Forever a Tiger
Hargrave looks back on his service to campus, community
Outgoing East Central University President John Hargrave said farewell to campus colleagues and community members Friday during a celebration of his accomplishments as the university’s eighth president.
Hargrave told a a packed crowd in Foundation Hall at the Chickasaw Business and Conference Center that although he was retiring as president of the university, he and his wife Kay planned to remain in the Ada area and he hoped to continue to help the university in any way he could.
During an interview with The Ada News Wednesday, Hargrave reflected on his arrival at ECU in 2009 and the eight years that followed.
“East Central was at a moment in (its) history where the RUSO board felt like the most important skills a new president would (need) would be to understand southeastern Oklahoma,” Hargrave said. “They needed someone who understood community — someone who had long ties with the university, who could reinvigorate relationships with alumni, donors and the broader community.”
Hargrave had just finished serving a term as mayor of Wewoka and had practiced law extensively in Ada. He said it was an opportune moment to leave his partners’ law practice and, more importantly, coming to Ada was something he and his wife, Kay, had always wanted to do.
“When I was in law school, Kay and I loved Ada. We loved East Central,” Hargrave said. “And my desire was to come back to Ada as a freshman lawyer — we wanted to move back. But I got a good offer from a law firm in Oklahoma City and Kay was working as a chemist out at Western Electric. But we knew even then that someday we would come back to Ada.”
As he reminisced about his college days, Hargrave’s fondness for Tigerland was hard to hide. He spoke excitedly about those days, and his return to Ada many years later.
“Coming to Ada was our marriage plan. It was our career plan — twice, and then we moved to Wewoka,” Hargrave said. “So coming back to Ada to be president was a dream come true for Kay and I that went all the way back to before we got married. I begged for the job!”
Hargrave said when he was hired, he asked the RUSO board to give him written goals and the board gave him three: Build better relationships with the foundation and the donor base, build better relationships with the community and the alumni base, and lastly, improve the athletic program, which he said was struggling at the time.
“I feel like we’ve accomplished those three goals,” Hargrave said. “I feel good saying I was able to accomplish what I was hired to accomplish, and I feel good about the fact that it’s time for me to move on and to let someone else with different skill sets come in now.”
Hargrave said he could not have accomplished those goals without the help of people too numerous to name, but he singled out one partner in particular.
“One of the accomplishments I’m particularly proud of is spotlighting and emphasizing the more than 100-year partnership ECU has had with the Chickasaw Nation,” Hargrave said. “One of the purposeful things we set out to do was to recognize that this university and the Chickasaw Nation go all the way back to Dan Hayes.”
Dan Hayes was an original Chickasaw allottee who donated the land where Science Hall now stands — the original site of the university’s first building.
“This isn’t a recent partnership,” Hargrave said. “This isn’t (something that’s happened because) the Chickasaws are so powerful and everybody wants to be their best friend — we were their best friends from the absolute beginning of this institution.”
Hargrave said there were many good days during his time as president, but one of the best was the day the Chickasaw Business and Conference Center opened to the public.
“The building was built debt-free with the latest and greatest technology,” he said. “And, for the first time, we have a community room that’s truly available (to the public) for conferencing, and we have had tremendous traffic through that building. Being able to share the excitement of an asset like this with the community was great.”
Hargrave noted the symmetry of his retirement party being held in the same room.
Reflecting on the worst moments of his presidency, the popular president’s smile quickly faded. There was no hesitation in his answer.
“Every time a student dies, it’s a dark day on this campus,” Hargrave said. “Unfortunately, we had several incidents of gun violence that occurred in other cities but involved the death of ECU students — those are very dark days. It’s very difficult to make those phone calls.”
Dealing with the death of a student is something every university president will encounter, Hargrave said, but it never gets easy.
“When you see young people die,” Hargrave said. “That just brings you to your knees — going to the funerals.”
Asked if there was anything left undone, Hargrave said he would have liked to see the new residence hall completed, and he would like to have seen a nursing school building built. But he said he was comfortable those things will still happen.
When he wakes up March 1 and won’t have to don a suit and tie, Hargrave said it will be more or less a return to normalcy.
“I wear overalls on the weekend and go by ‘Johnny Bob,’” he laughed. “And I used to have an old pickup truck and a pair of bird dogs I took out every weekend and ran in the pasture.”
Hargrave smiled as the interview drew to a close.
“What people don’t know about me is that I was in several theater productions in college and I enjoy acting and cutting up and being very different than people’s perception of a college president,” Hargrave said. “Being president of a university may be my greatest acting role to date, because my personality really doesn’t necessarily fit the mold. I’ve behaved myself for eight years!”
Hargrave said he and his wife recently purchased a new camper, and he is under orders to take his grandkids camping.
He intends to follow those orders.