By Emma Rowland, Class of 2026
Each year, Gaylord chooses one November evening to recognize those who make the college so exceptionally remarkable. At this year’s Evening of Celebration, held November 15th, The Union Ballroom was filled with alumni and their families, scholarship recipients, scholarship donors, teachers, and faculty who all share a love for the art of storytelling.
Among our most treasured supporters are the Gaylord College donors, who make a direct impact on the students through generous donations towards each specific major. Gaylord is a college that strives to promote the academic welfare of each student, regardless of their financial background, and donors are the backbone of this effort. This school year, Gaylord awarded more than $300,000 in scholarships to 122 students in various majors and programs. During the Evening of Celebration, scholarship recipients are seated at the same table as their scholarship donor, allowing the donor to see the impact which is made towards the student and allowing the recipient to deliver their thanks in person.
Another important aspect contributing to Gaylord’s legacy, not only within the college but after graduation as well, is the Gaylord College Alumni Assocation. With over 10,000 alumni members, the association aims to keep the alma mater of the college alive through recognizing distinguished alumni each year. Starting in 1984, the GCAA selects several alumni who, through their career paths, have made foundational contributions with groundbreaking work in their fields. This year’s Distinguished Alumni were Brenda Jones Barwick, Larry Ferguson, Jeff Hickman, Baxter Holmes, and Dr. Mautra Staley Jones. Each honored graduate was celebrated with a short video highlighting the lasting influence they continue to have. Students from Gaylord Hall Productions have worked over the past months filming, editing, and producing the videos showcased during the dinner.
The first award recipient was Brenda Jones Barwick, a 1980 graduate who pursued a career in her dual passions: writing and politics. Gaining the opportunity to become a political intern during the election of President Ronald Reagan, Barwick acquired skills which would lead her to eminent roles in the Washington, DC political arena. Following this work, she went on to work in Foreign Services, Fortune 500 companies, and national associations. Most recently, Barwick has opened her own public relations firm, Jones PR. The firm works to produce campaigns for organizations including the 988 suicide hotline, crisis lifeline, and the First Americans Museum. The firm’s success has landed it in the Inc. 5000 annual ranking of fastest-growing private companies in America.
Larry Ferguson, class of 1960, was the next Distinguished Alumni Reward recipient. Studying journalism during undergrad, Larry served as the publisher for three community newspapers: the Cleveland American, the Hominy News Progress, and the Pawnee Chief. Ferguson extended his public service in Oklahoma, serving with the Oklahoma State School Board Association and the Oklahoma House of Representatives for 20 years. Through Larry’s myriad of career experience, he has paved a way for aspiring journalists and politically interested young men and women across Oklahoma.
Jeff Hickman, a young boy from Alva, Oklahoma who had a love for communication, would graduate from OU in 1996 and apply his skillful communication competence to various jobs. He would initially work for seven years at OU as the President’s Press Secretary, public affairs special projects coordinator, and assistant to the president and the athletic director. His professional path would then lead to serving the state as a legislator and CEO of the Oklahoma Grain and Feed Association. Hickman continues to work for the growth and well-being of Oklahoma, through his role as a State Regent. He was awarded the Distinguished Alumni Award for his passion and dedication not only to the University of Oklahoma, but to the entire state as well.
The next to be honored was Baxter Holmes, a 2009 graduate of Gaylord College who has now worked as a Los Angeles-based Senior Writer for ESPN since 2014. Leading up to this position, Baxter worked in other publication positions with the Boston Globe covering the Boston Celtics and the Los Angeles Times as a sports reporter. Holmes' well-known stories with the Lakers have gained him nationwide recognition as a sports reporter. Through creating and reporting groundbreaking stories, his work has been recognized and honored by organizations including the New York Press Club, the Deadline Club, the Associated Press Sports Editors, the Professional Basketball Writes Association, the James Beard Foundation. Holmes was also a finalist for the 2022 Livingston Award for National Reporting.
The final recipient of the Distinguished Alumni Award was, class of 2002 alum, Dr. Mautra Staley Jones. After earning her bachelor's in journalism, Dr. Jones has strived to make a difference through her leadership and devotion to the community of Oklahoma. On March 1, 2022, Dr. Jones became the 11th President of Oklahoma City Community College and the first woman and person of color to serve in this role. Her presidency of the college marked history for the state, as she is the first African American woman to serve as president of any institution of higher education that is not a Historically Black College or University. But her service to Oklahoma does not end there; Dr. Jones is a part of organizations such as the Oklahoma Office of Juvenile Affairs, the Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce, Commissioner for the Oklahoma Merit Protection Commission, and many others. Her strides to enhance higher education and the community around her have been honored by groups such as Oklahoma’s Most admired CEO for Public Companies, the 100 Women to Know Across North America Award, and Forbes Magazine’s 10 Top Black Higher Education CEOS to Watch.
To top off the night, two awards to honor the excellence of the Gaylord faculty were presented. The first award presented was the Outstanding Teacher Award, named in honor of assistant professor Dr. Owen Kulemeka, who is known for teaching students through his own passion for what he did and pushing them to the next level. Nominees for this reward display an array of characteristics which reflect their devotion to providing students with the experiences and knowledge they will need in the next stages of life. The winner of this year's Outstanding Teacher Award was Professional Writing professor, Mel Odom. Odom has written over a dozen books so far and has a passion for sharing his love for storytelling through stories with his students. He is described as “a creator of community”, and someone who makes students feel “seen and heard” and “always asks how students are doing and helps those who are struggling with things”.
The second award presented was the Owen Kulemeka Trailblazer Award in Diversity. It was created to recognize teachers who innovatively strive for diversity inside and outside of the classroom. This year’s Kulemeka Diversity Award recipients were awarded to two Public Relations faculty members, Carla Holmes and Sherry Kast. This past fall, Sherry and Carla sought to expand students' learning experience through exposing them to hands-on storytelling. Attending a Route 66 Centennial Commission meeting sparked in them the idea of creating a road-trip that would give students the opportunity to tell the stories of underrepresented communities in Oklahoma. This October marked the first-annual “Gaylord Route 66 Trip”, hosted by Carla and Sherry. Both teachers displayed notable effort in creating a learning environment which involved authentic diversity in their student's education.
Honoring and recognizing Gaylord’s students, faculty, and financial supporters, the Evening of Celebration showcased those who have used their skills to trailblaze a path of innovative accomplishments which continue to inspire young professionals.