Written by Dick Pryor on Thursday August 9, 2012
It's the hat you first notice about Clyde Snow. A brown felt hat, specially-ordered from New York, that he wears jauntily tilted to the side of his head. That hat frames Snow's well-worn face. Its brim casts a shadow across his eyes - inquisitive eyes that have been saddened by the horrors of death; eyes he's used to "listen" to bones.
The unforgettable hat and trademark tweed jacket cloak Clyde Snow with a hint of adventure, the swashbuckling kind of adventure made popular, and bigger than life, in cinema. It's not much of a stretch to imagine Clyde Snow as Indiana Jones, charging through Raiders of the Lost Ark in search of the world's greatest archaeological treasures.
Art sometimes imitates life, and that image, it turns out, is not far from reality. Substitute anthropology for archaeology, and you have not Indiana Jones, but Oklahoma Bones, and the story of Clyde Snow.
Clyde "Sonny" Snow saw his first human skeleton on a mule deer hunt in New Mexico at the age of 12. He also learned about bones while taking X-rays at his father's medical clinic in the small west Texas town of Ralls. That's where Sonny grew up during the Great Depression – and where his disdain for studying and love of pranks prompted him to be expelled from school and sent off to the New Mexico Military Institute.
The only child of a doctor and nurse, Sonny was inquisitive – he once X-rayed his Christmas gifts to see what was inside - but his intellectual curiosity and interest in science didn't come together until he learned how to study at NMMI. By then called Clyde, he did well enough to be accepted at Harvard, but chose to attend Southern Methodist University instead. He didn't stay at SMU and wound up graduating from Eastern New Mexico University. He earned a Master's Degree in Zoology from Texas Tech, then pursued his Doctorate in archaeology at the University of Arizona.
Snow realized there wasn't much future in archaeology and turned his attention instead to anthropology. He was working on his Ph.D., studying monkees in Puerto Rico, when a college buddy told him about a job with the Federal Aviation Administration in Oklahoma City.
The year was 1960. Rock and roll was the rage, the space race was on, and scientists were in demand. The FAA lured Clyde Snow to Oklahoma and gave him the job of researching the safety of airplanes. Snow examined his first fatal airplane crash in 1961, the crash of a United Airlines DC-8 at Stapleton Airport in Denver. He found that in crashes of large commercial jetliners, people died of smoke inhalation in otherwise survivable crashes.
Snow noticed that "wherever you find dead stewardesses, you find dead passengers," so he focused his research on the airline crews, flight attendants in particular. He measured them and studied the planes and crashes in which they died, and concluded that the airplanes' designs were putting them at-risk.
So, Snow improved the design of consoles, seats and equipment, and despite receiving the dubious "Golden Fleece" award from Oregon U.S. Senator William Proxmire (who believed Snow's work to be a waste of taxpayers' money), his improvements saved lives and changed the airline industry forever.
Snow's work at the FAA also got the attention of Oklahoma Medical Examiner Dr. James Luke. Luke enlisted Snow to identify human remains, examining the bones to put a name with a body. In 1967, Snow achieved local fame by identifying the remains in an Oklahoma child murder case, and his reputation grew.
In 1969, he was called to Chicago to identify victims of the deadly American Airlines Flight 191 crash. The horrific crash scene, and the poor condition of the bodies, led Snow to develop a computer program to identify the remains. He calls his work in Chicago "the most unpleasant experience in my life." But, it was also a turning point in Snow's career as a forensic anthropologist.
Snow's method came to define this still relatively new scientific sub-discipline, and within a few years he was the world's most recognized forensic anthropologist. Snow's work with bones has helped convict mass murderers, identify the Nazi "Angel of Death" Josef Mengele, and investigate the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. He's worked on cases involving serial murderers like John Wayne Gacy in Illinois (working with another Oklahoman, facial reconstruction expert Betty Pat Gatliff), Jeffrey Dahmer in Wisconsin and the Green River Killer in Washington.
