At Southwestern Oklahoma State University in Weatherford, where he taught zoology and biology until retiring in 1996, he’d ask students to pull down a shade where there was no window. It’s all about helping students relax, he said.
Today, Kirkland, 76, teaches animal biology as an adjunct for Oklahoma State University-Oklahoma City. The classroom is a far cry from those of his childhood in Atoka during the ’40s and ’50s. There, the color of his skin determined which school and church he attended, where he slept, and how long he spent in a store.
But Kirkland went on to inspire classroom after classroom of students.
“No matter who you are, if you listen and keep your nose clean … you can do anything,” he said.
It’s profound advice from a man whose early life followed an inauspicious, but amazing pattern. From 1949 until he graduated from Dunbar, Atoka’s black school, in 1954, Kirkland woke to run a paper route in shoes held together with baling wire. He jogged 4 miles to his second job at the local drugstore, before heading to school, sports practice, and finally home — an unfinished, leaky shack. He lived alone.
In 1949, his stepfather was hired by Langston University. But Kirkland had just started playing basketball and football, so he told his parents he wanted to stay in Atoka.
“I guess I did a good job of convincing them,” he said, laughing. Kirkland’s $18.50-a-week earnings bought breakfasts of a Baby Ruth candy bar, 20-cent hot lunches at school, and bowls of chili and bottles of pop at Johnnie’s Cafe.
At Johnnie’s, Kirkland and other black customers weren’t allowed to enter through the front door. They could shop in the local dry goods store, but “you didn’t mill around,” he said. He never considered going to the barber or the movie theater downtown.
“I think that was the way it was — no one questioned it,” he said.
During segregation, one man came to believe in Kirkland, though: F.K. “Skeet” Carney, the white pharmacy owner who hired him in 1949.
A pivotal moment took place one Saturday at Carney Drug. Carney asked Kirkland to deposit the store’s earnings. The teen ran the errand, “scared to death” because he’d never been inside a bank. Eventually, Carney left Kirkland to man the counter alone.
“He had a lot of confidence in me, which he built,” Kirkland said.
Kirkland’s junior year, he needed to borrow $5 — a fortune — as a down payment for the class ring. Carney wrote the entire $36.80 check instead. Nearly 60 years later, Kirkland still has the ring. When he played a basketball game, Carney came, too.
“He’d be the only white guy in there, cheering me on,” Kirkland said. “That was real inspiring.”
On May 12, 1954, Kirkland graduated valedictorian of his nine-person class.
(He had a lot of competition, he quips.) He’d never missed a day of high school.
“The day after I graduated, Skeet Carney … said, ‘You’ve got to get out of here … you’ve done everything you can do here,’” Kirkland said.
Carney gave Kirkland two paychecks, a Baby Ruth and a comic book.
The teen caught a bus to Langston University and graduated in 1958 with a bachelor’s of science.
Kirkland remembers “(Carney) said, ‘Henry, you haven’t done anything yet; you need to get your master’s.’” In 1960, Kirkland married Viola C.
Johnson. He taught in El Reno during integration and completed a master’s of teaching at SWOSU in 1968, where he became faculty in 1971. He earned an educational doctorate from Oklahoma State University in the late ’70s.
“You won’t be able to take care of a family with a master’s — you need a doctorate,” Kirkland said Carney had encouraged him. “I thought, ‘This guy’s gotta be out of his mind!’” He sent his dissertation to Carney not long before the pharmacist passed away.
Jo Ann Ross, one of Carney’s daughters, said their father, “a self-made man,” put himself through pharmacy school: “I think he saw in Henry a lot of potential … and he decided that Henry deserved more than he was going to get.”
As for Kirkland, “Skeet … bridged the gap,” he said. “He’d say … ‘Hey, you can do it.’ I know I wouldn’t be where I am today (without) Skeet Carney.”
Today, Kirkland’s former students credit him similarly.
Dustin Devine’s mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer when he attended SWOSU in the ’90s. He started slipping academically. But Kirkland reassured him he could accomplish his goal of going to veterinary school.
One fall afternoon, Devine remembers Kirkland saying, “You and I need to take a trip to Stillwater.” They drove two and a half hours to OSU to talk to admissions and to tour the vet facilities. Today, Devine is assistant professor of equine surgery at OSU.
“I know there’s just not a lot of people in the world that would have taken that initiative,” he said. “I’m not trying to sound sappy or anything, but sometimes I think about (Kirkland) and try to give back a gift that was given to me.”
Two other former students, Dr. Brendon McCollom, a physician with Mercy Physicians of Oklahoma, and Dr. Wade McCoy, a general practitioner in Bethany, also credit Kirkland for their careers.
McCoy and author Patrick Chalfant hope Kirkland’s story will move a broader audience when “Rainbow in the Dark,” a novel they co-wrote based on his life, is published this spring.
Although McCollom doesn’t see Kirkland often anymore, he still laughs, remembering the man’s classroom antics.
“People felt closer to him than a professor,” he said.
Devine agrees: “There’s more good in that guy’s heart than the world will ever know.”
For more about the book, visit rainbowindark.com.