name='keywords'/> Boomer, Sooner and Johnny-Come-Lately: The History of Norman Oklahoma: November 2016


Thursday, November 17, 2016

T. Jack Foster: Mayor, President of the Chamber of Commerce, and the Guy Who Brought the Navy to Norman.


T. Jack Foster was a tenacious man. He had absolute faith in his ability to enhance the economic well being of the communities in which he lived. Norman has a number of individuals who stand out for their significance in contributing to the economic and cultural growth of the City. But none stand out as prominent as T. Jack Foster.

Foster was born in Mineral Wells, Texas in 1902 and was the youngest of eleven children. He lost both parents when he was five years old. His two sisters raised him; T. Jack spent his the school year with his sister Mamie in Dallas, and his summers with his sister Mittie on a ranch in Oklahoma. He was a budding entrepreneur at an early age and found numerous ways in which to make spending money. By the time he was in high school, he started a newspaper delivery business. To expand his route, and out sell his competition, he borrowed his brother-in-law’s car and hired neighbor kids to toss the Dallas Herald newspaper on front porches from the back seat.  He eventually had the biggest newspaper route in Dallas. He dropped out of high school in his senior year and opened a filling station, which he hoped would be the biggest used car outlet in the Southwest. Since his new business was not all that successful, he took the advise of his brothers to further his education at the University of Oklahoma. Foster applied for and passed the University’s entrance exam, not fully disclosing his lack of high school diploma. While at the University of Oklahoma, Foster started University Cleaners on Campus Corner. He stumbled into this opportunity by helping to fix a deliver boy’s broken down motorcycle, which was loaded with clean cloths ready to be delivered to customers.

In 1921, T. Jack married Gladys Hutchins. While Gladys finished at the University, Foster dropped out of school to run his business. Upon graduation, Gladys took over the business and T. Jack enrolled in the University of Oklahoma’s Law School. By 1928, Foster’s cleaning business had 23 employees and a yearly payroll of $75,000.

In 1929, a group of Norman businessmen drafted Foster to run for Mayor of Norman. There was little opposition and T. Jack won. He was the first student mayor in the United States. The biggest issues facing Foster as mayor was an extensive road-building program and city infrastructure upgrading. He was an on-hands mayor. Curious about the materials used in the upgrade of the city’s infrastructure, he traveled at his own expense to a factory to see how sewer pipes were made, making sure the Norman had the best materials available for the needs of the City. This facet of his personality came into play in every endeavor he would encounter in his business life, from mining to home building.

                                                     Norman Courts Hotel

Foster was not only an entrepreneur, but an inventor as well. He developed a fire proof building brick made of adobe clay and asphalt. He used this technology in the construction of a new motel in Norman in 1938. The only other hotel in town was the old University Hotel on Main Street. Foster’s motel was the 62 room Norman Courts, which was located at Porter and Robinson along Route 77. The Courts was rated one of the five best motels in the country in 1939.

In 1938, T. Jack Foster recognized that Adolf Hitler’s aggressive march across Europe in the 1930s would eventually evolve into a second world war, and if the United States   played a part in helping the allies in the war, there would have to be a homeland effort to prepare for such a war. As Vice-Chairman of the Norman Chamber of Commerce, Foster conferred with University of Oklahoma officials about the University taking a role in developing a war defense program in the University’s Aeronautical Engineering Department. Foster also believed that an adequate size airport would be needed for civilian training. Although Foster considered that Cimarron field in Yukon could be a nucleus for an airport, there was not enough land for an adequate airfield. At the same time, the University of Oklahoma began to talk about establishing an airfield, realizing the importance of a flight-training program for the security of the nation.  The first step toward that goal was the acquisition of land for an airfield. A gift from Walter Neustadt and the Max Westheimer estate for $10,500 provided the means for the University to establish an airfield in Norman in 1941. Shortly after Max Westheimer airfield became a reality, the Japanese attacked the US Fleet at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. The newly established Max Westheimer airfield played an important role in convincing the Navy to establish a flight school and technical training center in Norman.