Snow has given faces to "the disappeared" - thousands of people who vanished and died during the "Dirty War" in Argentina. He's brought justice to war criminals and trained teams that have investigated human rights abuses in almost 50 countries. He's also been called on to search for General George Armstrong Custer and outlaws including Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
Snow has used his expertise to resolve legal matters, not just solve crimes. His techniques are now used around the world. And now, the name of Clyde Snow has become synonymous with a scientific field that largely did not exist until he entered it.
Snow says "one of the worst ways to suppress people is to change or destroy their identity." That's why he believes his work in identifying victims of human rights abuses is so important. He believes that state-sponsored murder is more monstrous than other murders because people trust the state. But, he has found that each murderer leaves clues due to their own egotism.
Snow says "you must prove people were alive before you prove they were dead." He uses photos and other records to create a biography of the person who lived, then uses probability based on provable facts, peer testing and the process of elimination to make the connection between the identified person and his or her bones.
He says it is a tremendous moment when the person's bones have given you all the information and you can put together their story. "It can be exhilarating," Snow says, "but at the same time it can be sometimes heart-rending, the outcome."
Clyde Snow is an important figure in human rights, and an unforgettable character. He has seen the results of the world's worst inhumanity, but flashes a sharp and ironic sense of humor. He enjoys good food, good drinks, and good coffee (his favorite is from Ethiopia).
At age 84, Clyde Snow wants to remembered as "anti-homicide" and for the respect and friendship he's earned from the families of people he's identified in the investigation of human rights abuses, crimes against humanity and war crimes throughout the world.
Clyde Snow talks about his fascinating career as a scientist and human rights activist with host Dick Pryor on "A Conversation With...Clyde Snow," debuting Thursday, August 9 at 9 p.m. on OETA.
Host Dick Pryor and Dr. Clyde Snow
Written by Dick Pryor on Wednesday February 23, 2011
George Henderson wasn't born in Oklahoma; he didn't grow up here; he didn't attend college here. He did, however, find himself here. And, along the way he fundamentally changed race relations in the state and established himself as one of the nation's leading human rights scholars and activists.
Henderson grew up in Hurtsboro, Alabama and East Chicago, Indiana, where he was "trapped in his ethnicity." Living conditions were poor, poverty prevailed and Henderson encountered racism in both locales. The North provided little refuge for black families. Henderson called "The Calumet" area of East Chicago an "urban plantation." Henderson and many other young African Americans suffered the bigotry of low expectations, except from his own family. His mother steered him toward college, where Henderson excelled. He attended what is now Michigan State and Wayne State, where he received three degrees.
While in Detroit, Henderson was a social case worker, community organizer and activist. He met Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, Rosa Parks, Cesar Chavez and his boss at the Urban League was Whitney Young, Jr. Malcolm X recruited Henderson to join his group, but Henderson decided against it. Said Henderson:
"When Malcolm would try to recruit me, it was before he went to Mecca. And before he went to Mecca, Malcolm was anti-white. He encouraged a very different, a more violent approach to solving things. Although he never told individuals to go out and hurt somebody without cause, and he always said "without cause." He said parroting and mimicking, perhaps, Martin Luther King, Jr., he says, "I'm a non-violent man too, but if somebody touches me, I'm going to send him to the cemetery."
Well, that approach didn't sit well with me or Melvin (Tolson, Jr.). We knew that our students, and I believe-- and boy, I was committed to non-violence and so was Melvin-- when you're less than 200 and slightly more than 100 on a campus of thousands, non-violence is probably, as Gandhi found out in India, a very practical way to do this thing. It's a good strategy. It's not a cowardly strategy we taught each other and our students believed in. It requires courageous people to turn the other cheek, and finally when you run out of cheeks to still accept the violence. It is redemptive. We learn that suffering can be redemptive. We learned that suffering can be redemptive. These are the things that we helped to wrestle with and to deal with and to come to terms with.
