Towering over Tulsa

“Towering over Tulsa,” New Era, Oct. 1986, 23

Towering over Tulsa

Whether they’re buildings or people, things that stand tall can be seen from a distance.

You’re still far away when you first notice, them—small, dark rectangles on the horizon. You can drive for a long time and they still seem the same size, still don’t seem any closer.

“What’s that?” you say.


Wait a minute. That little mass of geometric shapes, clear off at the horizon? We’re talking about a city. Multistoried skyscrapers surrounded by parks and gardens. Hotels and high rises with thousands of mirrored windows. University towers. An eight-block Civic Center including a court house, post office, library, and police headquarters. An arena that seats 10,000. The world’s largest livestock display barn. The world’s largest exhibition hall.

“That’s Tulsa? But it’s still 15 miles away.”

“Doesn’t matter. If something’s tall here, you can see it from a long way off.”

No kidding.

Tulsa wasn’t built in an area known for great heights. Sure, there are a few hills around, but nothing major. Just north of town, you gain enough elevation for a view of the freeway and the downtown business district. And there are high spots here and there on the banks of the Arkansas River, where joggers run and picnickers picnic. But those spots are high because the river goes down, not because the ground comes up. Over at the fairgrounds, there’s even a 50-foot statue of the Golden Driller—a monument to the heroes of the petroleum industry.

But the tallest thing in Tulsa is Tulsa itself, a city that rises proud over the rolling plains, a city where individual buildings stretch upward, firm and tall, eager to be seen, then blend together into a skyline well defined, even at a distance.

Tulsa might not be the first place you’d think of as a home for young Latter-day Saints. If you asked them, they’d probably say their numbers are few.

And yet, just like the buildings of downtown Tulsa, the LDS youth who live here stand tall. They’re happy, goal-oriented, self-assured, and clean. They know what life means and what they’re trying to do with it. They know about truth and honesty, about a boy who prayed in the woods and saw God face to face. They know about standards, from dating to the Word of Wisdom. They know about prayer and studying the scriptures. Such knowledge coupled with righteous living makes it likely they’re the ones you’d notice, even from a distance, head and shoulders over others in the crowd.

Now come closer. Come to a leadership training meeting, and watch these young Latter-day Saints as a group. You’ll discover something. Even though they often think of themselves as a small group, there are really quite a few of them. And just as the downtown skyline is impressive when the buildings are viewed as a group, so the young Saints of Tulsa are formidable when they cluster their talents, strength, enthusiasm, and spirituality.

For their leadership meeting, the youth of the Tulsa Oklahoma Stake gathered Saturday morning at the stake house. From there they went to Woodward Park, with its 12,000 rose plants and other exotic flowers. They stopped at the fairgrounds and said a personal hello to the Golden Driller. They toured the Gilcrease Museum and sampled its displays of 58 paintings and bronzes by Frederic Remington; 88 paintings by Charles Russell; major works by Winslow Homer and John James Audubon; rare documents and books, including the original certified copy of the Declaration of Independence; and 41,000 Indian artifacts. After the tour, the presidents of quorums and classes, their counselors, secretaries, and leaders swarmed a local hamburger stand and ordered a lot of lunches, which were not eaten slowly.

And then they returned to the stake center, where they got down to work.

A leadership session in Tulsa is no mere meeting. It’s the culmination of weeks and months of planning. It’s the presentation of practical workshops and question-and-answer sessions where leaders and youth speak frankly. Listen in on some of the presentations:

“You will never be a greater leader than you are an individual,” said Marilyn Higbee, 17, youth representative to the stake YW–YM committee. In the opening session of the conference she recounted the story of Enos, who prayed to overcome his own sins, then prayed for his people and for his enemies (see Enos 1:4–5, 9, 11–13). “Try to improve someone else by being a good example, and you’ll improve two people,” she added.

“You don’t get anything for nothing,” said Matt Johnstun, 17, also a youth representative to the stake committee. “The reason we’re blessed as leaders is because we get the opportunity to do a lot of work. We need to show those around us that there is time in a busy schedule for the Church.”

In one of three workshops held for young women, Krista Thompson, first counselor in the Young Women presidency of the Bartlesville First Ward, spoke about the Personal Progress program. She compared those who don’t set goals to a ship without a rudder. “To progress, you need direction,” she said.

