By KIM POINDEXTER
A few weeks ago, while waiting for the NSU pool to open, I overheard a group of people speculating on who, among the university’s long roster of graduates, had achieved the most. When I walked away, they seemed about to conclude the distinction belonged to Carrie Underwood.
With all due respect, I disagree. My pick is Ron Tarver.
Ron is a photographer for the Philadelphia Inquirer team that won a Pulitzer Prize last week for its series on violence in public schools. It’s one of the most critical issues of our time, because unless children feel safe in their environment, they can’t even survive, much less gain the knowledge they need to ascend to their rightful place as tomorrow’s leaders.
I didn’t know about Ron’s Pulitzer until a day or so after it was announced, because I had been so wrapped up in our Progress edition and an ongoing Internet problem that I hadn’t looked at the wire. One of my Fort Gibson classmates, Darla (Rowan) Cantrell, gave me the heads-up.
Ron graduated from Fort Gibson High School – three years ahead of Darla and me, with her brother, James, in 1975. In those days, Fort Gibson was hardly more than a blip on U.S. 62, halfway between Tahlequah and Muskogee. If your lung capacity hadn’t been diminished by smoking or some congenital ailment, you could drive through it without taking a breath, unless you were delayed by a passing freight train or the single stoplight in the center of town. We had a couple of banks, a couple of drive-in hamburger joints, and grocery stores with real butcher shops. We had a corner drugstore, two laundromats, two or three full-service gas stations, and the Tiger Den, where lots of the kids played pool and foosball after school. And of course, we had the fort. Some folks were ignorant, and some were bigots, but class wars sparked by divergent income levels were non-existent. We were just middle-class folks with modest incomes, doing our best to get by.
Ron, like some of his friends, seemed to be involved in everything. He played basketball and football and was in the drama club, and he was also in band for a while. When I was in eighth grade, the kids in my class were put in the high school band to boost its numbers, and if memory serves, Ron played the trumpet. I remember him as kind of a cut-up, one of those guys cracking jokes in the back of the bandroom. Since I played the oboe, I sat toward the front, and wasn’t usually privy to whatever was making everyone laugh back there.
Ron left band his senior year. He traded the horn for a camera, and started running around snapping photos for the school newspaper. One afternoon, he and someone else showed up in the bandroom to take pictures. Ron started talking to another band member, Mark Moore (who is now also a professional photographer). This had to have been before Homecoming, because Ron – who was a captain on the football team – mentioned something about escorting Patricia Brown. I don’t recall the gist of the conversation, but Ron made a comment that he was going to work for a newspaper. I wasn’t sure whether he was joking or serious, but for me, that was about as cool as it got. I’d wanted to work for a newspaper since first grade. He became someone to admire.
I’ve heard people say if you’re from a small town, or graduate from a regional university, you can’t ascend to the top of your field. But while that fate may place the brass ring a little farther away, if you really stretch your arm, you can reach it.
I’ve won dozens of writing and newspaper design awards from the Associated Press and Oklahoma Press Association, along with a few other state- and national-level honors, but I don’t expect to ever get a Pulitzer. I don’t blame my roots, my family or my education. I originally set the bar pretty high; our Senior Class Prophecy put me at the Washington Post in some mythical future. When I started working for the Press in 1985, I had every intention of moving on to a metro paper. At first, I needed to build a resumé, but then my son’s education, my husband’s career and other factors kept changing my course, and at some point, I found myself committed to this little newspaper and the community it serves.
The Inquirer and Press may be worlds apart when it comes to size, market and geography, but we face many of the same challenges. Folks at both papers work hard to stay relevant in an era when people view hype and opinion on the internet as legitimate news. We worry about the shrinking pool of ad dollars to pay our salaries. We wonder when the next round of layoffs, or the next quarter of furloughs, will be announced. We cross our fingers and hope we won’t have a catastrophic equipment failure we have neither the money nor the time to spare for a fix. Ultimately, we’re afraid that one day, there will be no more newspapers, and no more watchdogs to keep the government and Big Business in check, and to let you, the people, know what’s happening around the world and outside your door.
But we continue to hope, and to persevere. And once in a while, the best among us are rewarded for our skill and diligence. In some places, newspapers can still make a difference.
When Ron graduated in 1975, he was voted Most Humorous Boy. He was in good company; the Most Talented Boy was another kid with a bright future, State Rep. Mike Brown. Here’s an excerpt from their Class Prophecy: “Ronnie Tarver (hang glider pilot extraordinaire), Esquire, is now the head cheese of the Fort Gibson International Airport.” That’s not far off the mark. Ron did soar to the greatest heights in his career – perhaps despite his roots in a small town, or perhaps because of them. And also, because his arms are kind of long, and he had the courage to reach.
In addition to being a jewel in the crown of NSU, Ron Tarver is one of Fort Gibson’s favorite sons. And we couldn’t be prouder.
Kim Poindexter is managing editor of the Tahlequah Daily Press.