OKLA. CITY —
King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table are enshrined in British myth and legend. For centuries, stories have been told of how that monarch and those who served him came together at the round table to talk of the work they did to protect the English kingdom from the forces of evil.
Oklahoma may have a latter-day version of the round table in the gathering that takes place every Wednesday morning at the First Watch restaurant in north Oklahoma City. Former Gov. George Nigh meets there with a group of his former advisors for breakfast. Like their English counterparts, Nigh and his friends meet at a round table and often reminisce about the actions they took over the years when Nigh was the state’s lieutenant governor, governor and later president of the University of Central Oklahoma.
Nigh is well into his eighth decade and walks with a cane while several of his guests use walkers. But the former governor presides over a festive gathering and all of the attendees appear to be in good spirits.
The geniality of Nigh and his entourage has endeared him to the staff of the First Watch. Like several other political leaders, including the late Margaret Thatcher and former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo, Nigh, who is a native of McAlester, began working in a store owned by his father when he was a boy. He recently recalled how he on he occasion in his youth delivered groceries to the home of Congressman Carl Albert and that his contacts with the future Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives contributed to his decision to enter politics.
Nigh’s career was chronicled by author Bob Burke in “Good Guys Wear White Hats, the Life of George Nigh.” Burke writes of how Nigh was elected to the Oklahoma House of Representatives from McAlester in 1950. Eight years later, he was elected lieutenant governor.
During his tenure in that position, Nigh worked tirelessly to develop tourism in Oklahoma. He was subsequently elected governor and later won reelection to that office by carrying all of Oklahoma’s 77 counties.
Burke reminds us that Nigh steered the state through the crises caused by the collapse of the oil boom in the 1980s, and that his associates were never tainted by scandal or allegations of wrongdoing. When Nigh was preparing to testify in federal court on a lawsuit against the Oklahoma Department of Corrections and the court clerk was beginning to swear him in, federal judge Luther Bohanan said: “You don’t have to swear in the governor. We all know that George Nigh doesn’t lie and doesn’t need to take an oath.”
As president of UCO, Nigh oversaw the construction of several new buildings and also helped to create a college consortium with community colleges in the Oklahoma City area that offered classes for students in downtown Oklahoma City.
The historian Plutarch, in his “Parallel Lives” wrote of a Greek statesman whose father sought to dissuade him from a political career by taking him to the harbor and pointing to the old abandoned ships there and telling him that that is what the public does with its leaders once it no longer needs them.
Oklahoma is fortunate that George Nigh’s father did not give similar advice to him.
WILLIAN F. O’BRIEN is an Oklahoma City attorney.