So I told Malcolm X, "No, I'm not committed to your strategy, but I respect you and appreciate you as a brother--as a black man." And we had a deal. I said, "I will not do anything publicly to discredit you or to hurt you." And he said, "Fair enough, Brother Henderson." And then I said, "But I also want to believe that you will not do anything publicly to discredit or to hurt me." He laughed and said, "That's our deal." And so that's how that relationship lasted."
Despite advice not to go to Oklahoma, Henderson moved his family to Norman shortly after the Detroit Riots in 1967. It took some time, but he became a civil rights activist in Oklahoma, too, and encouraged his students to push back against discriminatory practices and regain their dignity.
Henderson said one of his earliest experiences in Oklahoma established his role in his new state. It occurred at a conference with three distinguished white speakers talking about black children in education. Henderson told me:
"I sat and I listened, and I heard them say several things that I didn't like. And when given an opportunity, I tried to correct their misperceptions of black children. Well, nobody apparently had ever done this before-- not to these distinguished experts on black people. And a white gentleman sitting directly in front of me turned around and said, "Who are you?" And I introduced myself, and he said, "Well, why are you here?" I said, "I've accepted a teaching position." He said, "No, why are you really here?" I thought for awhile, then I looked at him and I said in my most reverent manner, "Before I left Detroit, there was a meeting of black people from around the United States. We divided up the United States, and I got Oklahoma. I've come to take care of my people." The audience erupted. He was sure that I was telling the truth, and so there it was. So I had a reputation, and that solidified my role as a voice, if not a spokesperson, certainly a voice of some of the blacks."
When Henderson arrived on campus, OU had a few high-profile black athletes, but most black students were ignored and invisible. Even black athletes felt exploited. There were few organizations that welcomed them and the Norman community was not especially friendly toward them. They did not have the same privileges as white students. Black students had no place to get haircuts, were served cold food in restaurants, suffered discrimination in housing, and were encouraged to walk in groups for their own safety. Henderson said they also received lower grades than many white students by professors who were biased against them.
Henderson formed a relationship with another African American professor at OU, Melvin B. Tolson, Jr. (Henderson called him the brother he never had) and together they worked with black students at OU to encourage them to speak up against segregation and discrimination and challenge the authority that forced them into the shadows.
As the dialogue opened up, the barriers began to fall. Henderson and Tolson encouraged black students to stay non-violent, to turn the other cheek, and push for incremental progress. Their actions were sometimes considered radical, but the goal was equality.
In 1970, OU had its first black president of the student body. For another 36 years, Henderson led the fight against institutionalized racism and institutional racists, and with the help of many supportive white friends and colleagues, the racial environment at OU and in Norman changed.
In 2002, the university dedicated the Henderson-Tolson Cultural Center in honor of professors Henderson and Tolson. Henderson was inducted into the Oklahoma Hall of Fame and Oklahoma Higher Education Hall of Fame in 2003. He retired from the university in 2006 after 39 years at OU.
I first met George and Barbara Henderson in 1967, not long after they moved their family from Detroit to Norman. Their daughter, Faith, was one of my classmates at University School. Their son, George, was an outstanding basketball player who all the guys looked up to and their daughter, Michelle, was a mover and shaker, constantly in motion, and a fearless activist. The younger girls seemed to blend in rather seamlessly at school, if not in the broader community as well.
University School was a welcoming place, and the Henderson children fit in quickly and easily. I never heard anyone talk about their race being an issue. Unbeknownst to most of us, that was not the case with many people in Norman. The University City was certainly not the place the Hendersons hoped it would be. George Henderson soon did his research, and learned that Oklahoma and the university had a history of segregation and hostility toward African Americans. He found that Norman was a "Sundown Town" that didn't welcome blacks after dark, and certainly did not look kindly at anyone who would sell a home to a black family. Taunts, obscene phone calls, and ugly pranks were common.