In January 1942, the Chamber of Commerce sent T. Jack Foster and Neil Johnson to Washington to talk to the Army or the Navy about establishing training facilities in Norman. The University sent Savoie Lottinville, Director of the University of Oklahoma Press as the University’s representative, Lottinville was already in the East for a convention. Working through Oklahoma Senator, Josh Lee and State Representative Mike Monroney, the trio from Norman was provided with several contacts at the Departments of Navy and Army.  After two weeks of meetings and no results, Lottinville and Johnson returned to Norman. T. Jack Foster stayed and wrote more than 18 proposals outlining what Norman had to offer in supporting training facilities. The Navy had many questions about sufficient housing, infrastructure, classrooms, air space clearances from other government airfields in the area, like Tinker Airfield to the north, and how many days of good flying weather was possible. Foster found the answers to all their questions and finally convinced the Navy site selection committee to visit Norman.

After the Navy site selection committee found Norman a good place to develop a flight training program, the City of Norman, a town of around 11,000 citizens, began to prepare for Navy personnel. City residences were told in one newspaper editorial after another that there would need to be good clean rentals at fair rental prices. Citizens were also encouraged to clean up their lawns, ally-ways, and to paint their homes to make Norman a bright star on the Prairie.

The Navy invested a lot more in Norman than the University and the Chamber of Commerce first thought would be possible. Besides an air-flight training program north of the City at Max Westheimer airfield, the Navy built a technical training program southwest of the University, a small city of 20,000 Navy personnel, and twice the size of Norman.

What a military installation meant to Norman, and what businessman T. Jack Foster realized from the beginning of his efforts in 1938, was economic growth and improved infrastructure for the citizens and the City of Norman.  The needs of the military installations provided many changes in Norman during the war years.  For example, Norman didn’t have a sewage plant. There were two main sewage lines and both of them emptied into the South Canadian River. That presented a problem for the 20,000 residences at the Navy Technical Training Center, or South Base, because one of the lines emptied just south of the base. In the summer, when the river was down, the sewage line emptied onto dry land, the breeze from the south was not pleasant; the first of Norman’s sewage plants was built at this time. Also, many roads were resurfaced or paved for the first time to give access to the bases. These are only a few examples of the many changes that took place in Norman because of the improvements that were necessary for the functioning of the military installations. 

Foster continued his economic interest after the war, but not in Norman. After WWII, he invested in pumice mining in New Mexico; pumice helped him to produce fireproof concrete. Soon after, Foster moved his interest to home building. He won a bid from the federal government for 18 million to build houses on military bases after the war; he built at Biggs Air Force Base in El Paso, Texas, and Fort Ord in California. He went on to build residential communities in California, Texas, New Mexico, Kansas and 25-foot Foster Tower in Honolulu, Hawaii.  

                                                      Foster City California
In 1958, T. Jack and his wife moved to Pebble Beach, California. Although retired, he interested his sons in helping him to build a planned community outside San Mateo, California. Foster and sons took marchland on the west side of the San Francisco Bay and hired the best engineers to provide the foundation for Foster City. Today Foster City thrives as a very successful community of bayside homes with docks and boat launches.

T. Jack Foster grew up in a time when economic survival relied on hard work and a keen eye for opportunities that eventually helped to him to gain financially. Once he had capital from his varies businesses, he reinvested in something bigger and more lucrative. When he saw the opportunity to convince the military to consider Norman for training installations, he made it his goal to obtain the Navy bases, and he was successful in that endeavor. Norman became a productive modern city in the 1950s because of the foundation that was laid during the war years. We can thank T. Jack Foster.

T. Jack Foster died of liver cancer in 1968 at his home in San Mateo, California. 

Sunday, November 6, 2016

A Naval Base on the Prairie: Norman and World War Two.

           Sailors from the Naval Air Technical Training Center, or South Base                                

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7th 1941 placed the United States on course toward another World War.  The First World War taught a generation of Americans how to be industrious, frugal, and prepared; the next generation picked up the preparedness torch. In a matter of months after Pearl Harbor, idle factories started producing war related materials, which helped high unemployment, and moved the American economy out of the dole drums of the economic depression of the 1930s. American involvement in the Second World War also created training and careers for over 9 million men and women who joined the armed forces by 1944.  Norman, was one of several Oklahoma communities that played an important role in training young men and women to help win the war in Europe and the Pacific.  

