|By Kristin Owens, Fort Supply, Okla.|
|A man of courage
These words tell the story of a great leader, who for the past 20 years has dedicated his life to serving Oklahoma, and now Wes Watkins is stepping down. The OSU alumnus retired Jan. 3, 2003, from the U. S. Congress.
Today, Congress may have lost one of its leaders, but Oklahomans will always have a life-long friend.
|Wes Watkins was born Dec. 15, 1938,
in the small town of Dequeen, Ark.
His family suffered poor economic conditions, which directly affected his life.
Before Watkins was 9 years old, his family had moved between Arkansas and California three different times.
Like a lot of people who had left the area in search of economic survival, I picked cotton, cut grapes and gathered potatoes and onions in the field, said Watkins.
|Traveling back and forth took its
toll on the Watkins family. Like many other families, the goal was to find
work and make money, but sometimes all they found were hardships.
My mother and father ended up in divorce, and after settling in Bennington, Okla., my father left and went to California, said Watkins.
Watkins and his family mother Mary Etta; older sister Althea; and older brother L.V.; decided to beat the odds. They wanted a new start, and they found it on a small farm in Bennington, Okla.
It was probably one of the greatest things that happenedto me, said Watkins. My mother had very little formal education, but she had a world of wisdom. She knew that our future did not lie in the fast-paced big cities.
In Bennington, the Watkins family worked hard to make ends meet. Mary Watkins was determined to provide a future for her children.
My mother did not want to go on welfare, said Watkins. During that time, it was a stigma that she didnt want so she worked, and we worked, and we managed to stay off welfare.
Bennington was then, and is still today, a small town, and like many small towns in Oklahoma, it is home to a friendly community.
You knew everyone, and everyone knew you, said Watkins. It was a great place to grow up. Everyone looked after everyone, and basically, they were just good neighbors.
|While attending school at Bennington, Watkins
first love was agriculture, but he also showed the signs of an aspiring
I was on the baseball and basketball teams, said Watkins. I tell people that I started as point guard on the basketball team and second baseman on the baseball team, and it wasnt that I was that good, it was because they needed me. I guess thats how you know when youre in a small town.
When Watkins in the eighth grade, a program was added to Benningtons curriculum had a profound affect on his life.
|A fellow came to our community
and started the vocational agriculture program and along with that, a little
organization called the FFA, said Watkins. My brother first
enrolled in it, and I followed, and from there we began to pave the way.
Becoming involved in the FFA, and then realizing where it could take him, was just the first step in a long staircase of blue-and-gold history for Watkins.
It started with the first trip to Stillwater, Okla., to attend the State FFA Convention. Watkins was a naive 13-year-old boy when he attended that first convention. Watching an organization come together under one roof was a marvelous sight for the young man. While sitting in the audience trying to take it all in, he came to the conclusion that from this organization leaders were born.
I marveled at the leadership qualities of a young man who, at the time, was serving as the state FFA president. His name was Barton Ridling from Sentinel, Okla., said Watkins.
Watkins was seated in the far northeast corner of Gallagher Hall, really by himself, because he didnt want anyone talking to him because of his speech problem.
Watkins was born with a speech problem that impaired his ability to sound out words. After leaving the convention, Watkins was overcome with a heart full of excitement and determination, but he wondered if his speech impediment would stand in the way of his dreams within the FFA.
My vo-ag teacher drove the bus back from the convention, and I sat behind him telling him how I would like to be a state FFA president some day, said Watkins. He didnt laugh or show too much emotion one way or the other, but he was probably thinking What kind of dream is that?
The following Monday Watkins agriculture teacher helped him by placing an Oklahoma Farmer-Stockman magazine on his desk.
He asked me to pick out an article and get up and talk about it, said Watkins. He did that for several years and four years later, I became a state FFA officer.
During the fall of 1956, Watkins embarked on a new chapter in his life. He set foot on the campus of Oklahoma State University as a college freshman and as the southeast district vice president for the Oklahoma FFA. He was excited about the chance to make agriculture a full-time career.
For college freshmen today, living in the dorms is common, and on some campuses it is mandatory. For Watkins, however, it was a different story.
|The summer before I came to
OSU, I took a job in California working on a poultry farm, said Watkins.
The drought had hit, and I had to sell my livestock because I needed
Because of this experience, during his first semester at OSU, Fred LeCrone, assistant dean of resident instruction, sent him to work for Delbert Black on the schools poultry farm, and little did Watkins know this new job would also be his new home.
We had moved the chickens out of one of the chicken houses, and I asked Mr. Black what he was going to do with the building, said Watkins. He said they were going to tear it down, so I asked if I could move in.
Watkins cleaned and sanitized the house, and pretty soon he and his brother, who was a year ahead of him at OSU, moved in. They slept on GI bunk beds, used a hot plate for cooking and spent the early hours of the morning collecting eggs in exchange for rent. This once chicken-manure-and-dirt-filled house would be home for Watkins and his brother for the next two years.
As college progressed, so did Watkins. He left the poultry farm and began working for the OSU infirmary.
I thought it was a great job, said Watkins. I had all I wanted to eat, clean sheets and a clean place to live.
Not only did Watkins have a new address, but he also had new responsibilities. He was elected president of the Agricultural Student Council and president of Blue Key. And if this wasnt enough, he also decided to run for student senator.
I wanted to run for student senator, but they didnt know where to put me, said Watkins. I wasnt a Greek, I didnt live in town, and I wasnt in the dorm. It was amusing to me that they didnt know where I could run, but I was actually in the middle of campus, only I was living in the OSU infirmary.
Through all of the confusions, Watkins was able to run as town senator and won.
While in Kingfisher, Okla., as a student teacher, Watkins received an interesting phone call. A friend from OSU wanted him to run for office, but this time it was for student body president.
It was my last semester, and it was quite a race, said Watkins. I was running against a man named Dan Draper, who later became Speaker of the House in the Oklahoma Legislature. My campaign revolved around an idea calledWesley Statehood Days Watkins, and the bottom of my business cards read Im a poor boy; give this to a friend.
The election was the talk of the campus; in fact, it was the largest one the campus had ever held. There were twice as many votes cast than had ever been cast before. Watkins said on the night of the election, April 12, 1960, Bob Hope was on campus giving a big show, and during his show he made the announcement that Wes Watkins was the new student body president.
While serving as student body president, Watkins was asked by someone when he was going to run for political office.
I had always thought of my involvement here on campus as just student leadership activities, said Watkins. I didnt know it was really preparing me to go into political office. I reflected on what that person said to me and I thought, You know if I ever did run for political office, what would I really want to do?
It was 1961, Watkins had just finished his bachelor of science degree
in agricultural education and was working on his masters degree
at OSU and needed a better paying job. While keeping his job at the infirmary,
he also took the position of head doorman at the OSU Edmon Low library.
Little did he know, but this job was going to change his life.
Bill Brewster had become Watkins successor in Congress and on
Dec. 17, 1995, he gave Watkins an important phone call.