We didn't know about the extent of the bigotry they faced, first, in finding a home in the city limits, and then in facing down the insults and taunts the unenlightened and predisposed heaved their way. Through it all, the Hendersons have moved gracefully, and at times forcefully, through the Norman community. The Hendersons entertained many leading black Americans who were seeking friendly quarters in Norman. And, the black-white divide within Norman began to fade.
It's fair to say that in a town that once did not accept them, the Hendersons have become one of the most respected families, and George and Barbara Henderson, through their tireless leadership, have grown in stature with every year.
Dr. Henderson wrote about his life and early days in Oklahoma in his thirtieth book, "Race and the University," published by the University of Oklahoma Press in 2010. A Conversation With...George Henderson owes heavily to that memoir.
Dr. Henderson's story is truly inspirational, and provides a roadmap for improving human relations. With its rich themes and strong messages, this is a program that delivers a punch, but with words, not clenched fists.
Until next time,
Written by Dick Pryor on Friday October 1, 2010
Like many Americans in the 1960's, I was fascinated by the space race. In the days of "duck and cover" we were all concerned about the battle for global superiority between the world's two superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union. And, nowhere was the competition keener, the stakes higher and the urgency greater than in the exploration of space.
Whichever nation commanded space could establish itself as the superpower and grab the position as the world's technological, ideological, and potentially military, leader. The threat of nuclear conflagration was never out of mind. Against that backdrop, when President John F. Kennedy implored us to journey into space and later commit to traveling to the moon and back, the best and brightest emerged, and our instincts as Americans turned us toward the sky.
Thomas P. Stafford of Weatherford, Oklahoma accepted the challenge. An Air Force test pilot who graduated first in his flight class, Stafford jumped at the opportunity to join the astronaut corps. Slightly too tall to be chosen as one of the "Original Seven" astronauts, Stafford was announced as a member of the "New Nine" on his 32nd birthday, September 17, 1962.
Originally scheduled to become the 7th American in space and first spacewalker on the initial Gemini flight, Stafford had to wait until 1965 and his first mission aboard Gemini Six. He flew two Gemini flights, each involving rendezvous, and in May of 1969 commanded Apollo 10, the dress rehearsal for the first lunar landing. He clame within 9.4 miles of the moon before turning back to rejoin the command module for the trip home. Then, he closed out his space flight career, as U.S. commander of a joint mission that brought the American and Soviet space programs together. But, the story of General Thomas P. Stafford doesn't end there.
It was a privilege to sit down with General Stafford to discuss those early days of space flight and also his distinguished career since leaving the astronaut corps. A few minutes with him gave me an indication of why he was so highly-valued in the American space program.
He is clearly a problem-solver and a quick study – skills that are critical for a test pilot. It's no wonder test pilots were favored when astronauts were selected. They lived to push the envelope, and flying in space was the ultimate test flight.
General Stafford was known for his dry sense of humor, calm demeanor, Oklahoma drawl and balding head but make no mistake, he is much more than a "Space Cowboy." He's smart, analytical, quick-thinking, courageous and mission-oriented...and driven to succeed. As our conversation unfolded, I could clearly see how Thomas Stafford could be considered "an astronaut's astronaut." As a top NASA spokesman said, during the days of Gemini: "That guy is really smart. You feel like the ship is in good hands when Stafford is aboard."
General Stafford admitted that he is impatient. I saw him as a man on a mission, and with a vision that few will ever have. Indeed, he saw the moon from less than ten miles away and even though he never returned, he gives you the impression he would be up to the task at a moment's notice, even at the age of 79 (now 80).
People talk about the Oklahoma pioneering spirit. Part of that is a public relations creation, but with General Stafford, it's real. He is truly one of the greatest explorers our earth has ever known. As he says, "we rode full speed ahead."