Vicki Southward and Miriam Steurer, advisers to the Beehives and Mia Maids of the Cleveland Branch, showed examples of “quiet books” girls in their classes made for investigators with young children; of surprises made for “12 Days of Christmas” projects; of “love buckets,” filled with treats, passed as a thank-you to family members, missionaries, or elderly members of the branch. They also told how their girls cleaned up and repaired the nursery as a service project.

In another room, Bishop Lynn McKell of the Tulsa First Ward talked about the bishopric youth committee. “You’re there to represent your class, not just yourself,” he reminded. “Make sure you bring their comments with you, and make sure you take notes so you can report back to them.”

After each workshop ended, the Beehives, Mia Maids, and Laurels rotated rooms, so that by the end of the evening, everyone had heard all three presentations.

The Young Men met in a single priesthood session, where they heard from Weston Dale Larsen, second counselor in the Tulsa Oklahoma Stake presidency, from Bishop Gary S. Fuqua of the Sapulpa Ward, and from Doug Cross of the stake Young Men presidency.

They talked about positive and negative peer pressure, about how to reactivate less active friends, about planning with a priesthood purpose in mind, and about how a mission prepares you for the rest of your life. One of the adults also suggested that learning to run a quorum in the Aaronic Priesthood prepares you to do the same in the Melchizedek Priesthood.

Bishop Fuqua told of a missionary who wrote to his friend about baptizing someone, “That little piece of paper may have changed his friend’s life,” the bishop said. “It helped him discover that he wanted to share the gospel too.”

Of course, once the spiritual feasting was over, there was feasting of another sort. The cultural hall turned miraculously into a gourmet restaurant where baked potatoes were mounded with toppings like ham, bacon bits, cheese, and sour cream. Conversation was friendly and earnest, even among people who had just met. Table centerpieces carried a gospel theme, reminding diners of the importance of temple marriage.

It was a perfect time to hear comments from the youth themselves—to discover, from those who know firsthand, what it means to be young Church members in Oklahoma, and to hear the advice they would give to others like them throughout the world.

“There aren’t any Latter-day Saints in my school except for me,” said Shelinda Robinson, 13, first counselor in her Beehive class in the Cleveland Branch. “Sometimes, when it gets real bad—the language or jokes or kids talking about doing bad things—I just leave.”

“But you’re never a stranger to other members of the Church,” said Kerri Wade, 14, Mia Maid first counselor in the Sapulpa Ward. “That’s one of the neat things about being a member. You can instantly share some common feelings.”

She told about being the only Latter-day Saint in a private school run by another church.

“Some of the kids were talking about football, and they mentioned Brigham Young University. Then one of them turned to me and said, ‘Those Mormons are all so weird.’ I asked him if he had ever met one. He said no. And I said, ‘You’ve met one now!’ I think it shocked him.

“Another guy kept staring at me the whole year long, like I should look funny or act funny. We got to be pretty good friends after a while. Finally, the last day of class, he said, ‘Know what? Ya’ll are just ordinary people.’ That was really nice.

“My bishop said that I’m an example 24 hours a day. If I do something wrong, others may judge the Church by me. I have to be careful, which is good, because I should be careful anyway.”

Greg Laster, 15, first counselor in the teachers quorum of the Sapulpa Ward, said, “Other people are watching you. They want to see the standards you set. They think the whole Church is like you.”

His friend from the ward, Steve Henry, 17, an assistant to the president of the priests quorum, agreed. “You have to hold up your standards so those around you see that you’ve got something special, that your church is not the same as all those other churches.”

“Most of my friends know the church I go to,” Greg said, “but they don’t know the authority I hold. There are people saying they can heal and stuff, but I have more authority than they do.”

“Holding the priesthood makes you feel like you’re a part of things,” said John Ashby, 13, of the Third Ward. “You’re not just a bystander; you’re important.”

“Our quorum is small,” said Mark Choate, 13, first counselor in the deacons presidency of the Cleveland Branch. “In fact, there are only three of us. But we’re pretty good friends. Right now we’re working on a quorum project, making a sign for the property where our new chapel is going to be built. We’re digging holes for the posts, setting up the sign, painting it and everything.”

“Doing things together as a quorum is important,” said Gary Player, 15, first counselor in the Third Ward teachers quorum. “You have to stick together. You can’t just take the Church for granted. It seems like here you’re either fully active or you stray away. But even though it’s hard to be worthy, it’s worth it. One of the things that I like the best about the Church is that it’s kept me clean. If there’s ever any problem, I can think back to the Church teachings and it makes it easier to handle, to have the strength to say no.”

