A journey from purchasing clerk to tribal leader
Gary Batton is the Chief of the Choctaw Nation and a graduate of Southeastern Oklahoma State University, although the Oklahoma native was initially hesitant about attending college. Growing up in Clayton, Oklahoma, a small town about 90 miles from Durant, he thought “only rich people – not people like me – go to college.” But once he arrived at Southeastern, he found a school that embraced people from different backgrounds who were seeking a variety of futures. There, he could really be himself.
Batton’s skills in math and science led him to pursue a degree in business management. One professor in particular, Dr. Oliver, recognized his potential and challenged him to grow his skills by also studying computer science and accounting. When Batton walked into his first word processing class, he recognized a challenge right away.
“I was the only male in the room,” Batton said. “But I stayed in the class and learned so much from my fellow students. Besides 10 key typing and word processing, I learned how important it was to be prepared for whatever the future might bring my way.”
While still a student at Southeastern, Batton began working at the Choctaw Nation as a part-time clerk in the purchasing department. After graduating in 1989, he went on to become deputy director of the Nation’s housing authority and later the executive director of health.
The importance of quality healthcare was ingrained in him at a young age, since medical professionals cared for his paralyzed father. As the leader of the Nation’s healthcare system, he realized the significant role he could play for his community and their access to healthcare. Batton’s first major undertaking was to replace the Nation’s hospital, built in the 1930s, with a state-of-the-art outpatient clinic. This large project would be the first tribally funded health facility in the U.S., and under his guidance the health system doubled its patient load to 240,000.
“I didn’t know it at the time, but those childhood experiences with my family in the healthcare system taught me the value of serving other people,” Batton said.
In 2007 Batton was appointed Assistant Chief and in 2014 he became the 47th Chief of the Choctaw Nation. In the three decades since working part-time as a clerk, graduating from Southeastern, improving the quality and access to tribal healthcare and leading the Choctaw Nation, the Nation has grown from employing 110 people, to having more than 11,000 employees.
Once a young man unsure about wanting to further his education, Batton now witnesses every day the impact an education from Southeastern has on his community.
“Southeastern is critical to educating our workforce. As the Choctaw Nation has grown, an education close to home provides our community and employees with the skills they need to succeed on the job.”
Strong ties between the Nation and the university are part of why the Choctaw Nation gives so much back to Southeastern. Batton himself serves on the university’s scholarship board, and the Nation provides $1,135,939.00 in scholarship funds annually.
“It means a lot to be able to help people earn a degree. I know the impact education has had on my life, and I want to give that same opportunity to others.”