The establishment of naval bases in Norman, a city far from any ocean, resulted from a fortuitous encounter between Savoie Lottinville, director of the University of Oklahoma Press, and K.B. Salisbury, Captain in the U.S. Navy. In 1941, Lottinville, eastbound on the Santa Fe, met Salisbury, who was returning to the Bureau of Aeronautics at the Department of Navy in Washington D.C. As Lottinville and Salisbury were getting acquainted, the Navy captain asked Lottinville if there was an interest at the University of Oklahoma in flying. Lottinville proudly told the captain about the University’s new airfield north of town that was named after WWI pilot, Max Westheimer. Salisbury then asked, “Would you be willing to lend it [the air field] to the Navy for the duration of the war?”  Lottinville discussed the possibilities with university president, Joseph Brandt, who gave Lottinville the green light to pursue the matter.  Brandt and University Regents were excited about the prospects of a naval training station in Norman.  
Aerial view of Naval Air Station, or North Base 

In all, the Navy purchased 62,000 acres in Oklahoma.  In March 1942, the Navy acquired 2,537 acres in Norman to build a Naval Air Station (NAS), a Naval Air Technical Training Station (NATTC), and a Naval Hospital. NAS was located north of the town at the university owned (North Base) at Max Westheimer Airfield, and trained young men as Navy pilots. NATTC, military barracks, and hospital were constructed southeast of the University (South Base). The naval training facilities north of town trained young men as navy pilots. The base south of town educated young men and women in skills that helped maintain naval aircraft and ground equipment. The acquisition of properties, and the increased number of military personnel in Norman, was a well-needed economic boost to central Oklahoma.   

 WAVES recruiting poster

Women played an important role in helping the Navy during WWII. In 1942-43, 27,000 women joined the Navy. Every three weeks at Norman depot in 1942, WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service) arrived at NATTC for training. Women were excited about the opportunity to join the WAVES. They understood that learning to be a machinist mate or an aviation mechanic freed sailors from that duty so they could join the fight outside the continental United States. 

 WAVES training at Naval Air Technical Training Center

Young women also believed that joining the military was as an adventure they probably would not have had otherwise.  The cultural expectation for women in the early 1940s dictated women’s role as wife and mother. The war altered that expectation and gave young women many other opportunities.  After the war, a former WAVE from Michigan wrote of her time in the Navy and remarked how fortunate she was that her father signed the consent form allowing her to join the Navy. She was eighteen years old, fresh out of high school, and anxious to do her part for the war effort.  She wrote of enduring the going away party, and all the well-meaning gifts she received. On the day she was to leave for the train in Detroit, she ignored her mother’s tears, and her friends doubts as she excitedly stepped aboard the passenger car with other young women headed to boot camp in Iowa. From “boot” the new recruits were sent to different locations for training, many came to Norman.  

WAVES relaxing in barracks

The first detachment of WAVES arrived from Cedar Falls, Iowa January 29, 1943 for training. The men stationed at the bases in Norman did not exactly see this influx of women as “true” Navy, perhaps expecting that women would not be required to preform the same duties as men. But, women did adhere to the same Navy regulations as men. WAVES had to stand watches and engage in the other duties of all enlisted personnel. They also had the same punishments for not keeping regulations. A woman recruit mentioned she had to “swab the deck” or clean latrines for minor infractions of the   regulations.  And like the men, WAVES had liberty, which could also be taken away as punishment. As for the men and women getting “involved” there were strict Navy regulations on how close men and women could associate. For example, WAVES could not let sailors put their arms around them when in a movie. In fact, WAVES were advised to sit in a reserved section.

