In 1965 a blanket of rural land covered the city of Tulsa, a blank canvas for the future.
A sign on Lewis read, “This is the building of Oklahoma’s newest university.” Returning to Tulsa with four years of teaching and a doctorate, Dr. George Gillen drove past the sign and wondered if they needed a business teacher.
Moments later, he pulled into the front drive and crossed the stark campus. The avenue of flags had yet to be built, and the land was bare. The trees were reminiscent of sticks, only six feet in height and two inches wide in diameter. The campus awaited the next 50 years of growth.
“In those early years, because we were so small, we were socially cohesive,” business professor Gillen recalled. “There was a great interrelationship and cross pollination among all of the professors. At that time, we didn’t have colleges, we just had one school: arts and sciences.”
Gillen began his career at ORU in June of 1965. He took on the role of assistant to the controller, helping with the finances as the university was established. He was the only business professor for the first two years, teaching four courses a semester until the second business professor arrived in 1968.
Eventually, a whole litany of professors arrived due to the rapid growth of the university.
“Dr. Hamilton was the first chair of [the arts and sciences] so we had representation on that council by each of the departments,” Gillen said. “Because we were so close and all there in the LRC, there was a great camaraderie between the chairmen because we knew we were building a great university.”
During the first two years, chapel services were held on the north end of Timko Barton where the performance hall now resides. On the south end, the 250-260 students congregated three times a day to eat in the cafeteria.
Professors and faculty gathered at noon every day to eat lunch in a lounge located on the third floor. Teachers of different subjects would line the walls to discuss humanities, history and science with one another.
“The noon hour would be over but it was just so interesting because we had the fine arts people, the scientists and the math people,” Gillen said. “And, then, when we became much larger, we had segmentation and never did recover that relationship ever again. But those were wonderful times.”
A soft smile lingered on Gillen’s face as he remembered the moments shared with the original faculty who formed the foundation of ORU.
Gillen recalled one of the most triumphant milestones for the university when it received accreditation in 1972. ORU had been turned down the first time around but anticipated the approval of becoming a fully-accredited school. He remembered the milestone like it was yesterday.
“We were waiting for Oral to come in with the news, and he came in with this terrible look on his face. He was always very expressive,” Gillen said with a knowing glance. “And everybody said, ‘Uh-oh, we’ve been turned down,’ so everybody was kind of groaning when they saw him.”
Oral quieted the room with his somber tone.
“And then he said, ‘Now, I want to see, regardless what the issue is, can you take it with dignity?’ And so there was this weak ‘yes.’”
Gillen leaned forward in his chair with excitement as he remembers the memory so vividly.
“Then he said, ‘We got it!’ The place just erupted with shouts and hurrahs and they ran to the podium and they carried Oral all around the auditorium and he gave us the next two days off because of the celebration,” he said. “It was something that you would never forget.”
Gillen smiled warmly remembering the image of what would launch the beginning of the next 50 years to come. ORU’s academic achievements are why Gillen believes the university exceeds other institutions.
“We have academic excellence in every college. Every college that we have is fully credited by the highest standard of accreditation,” Gillen said. “So that is something for a religious institution to have faculty who are academically qualified but also have a strong religious and spiritual commitment.”
Since 1965, the university has seen four presidents whom have each impacted the school in various ways. In witnessing it all, Gillen credits the presidents for achieving excellence through the upkeep of Oral’s vision.
“The spiritual evolution is still here and just as strong as it was in 1965: the commitment into going into every man’s world and teaching people the message of Christ in healing. We had very dedicated students [and faculty] in those years and we still do,” Gillen said.
Fifty years later, the university teems with new life as the Prayer Tower stands at the center surrounded by several buildings, the Praying Hands and the Prayer Gardens. Those trees that were once sticks now line the paths providing shade, their thick trunks firmly planted.
“We all laughed and said that we would be dead and gone before any of these trees grew,” Gillen laughed. “But look at these trees today.”
Now, Gillen walks across a campus covered with a vibrant blanket of green and splashes of color. He still remembers the campus just as it was when he first arrived, but delights in the growth built from the vision birthed from a man 50 years ago.