‘But it’s Harry’
By Terry Clark, 2000 Inductee
“The man who taught Oklahoma’s journalists” was the Oklahoma Press Association’s front-page headline in the Oklahoma Publisher when Dr. Harry Heath, Jr. died.
The paper “turned” the column rules, an old journalism tradition, with the comment, “because we mourn the loss of our colleague, mentor, and most of all, friend.”
Everybody in Oklahoma journalism knew Heath, the dean of Oklahoma journalism. The seemingly frail, lean man with a gray inverted pyramid beard and hawk nose, Heath was the energetic embodiment of an Oklahoma journalist and scholar.
Heath served as head of the Oklahoma State University journalism program from 1967 to 1982 and then taught full-time until 1986. But his influence on Oklahoma journalists went far beyond the Stillwater campus. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1983.
He never stopped writing, including his 30-year column, “Heath’s Critique,” every month in the Oklahoma Publisher that made him a friend of journalists in virtually every newspaper in the state. Being mentioned in his column was an affirmation of quality and worthiness. He also wrote for national publications and several books, on sports and broadcast writing, poetry and more, plus numerous educational booklets and pamphlets for journalists.
“I wish I’d written that” was the highest praise he gave many journalists, either in his column or as he traveled the state conducting educational clinics, as a refresher and especially for beginning journalists at smaller papers for the OPA.
Traveling with him across the state to conduct those clinics was an adventure in ideas. His apartment was strewn with stacks of countless manila folders full of journalism examples and ideas. He would bring enough material with him for a week’s workshop instead of a day’s focus. On the drives, there would be Frank Sinatra on the radio, or he’d be whistling, or telling stories. There would be constant conversation about the need for excellence in journalism, no matter the size of publication or type of program, and that was his passion.
Heath began his journalism career on his school newspaper at Tulsa Central High School. He also taught at The University of Tulsa, Iowa State University, and the University of Florida.
When teaching writing, or anything connected with journalism, he knew what he was talking about. He served as both sports and general assignment reporter for The Tulsa Tribune and Tulsa World, news editor for the central division (Chicago) for NBC, and writer and producer for WOI-TV in Ames, Iowa. In addition, he handled public relations duties at the University of Iowa and the U.S. Army.
Under his tenure, the OSU journalism school grew from 200 students as majors to more than 750. But the growth was more than numbers; it reflected the professional development of the curriculum and caliber of the faculty he brought to OSU.
He constantly worked to improve journalism throughout Oklahoma. He provided motivating programs to other groups such as the Industrial Editors organization, Women in Communications, Public Relations Student Society, high school journalism advisers, and the Society of Professional Journalists.
His reputation went beyond Oklahoma as a speaker for numerous national and international conventions and chairing national committees for the Association of Education in Journalism.
In addition to his induction into the Hall of Fame, he was the only Oklahoman to be twice named Friend of Journalism by Oklahoma’s Society of Professional Journalists. OPA honored him with both the Milt Phillips Award and the Beachy Musselman Award.
When he was critically injured in the car wreck that would lead to his death in 1996, the late Lawrence Gibbs, then editor of the Stillwater NewsPress, called The Associated Press’ Oklahoma bureau. AP told him it didn’t carry car wreck news. Gibbs replied, “But it’s Harry.”
AP ran the story.