never afraid to confront and question
By Steve Lackmeyer
I knew Mary Jo Nelson years before she knew me.
Growing up, I was a newspaper reader. Before my family’s move to Oklahoma City from New York, that meant Newsday and the New York Daily News. My parents subscribed as soon as we moved to Oklahoma City, and it was then that Nelson quickly became my favorite writer.
Her reporting on historic buildings, often accompanied by the photos of Jim Argo, helped me understand the significance of what we were losing with the I. M. Pei Urban Renewal plan for downtown, even if it made no sense as to why.
I followed her development coverage, and to some extent energy as well as time moved forward. I still remember quite vividly a story she wrote with a visiting architectural critic of some fame who toured downtown and gave an honest and not always flattering critique of the Pei Plan reshaping of our urban core.
I started at The Oklahoman in 1990 and when I saw her, I saw a legend. I was too scared, too intimidated in those early years to approach her. Just two years later, this institution verified her legendary status, adding her to the Hall of Fame.
After the 1995 bombing, Nelson worked on documenting the buildings hit or lost. As I recall, she was in semi-retirement at that moment. From time to time I approached her and asked questions about certain buildings and about Urban Renewal, which became a part of my beat when I started covering City Hall and downtown with Jack Money.
It wasn’t until Money and I started working on our first book, OKC Second Time Around, that I really started spending serious time visiting with Nelson, urging her to share her stories and insights on our city. I would go to the house she shared with her sister, Monteray. She’d ask me, sternly, “Have you gotten Urban Renewal indicted yet?”
She wasn’t joking. Her long view of the agency included having witnessed actions that probably weren’t on the up and up. But this was a different time. I was catching some hints of questionable picks of developers, but nothing illegal.
“If I catch them doing something that appears illegal, well yeah,” I responded. “But I’ve not seen that.”
Nelson didn’t answer. She diverted her eyes to news clippings and photos I brought for her to look at and quietly switched topics without saying a word, letting me know she did not approve of me at that moment.
Fortunately, those moments were rare for me. And when she called me in response to columns I wrote after switching to the business desk, I anxiously awaited what was next after hearing her say, “Steve, this is Mary Jo.” And when the call turned to praise and more details about the matter I was writing about … that was sheer joy for me.
I’ve been fortunate to enjoy a good friendship with Byron Gambulos, who, along with his wife, was dear friends with Nelson and her sister. He shared with me stories of stakeouts he witnessed as Nelson parked her car and waited, and watched, as corrupt—Gambulos called them “malleable”—state politicians came and went from certain questionable establishments.
And indeed, Nelson was a fearless female journalist early on at a time when women at newspapers were expected to write about gardening, social clubs, or fashion.
Nelson, however, was ready for action, wearing sneakers instead of high heels, never afraid to confront and question those whose fortunes were built on being “malleable.”