Giving to others doesn’t require money. You don’t have to blot out all your relaxation time to help your community. You could even choose to devote your professional career to giving, but no one’s going to fault you if you don’t.
Money, time and expert knowledge, though, are all valuable commodities to hundreds of central Oklahoma charities.
Great givers are everywhere. It could be someone who knocks on a door to ask their elderly neighbor if she needs anything before a snowstorm slugs in. Or you could be like C. Hubert Gragg, an oilman and construction magnate who decided to step up his lifelong philanthropy in a big way.
Here are four stories about people who chose to give. They weren’t chosen for donating the most money or being the Mother Teresa of the Oklahoma plains. They’re just regular people with different lives who, in one way or another, made a difference.
A BIG LIFE. A BIGGER GIVER.
C. Hubert Gragg
At 94, Hubert Gragg’s trove of adventures, business successes and political trailblazing could fill the lives of two or three average men.
He’s lived – is living – a big life. John Wayne big. In fact, back in 1965 Gragg and Wayne pulled the corks on a bottle or two of hard liquor and swapped stories in Wayne’s downtown Oklahoma City hotel room. His wife’s reaction when the six-foot-four Western star sauntered in for breakfast at the Graggs’ the next morning was… right out of a movie.
Born in the year World War I ended, by the time World War II was winding down in 1944 Gragg had learned the art of contracting. He began building pipelines with his own company at 26. When he was through, he had marshaled pipelines funneling gasoline, natural gas and oil in 28 states and Canada.
He was born in 1918 in the oil boomtown of Burkburnett, Texas. The city was elatedly dominated by towering A-line derricks that sucked in 20,000 workers, entrepreneurs and Gragg’s mother and father.
They opened a grocery store where Gragg learned to butcher at 13. That skill helped pay his expenses in Austin when he studied at the University of Texas, though he never finished a degree there.
Gragg was an Oklahoma Republican before Republican was cool. In the ’60s, you had as much chance of meeting a Republican as finding someone who’d turn down a smoke. He was an unofficial adviser to Henry Bellmon and helped him become governor in 1962. That led to years as State Highway Commissioner under two more governors.
The Chronicle of Philanthropy designates Gragg as one of America’s Top Donors for $1 million gifts each this year to Oklahoma State University and the University of Central Oklahoma. A Newcastle man, he’s been generous with his wealth throughout his life to multiple nonprofits and his family. He’s planning to give more.
But back to 1965. John Wayne was in town riding a nearly all-white stallion, leading a parade that drew what police estimated as up to 100,000 people. It was the dedication of the “Cowboy Hall of Fame and Western Heritage Center.”
As highway commissioner, Gragg was waving to the crowd in his 1965 Lincoln convertible. He and Wayne met. Gragg told him about his quarter horse farm between Western and Pennsylvania on Northwest 150th. That led to Wayne and Gragg imbibing until one-thirty in the morning the next day.
Arriving home, Gragg told his wife Nomi, “Baby doll, you can’t guess who’s coming to breakfast in the morning.” She ordered him to roll over and sleep it off.
The next morning, Wayne sauntered in the front door and met the missus.
“My wife was still in her pajamas, curlers in her hair,” Gragg said. “She thought I was pulling her leg the night before. You never saw a woman get re-attired any quicker than she did.”
To find life-changing experiences in central Oklahoma, visit volunteercentraloklahoma.org
In retrospect, it was a relatively small event for Rob Howard when a bully confronted him in the halls of Classen Junior High School.
It was the bobby-socks ’50s in Oklahoma City. Howard was about 13, as was his classmate. The boy shoved Howard against a metal locker, then he spit out an epithet.
As a bigger-than-average kid, Howard reacted quickly. He ensured the incident didn’t go any further. But the sudden assault ticked him off – and confused him. The classmate had called him a name that sounded bad, but Howard wasn’t sure.
“I didn’t know what ‘queer’ meant. I had to ask my mother,” he said.