 Both Navy Bases in Norman provided an all-inclusive town-like environment, which included a recreation hall, swimming pools, dance hall, motion picture theater and such amenities as a commissary, and hair salon.  Variety Shows were on the top of the list for keeping the troops entertained.  The variety of entertainment ran from the amateur to the professional. One show featured a University of Oklahoma sorority choir, another featured the national organization of The Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of the Barbershop Quartet Singers of American. The local group of this esteem organization was the Boresome Foursome composed of Oklahoma City Businessmen. There were also “class” acts in the variety shows. Entertainers, who joined the armed forces after Pearl Harbor, used their talents to keep up the moral of the enlisted men. Tex Beneke, a featured tenor sax player with the Glenn Miller Band, often entertained at the Norman base.  The base also had their own band called the Gremlins.

 View of downtown Norman 1950

In the early 1940s, Norman had around 11,000 citizens with a small town footprint. The urban area of the town was bordered on the north by Robinson, on the West by Nevada, which later became Berry Road, on the south by Lindsay and on the east by Highway 77 or Porter.  The Naval Air Station at Max Westheimer airfield was north of Robinson, at the intersection of Robinson and Nevada; the base was surrounded by farmland. NATTC was SE of the University of Oklahoma extending from Jenkins to Porter. This area was also surrounded with fields.  South Base was within walking distance to central Norman, but North Base was quite a hike. 

Interurban Light Rail Station
Navy personnel had to rely on public transportation, especially the interurban and some local buses.  There was a regular complaint by the Navy that there were too few interurban cars and too few buses to transport the service men and women to OKC or Norman.  

United Service Organization or the USO, located at NW side of Courthouse facing Santa Fe Tracks
In February 1943, the two-story Norman Armory, east of the Santa Fe tracks near the Courthouse, was remodeled as a United Service Organization (USO) facility.  What might be lacking in recreational facilities North and South Base were certainly incorporated into the USO club. The lower floor, or deck as it was called, had a combination gym and dance floor, where each week orchestra dances were planned.  Service men and women, and their guests, played badminton, volleyball, and basketball in the gym. The first deck also had a snack bar and soda fountain. In the game room there was a pool tables, a ping-pong table, and a photo shop with a darkroom. On the upper deck there was a room for lectures, a room for studying, and a room for crafts and hobbies. There was also a shower room, a ladies powder room, and a recording studio for service men or women to record a greeting to send home.

World War II ended in August of 1945, when Japan surrendered to the allied forces. In all, 74,322 men and women graduated from the Naval Air Technical Training Center on South Base. At the Naval Air Station 6,284 men finished pilot training.  

Lowering the flag for the last time in 1959

Once the war was over, the question was what to do with the Naval facilities.  The retreat of the military from Norman was a concern to many, the economy and lively hood of many depended on the naval facilities. Citizens wanted the military to keep the training facilities in Norman, but that was not in the militaries plan until the start of the Korean War.  In 1952, NATTC was reactivated to train aviation personnel, and NAS continued to train pilots. By the end of 1955, 46,000 men received training at both NAS and NATTC.  In 1959, the bases were no longer needed; the peacetime military declared the land and facilities of both bases in excess to the needs of the Navy.

Before the sailors left the base they stationed two mops as a final good-by.

The NAS reverted back to a civilian airfield, where the University of Oklahoma continued the air program initiated before the war at Max Westheimer. Navy buildings were used for other purposes; many became hangers for civilian airplanes. Today Max Westheimer is one of the largest small town airports in the nation. The facilities on South Base were first used by the University of Oklahoma to house different classroom and housing for the surge in enrollments of ex-service men, who were returning to school on the GI Bill.  Today, industrial parks and growing businesses occupy the land where so many men and women learned the necessary skills to help the United States and her allies win the Second World War.

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June Thompson Benson, Norman's First Mayor

  There is a little rectangular shaped park just south of downtown, where Peters and Alameda streets intersect in the Miller Historic District. The City Parks Department named the park after June Benson, the first woman to serve as Mayor of Norman. The park was established in honor of Benson’s work as policy committee chairman of the Community Development Block Grant program from 1972 to 1981. The program administered federal funds to low and moderate-income neighborhoods.  Benson’s major contribution was her financial oversight; she made sure funds from the program were used for the targeted neighborhoods rather than being funneled into city projects. June Benson started her political career in the early 1950s, when most women chose to stay at home and raise their children in the growing affluence of post-World War II America. June Tompkins Benson was a homemaker and mother, but she also had a penchant in public service. 

