He was the guy with an easy smile and a kind word, quick with a compliment or a funny joke, always willing to help others.
Residents of Tahlequah and Cherokee County are mourning the loss of Bob Ed Culver, retired state legislator, civil defense director and funeral home director. He died early Wednesday, Oct. 16, following complications from an extended illness.
Although he will be missed, his life’s work is reflected in accomplishments that changed his community for the better and through the impact he had on lives.
Before he retired as Cherokee County Civil Defense director in 1990 to run for the Oklahoma Legislature, Culver established Tahlequah’s underground emergency operations center, along with the county’s first tornado sirens. He also instituted a county-wide weather-spotter program.
Thanks to his efforts to have Cherokee County declared a federal disaster area after several floods and snowstorms in the late 1980s, many residents were able to rebuild their homes and businesses.
For his service, he was recognized as Oklahoma’s Outstanding Civil Defense Director in 1989.
“He was a very kind and good person. No matter what he did to help people, he always found a way to give credit to others,” said Herb Rozell, retired state senator and Culver’s legislative colleague.
Culver was born in Tahlequah in 1934 and used to tell people, “I’ve lived my whole life on Delaware Street.” As a young man, he lived at Reed-Culver Funeral Home, family-owned and operated since the 1920s, where he learned public service.
When Culver married his lifelong sweetheart, Jo Ellen Priest, the couple moved to a house a few blocks west of the funeral home, still on Delaware Street, and lived there until building a home north of town in the 1990s.
A star athlete moves into politics
As a student at Northeastern State College, Culver excelled in men’s tennis, said Pat Frank, who went to grade school with Culver. He played tennis with her brother, the late Carl Mayes Cunningham “Corky” and Bill Keith, brother of Isabel Baker, and together, the three best friends brought home championship trophies in the 1950s.
“They called themselves ‘the team without a court,’ because they had to play on courts at the college,” she recalled. “Bob Ed was a good person. He enjoyed being with people and helping others,” Frank said. “He worked hard. He lived at the funeral home and began going on ambulance calls when he was quite young, helping with his family’s business.”
Frank, well-known for her lifelong involvement in politics, worked to help Culver win his first election to public office in 1990.
“He did a good job for us in Oklahoma City,” she said. “He was sincere and wanted to work for the people.”
Isabel Baker, retired NSU professor, said her lifelong friend never met a stranger.
“He was a great statesman, had a contagious smile and would go out of his way to help others,” she said.
Culver graduated in spring 1956 with a bachelor’s degree in education, then studied for a year at mortuary school in Dallas before returning to his hometown, where he began his own career as a funeral director.
The same year, he began three decades of service as a Tahlequah Fire Department volunteer and was named civil defense director.
During the 1950s, he was president of the Tahlequah Chamber of Commerce and was named Outstanding Citizen of Tahlequah.
Culver filled the District 4 House seat for 10 years, running unopposed for four successive terms. He was chair of the House Corrections Committee and was appointed to the Higher Education, Human Services, and Public Health committees.
While in office, Culver established a reputation as a forthright legislator who spoke his mind and voted his conscience.
Rozell described him as “a very conscientious legislator.”
“He was a solid fellow, one of the finest individuals I’ve ever had the privilege to work with. He always had a smile and a compliment. I truly missed him when he chose not to run again. Bob Ed was helpful in accomplishing the things we were trying to do here in Northeastern Oklahoma,” said Rozell, who retired from the Senate in 2004. “Perhaps the greatest compliment to him was that after he retired, people at the capitol would stop by my office to ask about him.”
An ongoing problem with eyesight forced Culver to retire at the end of his term in 2000.
A conservative Democrat who cared
During his tenure, Culver built a reputation as a conservative Democrat who supported increased funding for public schools and higher education, reform of public education, and tougher crime laws.
He took pride in his open-door policy and promptly returning phone calls, noting that his sole purpose in seeking office was to meet the needs of his constituents.
In a public tribute shortly after he retired from office, Culver was lauded as a champion for the city of Tahlequah, Cherokee County and Northeastern State University.
In 2005, NSU dedicated the area north of the University Center in his honor, renaming it the Culver Courtyard and recognizing 50 years of service to the Tahlequah community, dating from Culver’s first year in college when he was elected president of his freshman class.
Jerry Cook, who was Tahlequah’s mayor when Culver was in the Legislature and is now NSU director of community and government relations, described him as an “encourager.”
“He was the kind of person who was willing to share his wisdom and make you want to be a public servant,” Cook said. “He did everything he could for the community, and was responsible for a lot of improvements, especially in the rural areas.”
Cook noted that even after he’d served several terms in the House, Culver still sat in the back of the room, avoiding the spotlight, but was “the guy behind the scenes who made things happen.”
Many will remember Culver for his lighthearted approach to life. In an October 2005 feature story in the Tahlequah Daily Press, Staff Writer Eddie Glenn explained how Culver and his pet mule, Oscar, would celebrate National Mule Day. It would begin like any other, Glenn wrote, with Oscar braying, a sign the mule was ready to play catch with four rubber walls on handles that Culver bought at the farmer’s co-op. He and Oscar were “big buddies,” despite the mule’s having taken a bite out of Culver’s arm.
Funeral services for Culver are scheduled for 2 p.m. Friday, Oct. 18, at First United Methodist Church in Tahlequah.
Nancy Garber is a retired NSU Public Information director and a former member of the Tahlequah Daily Press news staff.