the land run to launch a hall of fame
By Joe Hight, Director and 2013 Inductee
Dennie Hall was only 34 years old in June 1969 when he arrived as a new faculty member at Central State College. Dr. Ray Tassin (inducted in 1983), the journalism department chairman, knew Hall was a historian. Almost immediately, he approached him with an idea.
“Tassin said he wanted to start a hall of fame,” said Hall, inducted in 1999.
But what Hall revealed to me in the living room of his Edmond home more than 50 years later showed Tassin’s competitiveness, especially when it came to a larger university 35 miles to the south. The 85-year-old Hall talked about the Hall of Fame while his television blared news in the background and as his 13-year-old cat Tabitha pawed me for attention. “He wanted to get one underway before OU did. There were rumors that OU wanted one,” he said. “He wanted to beat OU.”
So, the land run for the first journalism hall of fame began. Central State “pushed a little faster,” Hall said, and launched the Hall of Fame ahead of the Sooners.
While Tassin assumed the role of director that first year, Hall did the behind-the-scenes work in organizing not only the first inductions in 1971, but subsequent classes as well. The Hall of Fame started simply, its roots imbedded with the Oklahoma Press Association (OPA) and the college’s chapter of The Society of Professional Journalists, Sigma Delta Chi. Tassin handed out the certificates from the first class at an OPA event.
Those simple beginnings launched what has become a “who’s who” of journalism in Oklahoma and the country. The first class was a testament to that: Will Rogers, Roscoe Dunjee, Jim Lucas, Edward King Gaylord, Stanley Vestal, Richard Lloyd Jones, Sr., H.H. Herbert, Milt Reynolds, and Bill Martineau.
“No women were included at the beginning,” Hall wrote during the Hall of Fame’s 45th anniversary, “but that would slowly change.”
The first woman inducted into the Hall of Fame was writer Alice Lee Marriott in 1973. The Hall of Fame continued to evolve, as did the university from Central State College to Central State University to the University of Central Oklahoma (UCO). The annual Hall of Fame event went from a meeting or dinner in conjunction with the OPA to an annual luncheon at UCO with more than 300 attendees for the 49th class. The exception will be the 50th year celebration during an evening banquet at the Oklahoma History Center. The luncheon format at UCO will return with the 51st class.
The OPA has been involved with the Hall of Fame since its inception. Hall said nine inductees were selected the first year, because that was the number that could fit, with photos, on the Hall of Fame certificate. Tassin made sure they were framed and placed on a display wall, originally in the Communications Building. The certificates with the nine inductee biographies and photos are still given out, and they are still framed and placed on a wall. However, today, Hall of Fame inductees also are given plaques featuring their photo and year of induction along with lapel pins signifying they are members of the Oklahoma Journalism Hall of Fame.
The first selection committee was comprised of two members— Tassin and Hall. Hall remembers the committee grew to three or four members. Today the committee is made up of ten members and includes a representative from the Association of Oklahoma Broadcasters. One of Hall’s goals was to increase the diversity of the inductees, including broadcasters.
After ten years, Tassin relinquished the role so Hall could become the director. Hall held the position for 15 years, until the 25th anniversary of the Hall of Fame. Hall spent many of those years teaching and as adviser of the student newspaper, The Vista, where I first met him in 1976. I became its editor in 1979. Dr. Terry Clark (inducted in 2000) then became the Hall of Fame director and held the position for 21 years. I took the position in 2016 and promised Hall I wouldn’t hold the position for as long as he or Clark.
“Well, we were a lot younger than you were, too,” said Hall, with his dry sense of humor.
As director, “Mr. Hall,” as I continue to call him, did extensive research and found names that were not included in the Hall of Fame class. As a result, Frank Hilton Greer and Leslie Niblack were both inducted in 1982. Hall designed the first letterhead and brochure, and started seeing the Hall of Fame “growing in prestige and circumstance.”
That growth continued under Clark, who assumed the role as department chair and then continued after he stepped down as chair after 19 years in 2009. Under his leadership, the Hall of Fame relocated from the Communications Building to the Nigh University Center, just down the hallway from where the annual luncheon is held. It was moved on the Hall of Fame’s 40th anniversary. That area now displays the biographies and photos of members, including the first posthumous class that was inducted in 2005. Clark also secured an annual budget for the Hall of Fame and started creating special publications for the 40th and 45th anniversaries. He also started giving scholarships, one in ethics endowed by the family of journalist Brian J. Walke and another in honor of the Oklahoma Press Association, which provides funding in the form of a monthly donation given in the name of Hall of Fame members who judge its monthly contests.
“Working with the Oklahoma Journalism Hall of Fame is an honor and dream job as a journalist, weekly newspaperman and grateful member of the Hall of Fame,” Clark wrote. Even after retirement, Clark remains a part-time consultant.
As I talked to Mr. Hall about the past, I started thinking about my short time as director, how the Hall of Fame has changed over time, and its future. It now has video introductions of the nine Hall of Fame inductees produced in the Mass Communication Department instead of speeches that sometimes stretched to 30 minutes or longer. The membership lapel pins have been added. The Nigh University Center office is being turned into a small Hall of Fame museum, and we are celebrating the 50th anniversary. The Oklahoma Journalism Hall of Fame will have its own website and its first documentary.
Without the competitiveness of Tassin, the steadfast organization and historical knowledge of Hall, and the development and expansion capabilities of Clark, the Hall of Fame perhaps would be nonexistent, as it is in other states.
From that simple and competitive beginning, the Oklahoma Journalism Hall of Fame has grown to become the state’s most prestigious journalistic honor and among the highest honors an individual can receive. It’s a place where Oklahoma’s greatest journalists reside forever.
“I have many memories of the Hall of Fame,” Hall said, reminding me that I needed to focus on him, the only person at that time still living with knowledge of its inception. “I am pleased that we have brought it to the 50-year mark. I’m pleased that it’s gone from a simple format to a much more elaborate organization and ceremony.”
This story was published in the 2020 book, Our Greatest Journalists, as an introduction to the Hall of Fame’s 50th Anniversary celebration.