June Tompkins was born in Granite, Oklahoma on November 6, 1915. In 1933, she enrolled at the University of Oklahoma, where she studied in the Department of Government. After she graduated in 1937, she continued her education and received her master’s degree in 1940. Her graduate thesis was entitled, “Election Practices in Oklahoma.” In 1940 she married University of Oklahoma Government professor, Oliver Benson. With the United State’s entrance into the Second World War in 1941, Oliver Benson enlisted into the Navy as yeoman 3rd class, he soon became a commissioned officer. He trained in the Japanese language at Boulder Colorado. After training, the Navy then ordered him to the Caroline Island. The Bensons moved back to Norman after the war in 1946, where Oliver Benson became head of the Department of Government.

June Benson’s interest in taking an active part in city government began with her involvement in the League of Women Voters (LWV). She served as Voter Service Chairman and League president from 1949-1951.  Benson was a member of the State Board of LWV until 1953, when she decided to run for Norman City Commissioner. (In the 1950s, Norman City Council was the Norman Board of Commissioners and Norman Councilmen were referred to as Norman Commissioners.) One hundred citizens signed a petition to place Benson’s name on the ballot.  Benson served as a Norman elected official until 1961. She was the first woman to be elected to the Norman City Commission.

In 1957, June Benson sought the job of Norman’s Mayor. Election procedures, as stated in the city charter, allowed that the Mayor of Norman was chosen by a vote of the city commissioners. The commissioners chose mayoral candidates from the pool of fellow commissioners. In 1957, there were seven nominated out of the eight city commissioners. June Benson won on the sixth ballot. At age 41, Benson was the 1st woman mayor of Norman, and she was the first woman to be elected as mayor of any city in Oklahoma.

June Benson presided over some interesting and difficult issues during her tenure as mayor. For example in June 1957, the city commissioners passed ordnance 1051, which limited the power and authority of the Park Board. It seems that the Park Board under ordnance 904, had purchasing power and the power to hire and to fire city employees. It was discovered that ordnance 904 was in violation of the city charter. To remedy this situation, the city passed ordnance 1051 restoring these powers to the city manager.      There was such an uproar by the citizens of Norman over ordnance 1051 restricting the board’s power that Mayor Benson called a special meeting of the commissioners. The commissioners voted to kill the new ordnance thereby restoring the Park Board’s powers.

Another sticky issue that again brought out the citizens to protest was a move by city commissioners to commandeer a newly completed remodel of an 18,000 sq. foot building from the Department of Police; the city commissioners had previously designated the building for police administration. The city’s brazen move to occupy the newly remolded building was in response to the failure of a bond measure to fund new city offices. The citizens of Norman had repeatedly voted down a bond measure. The city commissioners worked around the citizens of Norman by voting to move the city offices, the city clerk, and the municipal agencies into the newly remolded building, thereby omitting the Department of Police from obtaining the building. Many citizens spoke out against the commissioners, a University of Oklahoma Professor, Laurence D. Posten, told the commission that they were committing political suicide with the decision to take over the new building. The only two commissioners, who voted against the measure to take over the new facility, were Mayor Benson and former Mayor, James Lansing.

Mayor Benson had a somewhat contentious relationship with her fellow commissioners. So much so, that in December 1959 the commissioners voted to ask the Mayor to resign.  The commissioners complained that Benson had taken action without their knowledge. They were especially critical after Benson submitted her nominees for the planning committee. The commissioners rejected her submission. She submitted the same people three times, each time her candidates were rejected. This was evidently evidence that she would not work with the commissioners. Even though the commissioners asked Mayor Benson to step down, there was no law or ordnance that could force the mayor to quit. Benson stayed on as Mayor and worked with the commission; the issue of the commissioners asking for her resignation was not brought up again.

June Benson served as an elected official of Norman until 1961. She then severed on the state board of the League of Women Voters until 1970. She served on Norman Advisory Board for Environmental Control. In 1979, Governor Nigh appointed Benson to the Oklahoma Pollution Control Coordinating Board. She held this position until her death in 1981.  

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