At 66, the incident is a humorous anecdote for Howard – although he views bullying people for their differences as wrong at any time. He said he doesn’t dwell on discrimination he may have faced in the past. His legacy proves it. He’s all about moving ahead with positive change.
His latest volunteer work is as board vice president of Edmond’s Respect Diversity Foundation. He met co-founders Joan and Michael Korenblit in 2005. That’s when he chaired the metro-area events surrounding a traveling exhibit by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum that focused on homosexual victims of Germany’s Nazi regime.
Like most nonprofit volunteers, Howard’s work at the foundation ranges from taking photos to strategic planning based on his years of civic work.
Respect Diversity’s mission of teaching tolerance and respect for all harmonized well with Howard’s past nonprofit work.
In the late ’80s, he was a co-founder of the Spirit of the Lakes United Church of Christ in Minneapolis, the first mostly gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender congregation accepted into a mainstream denomination.
During 25 years at Northwest Airlines in Minnesota, Howard helped form the Alliance of Northwest Gay and Lesbian Employees. After moving back home, he served on the Cimarron Alliance’s board of directors. He agreed to serve a year as the gay rights organization’s first executive director in 2008.
It’s hard to describe Howard as retired; his work with nonprofits is a full-time job. He’s now busy as the worldwide president of Prime Timers, a social and educational organization for older gay and bisexual men. The 25-year-old society has about 8,000 members in more than 75 chapters.
As for bullying, the Air Force veteran takes an inclusive view of tackling the problem.
“The thing I always bring up – and it’s not always a hugely popular opinion – is bullying affects the bullies as well,” he said. “Studies have shown that people who are bullies often do less well in school, as do the kids that they’re bullying. They often don’t graduate, often fail to thrive in their community and quite often end up going down the road toward more violent crimes and end up in jail.
“You need to work with all the kids and keep those kids who might be prone to be bullies from becoming bullies, because it destroys their lives as well.”
To learn more about the Respect Diversity Foundation, visit respectdiversity.org.
A GAME OF INCHES
The maxim is forever tied to football, but it applies to Kelley Nedbalek’s world too: parenting is a game of inches.
Nedbalek’s job at Norman’s Center for Children and Families is to help teen moms and dads do the best they possibly can with the circumstances they’re in. They worry about finishing school and having to work to pay expenses. Often, they’ve endured violence and sexual or psychological abuse before mandatory adulthood piled on too. Ready or not, even if you’re still in middle school.
Nedbalek works to help teen parents with transportation, diapers, medical care, tutoring and other needs.
But as an expert in teen parenting and bringing up babies, Nedbalek focuses on the bond between parent and child. That’s where the inches come in.
On any given home visit, she may encourage a teen mom who’s holding her baby in the air and laughing. She might remark to a dad playing with his son on the floor how the boy smiles so much when he’s with him. Or say to a young mom how babble-talking with her daughter will make her language skills blossom.
That’s only a small part of her varied and complicated job, but it illustrates one of her key goals as a licensed clinical social worker: intimacy counts, because a baby’s first three years can set a course that lasts a lifetime.
“Babies, when they’re born, and even before they’re born, they need touch and structure and eye contact and face-to-face – all those kinds of things – just as much as they need food,” she said. “They cannot live without the touch and interaction, just like they can’t live without being fed.
“In the last several decades we’ve learned a lot more about infants,” she said. “And about their brain development and all the things that happen, especially in those first three years of life. It sets the base for everything they’ll do from here on out.”
Nedbalek holds a master’s degree in social work from the University of Oklahoma. She’s worked for two decades at the center, which has served Cleveland County families for over 40 years. Her extensive training includes certification as a mentor to teach advanced infant mental health training.
Her honors include an award from the Oklahoma Public Health Association for outstanding contributions to the health and well-being of Oklahoma children, and the Mary Ellen Wilson Award from the state Health Department.
