Dr. Bob Blackburn is known and revered across the state of Oklahoma for his work as a writer, orator and historian. But when the longtime executive director of the Oklahoma History Center first began college, he had his sights set on becoming a judge. In 1969, he enrolled as a freshman at Southwestern Oklahoma State University, to work toward a degree in the legal field. The classes he took at SWOSU, his experience on campus and the professors he met there led him down a new path to his true passion and life’s work.
“In my first year at Southwestern, I realized how strong the history department faculty were. My classes were taught by PhDs, not teaching assistants. They had an infectious passion for history.” Faculty including his advisor, Wayne Ellinger, as well as Terry Wilson and Mel Fiegel helped Blackburn realize early on that the study of history, even ancient history could inform his understanding and thinking on current events. Through English and ethics classes he learned to write and use the Socratic method. “I wrote 300 words a day in a journal. I practiced, learned structure, discipline and writing with purpose.”
During college he formed strong relationships with professors and was involved in Phi Alpha Theta, an academic fraternity. It was through a fraternity event that he met a professor from Oklahoma State University. Two years later, that same professor remembered Blackburn and took him on as a provisional student, which allowed him to begin working towards his master’s degree and his career as a historian.
Blackburn also points to his campus and community experience in Weatherford as the beginning of his appreciation for the “true Oklahoma spirit” and the complex history of the state, especially rural communities. He made friends with students who hailed from all over western Oklahoma, and whose families were part of farming and ranching communities.
That familiarity has served him well over the past 40 years. “Understanding Oklahoma means understanding our rural communities and the important figures from Oklahoma’s history and politics and the cultural perspective they brought with them.”
As a historian and graduate of SWOSU he has seen first-hand how regional universities impact the entire state by allowing people to attain degrees while staying close to home.
“The best tool for economic development in rural Oklahoma is the regional university system. Without it, you don’t develop those who want to contribute to their local community.”
Since his time as a student at Southwestern, Blackburn has written and published 26 books, with another on the way. He gives an average of 90 speeches per year, where he encourages people to be engaged in their community, to learn from our past and to get involved in ways that matter. “I consider myself a storyteller and I love telling stories about people.”
For four decades Blackburn has been a writer and investigator of Oklahoma’s history. For him, it almost always comes back to his time at SWOSU, and he notes how those points in his own history have been critical to where he was able to contribute and improve his community.
“I’ve been able to take the intellectual curiosity and spirit of inclusion I learned at SWOSU and apply it. I became a public historian with a big pulpit. Hopefully I’ve made a difference and created a better community.”