Oklahoma City - Next to my native Minnesota, Oklahoma is my favorite state. It's fitting that its postal code is OK, as the rousing finale of the classic Broadway musical that bears its name famously declares.
But everything's not O.K. in Oklahoma these days, as I discovered last week when Brian Lamb was honored by the University of Oklahoma's Gaylord College of Journalism and Mass Communication, where I was a visiting professor in 2007.
Lamb, who founded C-SPAN in 1979 and grew it into several 24-hour cable and radio channels covering Congress and public affairs, was cited "for his ground-breaking efforts to open government proceedings to the public and his entrepreneurial vision of a network outside the confines of the major broadcast networks with their limited airtime."
However, it wasn't just Mother Nature, who unleashed the worst earthquake in the Sooner State's history only three days earlier - a 5.6 magnitude bruiser felt in nine states - or the six tornadoes in western Oklahoma the day before - all this in a year with record flooding, wildfires, hail, snow and drought - that convinced me this wasn't going to be a beautiful day.
Indeed, there weren't any hawks making lazy circles in the sky as my American Airlines flight from Dallas approached Will Rogers International Airport late Tuesday afternoon, and landed amid a torrential downpour and towering thunder clouds illuminated by lightning flashes. Boy, talk about the wind come sweeping down the plain!
Worse yet, a 4.7 aftershock, the latest of more than 100, rocked the landscape as I picked up my rental car and the agent urged me to buy hail insurance. It was $44 a day so I declined, but I wondered while driving past working oil wells what's next, locusts or a volcanic eruption? Or maybe the asteroid that passed by the Earth that day veering off course and crashing into Okmulgee?
As I told Joe Foote, dean of the Gaylord College and an aide to former House Speaker Carl Albert (D-Okla.), the next day at a luncheon honoring Lamb, I can deal with tornadoes and extreme weather, but earthquakes are another thing, especially in a state whose Republican senator, Jim Inhofe, is a leading skeptic of climate change and global warming.
After David Boren, the former governor and U.S. senator who is completing his 18th year as OU president, introduced Lamb, I asked him, "What the hell's going on with the Big 12?" I was referring to the uncertain future of the athletic conference Oklahoma belongs to after Missouri, which has been a member of the Big 12 since 1907, left for the Southeastern Conference.
Missouri's move comes after Nebraska deserted the Big 12 to join the Big Ten and Colorado defected to the Pac 12. And next year, Texas A&M is following Missouri to the SEC, which means the Big 12 will become the Big Nine until Texas Christian joins next year, and possibly West Virginia, and even then, it will only be the Big 11.
Boren, who was in the middle of the Big 12's musical chairs negotiations, said, "We'll be all right," but added, "I've been fighting with Texas." He was referring to the fact that the University of Texas was unwilling to share TV revenue from its Longhorn Network, estimated at nearly $140 million a year, with other Big 12 members.
Afterwards, I drove to Norman, home of the University of Oklahoma, and stopped by the home of Barry Switzer, the former OU and Dallas Cowboys coach whom I got to know when I was at OU. I wanted to ask Switzer, who won three national championships at OU and is one of only two coaches to win an NCAA title and a Super Bowl, about Joe Paterno and the Penn State sexual abuse scandal.
Switzer, who was forced to resign from Oklahoma in 1989 after the NCAA placed the football program on probation, wasn't home. But he later told The Oklahoman that members of the Penn State coaching staff and others had to be aware of the alleged sexual abuse by former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky and should have acted to end it. He added that the university's trustees did the right thing by firing Paterno.
Ironically, Switzer's comments came the same day The Oklahoman reported that the Oklahoma Department of Human Services is investigating the deaths of 18 children, and possibly many more, who were in its custody or under the supervision of DHS employees who died from child abuse or neglect since Jan. 1, 2010.
There were other reasons why I didn't hear anybody singing you're doing fine Oklahoma, including the fact that Oklahoma billionaire George Kaiser had just been accused by the House Energy and Commerce Committee of helping convince the Obama administration to approve a half-billion federal loan to Solyndra, the California solar energy company that later went bankrupt.
At the same time, American Airlines, the dominant air carrier in Oklahoma, remained embroiled in a five-year labor dispute with its pilots' union that has brought it to the brink of bankruptcy after losing nearly $5 billion in the last four years.
But it isn't natural or man-made disasters that has Oklahoma's famously optimistic citizens thinking gloomy thoughts these days. It's the war in far-off Afghanistan, where 14 members of the Oklahoma National Guard's 45th Infantry Brigade have been killed in the past 18 months. The two latest died on Nov. 1, including 19-year-old Pfc. Sarina Butcher, who was the first Oklahoma woman solder killed in battle.
At the luncheon for Brian Lamb, I was sitting with Mike Boettcher, a veteran TV network correspondent who teaches at the Gaylord College of Journalism and Mass Communication, who told me he was about to leave for Afghanistan to continue one of the world's most unique journalism programs.
The 57-year-old Oklahoma native will be embedded with the Oklahoma National Guard units while reporting for ABC News and working with Gaylord students and Gaylord Professor John Schmeltzer to produce multi-media, in-depth personal stories about the Oklahoma soldiers. Their reports will be made available free of charge to every Oklahoma media outlet.
At the same time, Schmeltzer, who won a Pulitzer Prize at the Chicago Tribune, will coordinate with Oklahoma State University and Cameron University in Lawton, home of Fort Sill, to have students interview families of the Oklahoma Guard unit on Saturday, when OU and OSU battle it out on the gridiron. OSU's Cowboys are currently ranked number two in the nation, while the Sooners are number five.
"I looked at the football schedule and decided it's going to be a huge game and we should use the occasion to recognize the sacrifice of the Oklahoma National Guard, and remind people not to forget the impact of the soldiers' deployment on their families and communities," said Boettcher, who just returned from his third trip to Afghanistan in September.
I was thinking of how to tell Boettcher's story as I waited to board my return flight from Oklahoma City on Thursday, when about a dozen soldiers boarded ahead of me and were greeted by a round of hearty applause.
I asked one of them, a 20-year-old member of the Oklahoma National Guard's 45th Infantry Brigade, where he was headed. "Afghanistan, Sir," he replied.