the second act from any burg in Oklahoma
By Ed Kelley, 2003 Inductee
Consider, if you would, the second act of Bob Allen’s journalistic life, after he left the familiar confines of his small hometown to be a big city reporter, in this case a reporter who did more past middle age than most of his counterparts—those whipper-snapper Baby Boomers—could muster over entire careers.
He helped edit the Cushing Daily Citizen until age 49, when The Oklahoman and Times hired him as an editorial writer. Write he could, but he was a bit out of sorts, in a polite way, with the paper’s conservative stance. So, after a year, Edward King Gaylord found him a home as a roving reporter—with an expense account and company car—on his state staff. This, at a time when the paper covered Oklahoma border to border, was a big deal. And for the next 15 years until retirement the byline of Robert B. (Bolivar) Allen was a “Page One” staple, usually accompanied by a dateline from—you name it—just about any burg in Oklahoma.
Naturally he was most at home on the front page, befitting his “Front-Page” mien.
First, the look. Classic Allen: Accompanying the mustache and an early Beatle-like haircut was the sartorial splendor of a light-colored suit, striped shirt, wide tie, loafers, maybe even socks, and in the hot Oklahoma sun, a pair of mirror shades. On the first finger of his right hand was a garish ring, made just for him by a prison inmate, a “peckerwood” who admired Allen’s work as if he were a law-abiding reader in the suburbs. He smoked, a lot, and drank, well, a lot. Fingers floated across a typewriter’s keyboard, but his work shone brightest when he dictated his stories to colleagues in the office. Inside a motel room on deadline with a landline phone in hand, he composed the sentences and paragraphs in his head, flipping through notes. “Knock it, Sue,” he occasionally would instruct his wife, a frequent traveling companion. “Knock it” meant for Sue to add a bit more ice and Jim Beam to the motel plastic cup as he worked his magic.
Details and color for his stories occasionally were secured through a technique that amused colleagues but was quite effective. Allen would tell a source that he was desperate for their help, hinting that he was in trouble with the home office and he really, really needed to get the story if he were to stay employed.
What a ruse! On many days Allen was the best reporter at the paper and maybe in the state.
And he could make the toughest assignments look easy, through gravitas, charm and guile. I was a witness to Allen at his best.
The office got word one evening that a riot had erupted at the state reformatory at Granite. I arrived in time to help with The Oklahoman’s story for the final edition, then remained awake overnight and through the following day to file and update for the four editions of the Oklahoma City Times, the afternoon paper. Allen arrived at about 6:00 p.m. and suddenly, the disturbance was over. And to get his story he instructed everyone gathered in the warden’s office to stand along the wall so that he could go to each of them with his questions. Each waited his turn, like obedient children.
A bit later, Sue drove them to the nearby Quartz Mountain Lodge so he could dictate the play story for the next morning.
Another time, Allen was back in Cushing, babysitting his grandson on a rare Friday afternoon off. A young editor decided to dispatch him anyway, this time to the bizarre killing of a high school football coach by his assistant. Allen drove 50 miles to the murder scene in Bixby. His interviews secured, he dictated 40 inches off the top of his head, then drove back to Cushing in time for dinner.
The hint here is that while Allen could cover anything—and he did, from the A&M regents to beauty pageants—his forte was the human condition, as in how Oklahomans could act in the worst possible ways toward their fellow citizens.
This made him a frequent presence in prisons, particularly in McAlester. His reporting career coincided with the final executions of the 1960s before a halt to them for a couple decades. Allen was at the penitentiary for the last one, in 1966, of two-time killer James French. After the electrocution Allen was about to call the office when French’s body was wheeled nearby. “French wanted you to have this,” a prison guard said, handing Allen an envelope. The letter inside was written by French specifically for Allen, explaining his state of mind just before the state of Oklahoma executed him.
This was the effect that a conversation or encounter with Allen had on many Oklahomans, from the most despicable to the most reputable. His occasional shtick—I’m a broken-down reporter on the verge of being fired—belied a genuineness that was irresistible to most.
One evening he was on a big spread in the Osage, interviewing a wealthy rancher for a story. At some point in his host’s home, the rancher turned the tables on Allen, earnestly quizzing him about his career and the many stories—and characters—he had written about along the way. Allen, sensing a kinship, obliged.
After a while the rancher stopped his questions. He raised his arm and motioned to the mahogany-lined, well-appointed walls of his home. And then he told his guest, who lived with his wife in a two-bedroom apartment on a newspaperman’s salary: I’d give up all of this to be you.
That second act of Bob Allen’s career was really something indeed. Bob Allen was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1984, two years after his death.