It’s a good day when President Barack Obama sends you greetings on your birthday.
That’s what happened to Dr. Henry Kirkland Jr. on his 81st birthday on campus Oct. 21. Dr. Wade McCoy handed Kirkland birthday salutations signed by the president and Mrs. Obama.
More than a hundred people gathered to hear Kirkland speak about his extraordinary life, captured in a new book by McCoy and co-author Patrick Chalfant. McCoy credited Kirkland with helping him see that he was medical-school material.
A fifth-generation farm kid, McCoy said he took Kirkland’s science class his freshman year of college at Southwestern Oklahoma State University in Weatherford in 1986. Kirkland really encouraged him to go to medical school.
“I never thought about going to medical school,” McCoy said. “I never thought I could do such a thing.”
Kirkland mentored and guided McCoy during his college years and they remained close after McCoy graduated, he said. McCoy now practices in Bethany.
Through the course of their friendship, McCoy became intrigued by the stories Kirkland told of his past. Kirkland’s memories inspired McCoy to co-author the historical fiction novel, “Rainbow in the Dark.”
Left behind by his parents at 14, Kirkland struggled to survive in Atoka, a small racially segregated town in southeastern Oklahoma. He received guidance from a white pharmacist who not only mentored him, but also paid for him to earn his bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate degrees.
Kirkland received his bachelor’s degree at Langston University.
While teaching biology and coaching at El Reno High School, he earned his master’s degree from Southwestern. In 1972, Kirkland became the first African-American to teach at SWOSU.
While teaching there, he completed his doctorate degree from Oklahoma State University in Stillwater.
Following the introduction, Kirkland took the stage to resounding applause. He was dressed smartly in black dress slacks and a gray sports coat. Though his movements were slowed slightly by age, his smile was quick and kind.
Kirkland attributes his success to the grace of God.
He said he determined at a young age to never throw in the towel. Kirkland lived in a small shack on the outskirts of town in Atoka. He said he became good at math because on nights when he couldn’t sleep, he would count the stars through the holes in the roof.
“I’m a little rough around the edges,” Kirkland said, “so if I say something that you disagree with, charge it to my head and not to my heart.
“I believe it was Booker T. Washington who said, ‘success is to be measured not so much by the position one reaches in life, but by the obstacles one had to overcome to succeed.’”
Kirkland said after 53 years of teaching, he is glad to be retired, but still continues to attend speaking engagements and mentor young people.
Kirkland estimated through the course of his life, he has helped more than 200 people.
“Now if you ask me how many didn’t succeed because of me, that number goes up a little bit.”
The Carney-Kirkland Scholarship at Southwestern Oklahoma State University exemplifies Kirkland’s continued passion for mentoring young people.
Sharing the stage with Kirkland was OCCC biology Professor Julian Hilliard, another student mentored by Kirkland.
Promoting mentorship is a goal at OCCC, said Travis Ruddle, coordinator of Student Life.
“I was really moved by the story.” Ruddle said. “It was good to hear about mentoring and see how far the web of influence extends.”
Ruddle said he hopes that students who attended were uplifted by the stories.
“So many [students] need encouragement and support,” Ruddle said. “Sometimes just that one person can get them through.
“It just takes one person to go the extra mile.”
Hilliard said his experience with Kirkland mentoring him was crucial.
“This is a more casual time we live in, but mentorship is no less important,” Hilliard said. He is happy to pay forward what Kirkland taught him.
“I think it’s a continuum of people helping people,” Hilliard said. “I think calling it mentorship is appropriate. Dr. K was a perfect example of that.”
For more information about mentorship opportunities at OCCC, contact Travis Ruddle at email@example.com or by phone at 405-682-1611 ext 7683.