Oklahoma a mystery to many Americans

By Jeff Mullin Commentary

If someone mentions California, what do you think of? Hollywood, L.A., crowded freeways, beaches and Arnold Schwarzenneger? California, of course, is so much more than that. How about Maine? I think of cold weather, people with funny accents and lobsters. What if someone brings up Idaho. Does it bring to mind potatoes?

When people hear the name of our state, it seems the first thing that comes to mind is not Oklahoma, but "Oklahoma!" The 1943 musical, the first for Richard Rogers and Oscar Hammerstein, is the first thing most people in America think of when they hear about the Sooner State.

Having people associate our state with a beloved musical is certainly better than some alternatives, like rednecks and tornadoes, but it certainly isn't representative of today's Oklahoma.

"Oklahoma!" is a delight. The story of cowboys and farmers finding love in Oklahoma territory features classic music and ground-breaking choreography, including the dream ballet illustrating Laurey's difficulty in choosing a suitor between cowboy Curley and farmhand Jud Fry.

It also gave us our state song, which never fails to bring Oklahomans to their feet, which can prove a bit unnerving for performers in touring versions of the show who, during stops in Oklahoma, must deal with a standing ovation before the final curtain comes down.

"Oklahoma!" is a classic of American musical theater and deserves its place in the pantheon of enduring entertainment treasures.

It is not, however, an accurate indication of where our state has been, is today and is going. Oklahoma is not only the home of Ado Annie and Aunt Eller but of the aerosol can. That wonder of the age was invented in Bartlesville. Oklahoma City is the home of the parking meter, while the shopping cart was born in Ardmore.

The electric guitar also was invented in Oklahoma, by a Beggs musician named Bob Dunn. The first "Yield" sign was installed in Tulsa.

The state has more man-made lakes than any other state, which give us more than a million surface-acres of water and 2,000 more miles of shoreline than the Atlantic and Gulf coasts combined.

The Sooner State has produced more astronauts than any other state in the union. Owen Garriott is a hometown Enid boy, of course, while Tom Stafford is from Weatherford, Shannon Lucid from Oklahoma City, William Pogue from Okemah and the late Gordon Cooper from Shawnee.

Oklahoma is home to Amateur Softball Association, Sonic restaurants and more F4 and F5 tornadoes than any other state.

Oklahoma is the third-largest gas-producing state in the nation and ranks fourth in the production of wheat, cattle and calves, fifth in the production of pecans, sixth in peanuts and eighth in peaches.

The state's colors are neither the crimson and cream of the University of Oklahoma nor the orange and black of Oklahoma State but green and white.

Environmental Protection Agency recognizes Oklahoma as having the most diverse terrain of any state in the nation. The state, according to EPA, boasts 11 distinct ecoregions, one of only four states to have more than 10.

Oklahomans practice 73 major religions. The largest is the Southern Baptist Convention, with nearly 1,600 church and more than 960,000 members.

Oklahoma gave birth to Dick Tracy (cartoonist Chester Gould is a native of Pawnee) and Donald Duck (Clarence "Ducky" Nash, the original voice of Walt Disney's Donald, grew up in Watonga).

Oklahomans have survived the Dust Bowl, any number of killer tornadoes, the 1995 bombing of Oklahoma City's Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building and various oil booms and busts. Oklahoma is populated by people who are caring, giving, hard-working, patriotic and fiercely independent. Oklahoma is a good place to live, work and play.

The challenge in this, our centennial year, is to make the rest of America aware of what Oklahoma has to offer, besides beautiful mornings, fringe-laden surreys and a girl who "cain't say no."