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University of Oklahoma Leaders Honor the Life and Legacy of Lt Gen Donald “Gene” Kirkland

October 10, 2023

University of Oklahoma Leaders Honor the Life and Legacy of Lt Gen Donald “Gene” Kirkland

Gene Kirkland
Lt Gen Donald “Gene” Kirkland

Today, the University of Oklahoma announced the loss of a visionary and pivotal leader. Lieutenant General Donald E. “Gene” Kirkland II passed away Oct. 5, 2023, from cancer.

Kirkland came to OU in late 2021 after a distinguished 34-year career in the U.S. Air Force, culminating with his service as the Commander of the Air Force Sustainment Center headquartered at Tinker Air Force Base. At the time, OU was implementing its newly released strategic plan, “Lead On, University,” which calls for strategic investment in aerospace and defense research through the newly established Oklahoma Aerospace and Defense Innovation Institute (OADII). Kirkland was selected as OADII’s inaugural executive director and quickly put OADII and the university on a path to national prominence. 

After spending six years of his USAF career in Oklahoma, Kirkland saw OADII as an opportunity to stay in a community where he had found a home while continuing to make a significant impact.

“My wife and I feel at home in this community,” he said in a statement on Nov. 12, 2021. “The vision is for OU to be one of the leading research institutions in the nation supporting national defense, and that is completely aligned with maturing and supporting Oklahoma’s thriving aerospace and defense industry. OADII promises to be win-win-win for OU, national security, and the state.”

Kirkland's appointment to OU as OADII’s executive director had a tremendous impact on the university and the nation. He facilitated unprecedented partnerships and collaborations to advance sustainment and modernization priorities in areas such as advanced manufacturing, artificial intelligence and supply chain readiness, software engineering, and other research areas at OU that enhance U.S. defense and national security.

“All of us at OU are deeply grateful to Lt. Gen. Kirkland for his diligence, foresight, and vision in establishing OADII and serving as its inaugural executive director. His actions proved pivotal in the effort to establish OU as a national leader in defense research. The impact OADII has made since launching two short years ago has been phenomenal and is a testament to his visionary leadership. Most importantly, however, it will be Lt. Gen. Kirkland’s kindness and generosity that we remember and cherish the most,” said OU President Joseph Harroz Jr.

“It is with great sadness in which I learned of the passing of my good friend and great American, General Gene Kirkland,” said Congressman Tom Cole (OK-04). “After his retirement from service, he helped stand up and lead the new Oklahoma Aerospace and Defense Innovation Institute at the University of Oklahoma as its Executive Director. He came to this role armed with a wealth of experience, knowledge, relationships and energy and has helped leave a founder’s mark as his legacy at this important institute. America has lost a great patriot, Oklahoma has lost a wonderful leader and I have lost a dear friend. My deepest sympathies go out to his wife Judy, family, friends and loved ones as they navigate this tremendous loss.”

“Gene was a great American and a great leader. His impact on the University of Oklahoma during the short time he was able to be with us will be felt for generations. We were privileged to have him with us at OU for the time we did. He will be sorely missed,” said OU Vice President for Research and Partnerships Tomás Díaz de la Rubia.

Among his many awards, Kirkland received the 2021 Lt. Gen. Michael E. Zettler Lifetime Achievement Award from the Logistics Office Association, awarded in March 2022. As the Air Force Sustainment Center commander at Tinker Air Force Base, Kirkland led 40,000 Total Force U.S. and U.K. airmen across three air logistics complexes, three air base wings and two supply chain wings, operating from a global network of 26 locations. He was a career aircraft and munitions maintenance officer and served on the logistics staff at U.S. Central Command and the Joint Staff. He also served as executive officer to the Chief of Staff of the Air Force, the commander of the Oklahoma City Air Logistics Complex and held the role of Director of Logistics at the headquarters of the U.S. Air Force. Kirkland entered the Air Force in 1988 through Officer Training School after graduating from the University of Florida. 

Beyond his professional achievements, Kirkland was an active volunteer with his church and community. His greatest passion was the Special Olympics, which he supported as a coach and board member. In lieu of flowers, the family requests donations in Gene’s memory to Special Olympics Oklahoma at