It is ironic that as I am writing this approximately 1,200 workers on the Space Shuttle program are losing their jobs due to changing government and space program priorities. General Stafford believes the United States should bolster its space program, with more flights (manned and unmanned) back to the moon and beyond. He is a supporter of flights to Mars.
Even now, he's a consultant on the International Space Station program and sees how international cooperation, with the Russians and others, will be critical in the further exploration of space. To this day, he counts Soviet cosmonaut Alexei Leonov as one of his closest friends. In fact, he visited with General Leonov by telephone the day we conducted our interview for "A Conversation With..." General Leonov was the first person to walk in space, the Soviet commander on the Apollo Soyuz Test Project, and the Soviet cosmonaut who extended his hand to American commander Thomas Stafford for the historic "handshake in space."
As a youngster I was a bit of a space geek. Like so many Americans, I was glued to the television set for coverage of each Mercury, Gemini and Apollo mission. With astronaut flash cards, encyclopedias, newspapers and maps at the ready, I watched intently as each spacecraft flew from tracking station to tracking station. I also kept a scrapbook of space-related photographs and news stories - especially stories about Oklahoma's swashbuckling Mercury astronaut Gordon Cooper and the new favorite son who pushed space flight toward the ultimate goal, the moon. So, it was a real thrill to have a conversation with this living legend.
Many of my questions to General Stafford were about the missions, the reasoning behind NASA's plans, and the split-second decisions that General Stafford made in space. He leaped into the technical questions, and seemed comfortable with leaving most of the hyperbole to the journalist in the room. As always, Thomas Stafford stayed focused on the target.
We did our interview with General Stafford on July 7, 2010, in the same studio where he sat for the production of the OETA program, "General Thomas P. Stafford: Oklahoma Astronaut" in 1997. We recorded our conversation just a couple of months before General Stafford celebrated his 80th birthday, surrounded by fellow astronauts, at the Thomas P. Stafford Air & Space Museum in Weatherford. The first man to walk on the moon, Neil Armstrong, and General Stafford's Gemini 9 and Apollo 10 crewmate Eugene Cernan, were among those attending.
If you want to learn more about General Stafford, I heartily recommend a visit to the Thomas P. Stafford Air & Space Museum. It is located east of Weatherfod, at the airport, just off of Interstate 40. It is deceptively large - about 40,000 square feet, and there is no wasted space. Plan to spend a few hours, especially if you are a space flight fan. The museum is a real treasure – an outstanding museum jammed with information, photographs, and memorabilia from General Stafford's career, the U.S. and Soviet space programs and the history of flight. The collection includes spacesuits, planes, a Titan II rocket and much more. The price is very affordable and well worth it.
You can see the Gemini 6 capsule that Thomas Stafford and Wally Schirra flew into space in 1965 at the Oklahoma History Center just east of the state capitol in Oklahoma City. I also recommend General Stafford's autobiography, "We Have Capture," which is available at the Oklahoma History Center and other book stores, and of course our two OETA productions , including "A Conversation With...Thomas Stafford."
I hope you enjoy our conversation. Thanks for reading. Until next time,
Written by Dick Pryor on Monday June 7, 2010
David Hall seemed destined for greatness. Born in Oklahoma City, he spent his formative years in Sherman, Texas before moving to California, then back to Oklahoma. He drove a delivery truck for his family's Pepsi bottling plant and attended Taft Junior High School in Oklahoma City. He was student body president there and was student body president as a senior at Oklahoma City's Classen High School. There, he played on a state championship basketball team before heading to the University of Oklahoma and later, the Tulsa University Law School.
Written by Dick Pryor on Tuesday April 13, 2010
I've long believed that Fred Harris was misunderstood. Harris seemed to be more popular nationally than he was in his home state of Oklahoma. In the later stages of his political career he was portrayed as a radical by many in Oklahoma and his two presidential campaigns never caught fire. But, he came from a hardscrabble, depression-era background and seemed to exemplify revered Oklahoma traits of independence, perseverance and ingenuity while rising close to the top of American politics.