From cowhands, to educators, to two former governors, Oklahomans of all types gathered for the funeral services of former District 7 state Sen. Gene Stipe at the First Baptist Church in McAlester on Tuesday.
Former Gov. George Nigh, a McAlester native, and former Gov. Brad Henry, were among those who helped fill the First Baptist Church to pay their respects to Stipe.
Nigh joined Senior Federal Judge Lee West, of the Western District of Oklahoma; well-known journalist Frosty Troy, former state Sen. John Massey, and Stipe’s grandson, Ty Anis, in delivering eulogies.
The Rev. Steve Dennis, who has a church in Checotah, opened the service.
“I know he was not a perfect man; but guess what? Nobody in this room is perfect,” Dennis said.
Speakers said they were there to celebrate Stipe’s life and achievements, including his more than 50 years in the state Senate, and there was little reference to his later legal troubles.
As a recording of Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World” sounded through the church, scenes from Stipe’s life, from a boy wearing overalls, to a young sailor, a 21-year-old legislator, to finally, photos of the man considered the dean of the state Senate, were shown on a huge screen.
Judge West said he had a quote from James Dean, stating the best you can ask of life is to “live fast, die young, and leave a beautiful corpse.”
“Gene adhered to an entirely different motto,” West said, saying Stipe did not look at life as a slow journey to the grave.
Rather, he figured you should “skid in sideways, used up and worn out, and say ‘That was a hell of a ride!”’ West said, drawing some chuckles from many in the pews. West also read from a poem that ended with the lines “Remember my best.”
“At your best, Gene, you were a fighter for the little guy,” West said.
Nigh, the former governor and lieutenant governor for the state, said “Sen. Stipe sends his regrets that he couldn’t be here today. He’s probably in Krebs, having lunch, or in his law office, meeting with constituents, said Nigh, referring to Stipe’s longtime practice of meeting with his constituents on Saturdays.
“He was born in Blanco, graduated from Savanna, ate in Krebs and lived in McAlester,” Nigh noted. “I could say the same thing about Hartshorne and Haileyville,” or other communities in the area.”
“Wherever he went, he was from ‘near here,”’ said Nigh, before going on to refer to another politician who carried the practice to extremes.
Referring to Stipe, he said “He would never forget the people; he was here to serve them.”
Nigh also pulled a a Stipe campaign button from his pocket that read “Shake hands with a friend of Gene Stipe.” Nigh said that’s what he wanted everyone present to do.
Troy, the renowned Oklahoma journalist who is also from McAlester, said he gave Stipe one of his nicknames.
“I nicknamed him the Prince of Darkness because of some bill we disagreed on,” Troy said, before going on to talk about how Stipe championed mental health issues and education.
“He had three passions: mental health, education and penal reform,” Troy said, before giving a pep talk to the Democratic faithful in attendance — although Republicans were there as well.
“I never thought I’d see the day this would be the reddest state in the nation,” Troy said.
Troy said at one time schools in some remote areas of Southeastern Oklahoma were in bad shape.
“There were schools that were not fit for pigs to wallow in,” Troy said. At the same time, many schools in Oklahoma City and Tulsa were in fine shape, he said.
“What about all the other kids?” Troy asked, noting Stipe’s contributions to education during his years in the Senate.
Although Stipe was an ardent Democrat, Troy recalled that Stipe said “Once the election is over, we’re not Republicans and Democrats. We’re Oklahomans and Americans.”
Massey, taking the podium, recalled how Stipe once told him “Everybody can teach you something, because everybody knows something.”
The Rev. Dennis recalled how Stipe help start and finance the Pittsburg County Community Thanksgiving Dinner, and how he and his brother, the late Francis Stipe, would pay for Christmas for a needy family every year.
Dennis said those present should remember that Gene Stipe was from the Sooner State.
“If his horse left a little earlier,” he was fulfilling the tradition of a great state,” Dennis said.
Stipe’s adult grandson, Anis, spoke of the family side of the longtime senator.
“Most of you know him as a senator, ‘Uncle Gene,’ a businessman, or an attorney. To me, he was just my grandpa,” Anis said.
He said his grandfather was the type of man who’d rather eat at a roadside barbecue stand than a four-star restaurant.
“When I take a long look at his life, I’m in awe of where he came from and where he ended up.”
Contact James Beaty at firstname.lastname@example.org.