The Center for Children and Families strains under a growing workload. From 2010 to 2011, it had 37 percent more children in programs to heal and prevent child abuse and neglect. Lack of funding has sometimes left children on a waiting list for therapeutic services and limited the availability of other programs.
The center also counts successes, such as an 83 percent graduation rate in 2011 for teen parents they helped. The national average is 40 percent. The center helped nearly 2,000 children, teens and adults last year.
“If we expect to be a healthy community, or a healthy state, or even a healthy nation, it starts with those very, very early years and just keeps going,” Nedbalek said. “If we can’t provide services and resources to our families who need us most, that says a lot about who we are as a state. It says a lot about who we are as a country.”
To learn more about the Center for Children and Families, visit ccfinorman.org.
LEAVING A LEGACY
Ted Eugene Foster Jr.
Last March, six-year-old Tony Ojeda stood in an Oklahoma City steakhouse, obediently hoisting his shirt above his belly. His mother wanted her new friend, Sam Foster-Erler, to feel “Tony the tiger’s” right kidney.
It was an unusual offer. Sam accepted eagerly. The kidney was large. It made Tony’s skin bulge. Sam reached out.
“I put my hand on it, and it was shaped just like the bottom of a pear,” Sam said. “Tony just stood there and smiled.”
The kidney was new to Tony. It was oversized because it used to belong to Sam’s 20-year-old son, Ted Eugene Foster Jr.
He died in August 2009 after falling off a pickup tailgate in Stillwater. His skull fractured in two places and his brain swelled massively. He was declared brain-dead the following day at OU Medical Center’s trauma unit.
As Ted lay in the hospital bed, a chaplain asked if the family was interested in organ donation. Sam was jarred because she was still thinking about long-term rehabilitation. The family waited until further scans confirmed the brain-dead prognosis.
When asked about donation again, she thought about her son’s generosity and his driving impulse to help people and animals alike. They had never talked about organ donation.
She said, “Yeah, let’s do that.”
LifeShare Oklahoma facilitated the scramble for immediate recipients. Ted’s organs were off to several states in less than a day’s time.
Meeting at the steakhouse last March were four other recipients of Ted’s organs, along with family members. By the time they met, they were friends from Facebook and phone calls. Sam had reached out to all the people whose lives were changed, or saved, by her son.
Ted was a junior at Oklahoma State University, studying animal science. A self-described “Southern boy” who always wore a cowboy hat, his aim was to work on a ranch. He planned to specialize in the science of bovine reproduction.
He worked part-time at Turning Point Ranch Therapeutic Riding Center in Stillwater. He rescued stray dogs. He was an Eagle Scout. He had a rare blood type, so he donated often. With friends and family, he was always enthusiastic and primed for adventures.
“He was like that from the moment he was born to the day he died,” Sam said. “I called him my go-go baby. He was always ready to go.”
Sam and the recipients still keep in touch after three years. Jesse Littleton, from Louisiana, got Ted’s right lung. He calls Sam every Sunday.
She loves to talk about Ted. She speaks occasionally to groups to encourage organ donation. She thinks her tenacity to track and be a part of the journey of her son’s organs helped her positive outlook on Ted’s brief life.
“I think it’s because I just jumped in with both feet,” she said. “I also attribute it to my faith in God and His master plan. It was not an accident. It was part of God’s plan.”
To learn more about LifeShare, visit lifeshareoklahoma.org.
Biggest Givers by the Slice
Largest donation totals among Slice readers (by zip)
1. South Edmond, $56 million
2. North central Edmond, $39.4 million
3. West and south Norman, $33.8 million
Largest donors as percentage of income
1. Northeast OKC east of Kelley Ave., 12.6%
2. Northeast OKC west of Kelley, 10.1%
3. North central OKC west of Kelley, 8.3%
Source: The Chronicle of Philanthropy, August 2012 report, 2008 tax returns. ZIP codes, in order, for total giving: 73013, 73034 and 73072; by percentage, 73111, 73105 and 73114.