second thought was, ‘It’s going into the hands of David Boren.’”

But how does an everyday citizen go about getting an audience with Boren?

For Harper, it was as easy as doing his civic duty. Harper ran across OU’s president at the Episcopal church polling location they both visited to cast their votes in the most recent presidential election.

Seizing the opportunity, Harper said he extended his hand to shake Boren’s and asked for a minute of his time.

“He didn’t give me a minute,” Harper said. “He gave me about 15 minutes.”

Boren said the pair were almost thrown out of the polling location for talking, but by the end of the conversation, Harper had gifted the plaque back to the university.

“It was the right thing to do, but not everybody does the right thing,” Levy said. “He did, and I think the community is in his debt.”

After receiving the plaque, Boren handed it off to Levy and John Lovett, the curator of the Western History Collection and director of Special Collections, to verify its authenticity. The two used markings on the plaque and information from university archives to confirm its origin, according to the press release.

At the plaque’s Monday unveiling, Boren announced it will be permanently displayed in the wall of Stuart Landing in the Oklahoma Memorial Union with a brass plaque explaining its historic origins.

Harper said he hadn’t particularly thought about bringing the artifact back to the university for future generations to appreciate, but that his actions were just common sense.

“He viewed it as us preserving history,” Harper said. “I viewed it as ‘What’s this old stone just doing out here in my workplace?’ But I’m very glad it’s where it belongs.”

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