Tommy Cross, 14, of the First Ward, talked about a temple trip to Dallas, Texas. “At first we all thought we’d remember going to Six Flags and that the baptisms for the dead were something we’d do just to keep the leaders happy. But when we got back and talked about it, we’d forgotten about the amusement park. Everybody remembered the temple and what went on inside the temple. It was more important. You felt better there.”

Invariably, the young leaders described Tulsa as a friendly place. “It’s big enough to have everything you need,” Steve said. “But it seems like a small town. Everybody smiles and says hi.”

“And everyone is extremely religious,” Gary said. “Even though they may not understand what the Church means to you, they usually respect you for believing.”

But there’s a special bond, one that goes beyond mere friendship, among those that do have the gospel in common.

“There’s a real close relationship among the youth of our ward,” said Annette Richins, 16, Laurel president of the Third Ward. “And we need that. We all have each other to depend on. I look at my friends who aren’t members, and I’m so grateful for the Church.”

“I especially like getting together with our advisers, when it’s just us and them and we can be ourselves with people who understand what we’re trying to be,” said Mandee Moon, 13, the Beehive president of the Sapulpa Ward.

“I just moved to Tulsa seven months ago,” said Kim Luke, 13, Beehive president of the First Ward. “I got to know my way around because of Church people. I feel at home here, like I know people better. I don’t mind being the only Mormon in my school, or one of the few, not when I know how many of us there really are.”

“You look around the room here,” Kerri said, pointing out people at different tables. “I didn’t know her until today. I didn’t know them, either. But it doesn’t matter; we’re friends anyway. The gospel brings us together.”

When the leadership meeting let out that night, it was dark. Most of the young people hurried home. A few lingered at the chapel, retrieving dishes that had been used for the dinner. Some stopped at Braum’s, the local emporium for ice cream.

But few if any of them took time to stop and study the Tulsa skyline, now alive with lights like a Christmas tree. Those driving or riding farther, out into suburbs like Sand Springs or Bristow, may have looked back at the town, may have even thought it looked beautiful.

But it’s unlikely that they were thinking of themselves as lights. Lights to a city, examples to their friends. Unaware of their own significance, the young Latter-day Saints were back in their homes, back in their communities. They were ready to stand firm and proud, to raise their standards and mark their place, if you will, in the spiritual skyline of their city.

“If something’s tall here, you can see it from a long way off.”

No kidding.

Photography by Richard M. Romney

When you think of places where Latter-day Saints thrive, Oklahoma may not be first on your list. But as Gary Player and Kim Luke exemplify, the LDS youth here are happy, active, and strong. And they occupy a prominent position in their community.

There’s a vast, rich heritage in the western United States, and as the presidents of classes and quorums toured the Gilcrease Museum, they saw that heritage depicted by some of the nation’s finest painters and sculptors. That same pride of place is evidenced in the city’s business district, where Old Glory dances on the mirrored windows of a modern high rise.

Originally a symbol of the International Petroleum Exposition of 1966, the Golden Driller has evolved into the mascot of a city known to many as the ”oil capital of the world.” Shelinda Robinson and Mandee Moon received special permission to sit on the big man’s steel-and-concrete toe, and as far as anyone could tell he never even flinched at their presence.

It was a leadership conference full of treats. Steve Henry couldn’t resist the enticing icing of a chocolate glazed doughnut at a morning refreshment break. Young Women were renewed and refreshed at workshops on goal setting. And Annette Richins, Laurel president of the Tulsa Third Ward, found time to savor a private conversation with an adviser who really cares.

The scriptures say that ”The path of the just is as the shining light” (Prov. 4:18). And the Lord has said that a good example ”cannot be hid” (see Matt. 5:14, 3 Ne. 12:14). The youth of Tulsa take this advice to heart. Though some are the only LDS students in their schools, they stand tall so that others see their good works, and glorify their Father in Heaven (see Matt. 5:16, 3 Ne. 12:16).

Woodward Park’s famous foliage forms multi-colored ribbons of red, yellow, white, and green. Even here, among 12,000 rose plants and other exotic flowers, towering blossoms attract attention. The garden was a great place for youth leaders like Karen Engel to talk with class and quorum presidents from other wards, to share ideas and learn to look up to each other.