Picture Perfect Gift

While photographer Robert M. “Bob” McCormack recorded seven decades of images of Tulsa’s development, he did not realize that he and his work would become integral parts of the city’s history.
A former Tulsa World photographer who, during World War II, became the chief photographer at Douglas Aircraft in Tulsa, McCormack photographed the people, places and events of Tulsa until his death in 2003.
His collection of photos “is a beautiful anthropology, a sociological history of the Oil Capital of the World during its most sophisticated period,” said his son, John McCormack. “I knew that I had an important collection here – that I had to do something with it, that I could not allow it to be destroyed or unattended.”
John McCormack is working with the McFarlin Library at the University of Tulsa to make sure his father’s contribution to the photographic history of Tulsa is preserved.
The university has taken possession of the collection while final details of the gift, which includes more than 600 antique and classic cameras, are negotiated. The collection is to become a part of the library’s Department of Special Collections and University Archives.
Library officials estimate the collection exceeds more than 100,000 negatives.
John McCormack thinks it numbers well more than that – surpassing a million images.
However it counts out, it represents five tons of negatives and 70 years of Tulsa memories that will take years to sort out.
“The depth and breadth of the collection really makes it a very unique and significant social and cultural history of Tulsa on film,” said Adrian W. Alexander, R. M. and Ida McFarlin Dean of the library. “As a research library, we are all about preserving the past in whatever format. And as Tulsa’s university, we feel like we have a role to play in helping to preserve the heritage and the history of the community.”
Noting McCormack’s subject’s ranged from buildings and companies to events and people, Alexander said the collection “really covers the whole scope of Bob’s work, and he loved to photograph anything related to Tulsa.”
“He photographed all the major social events, and, of course, he was a very successful commercial photographer. He did lots of family portraits and wedding portraits,” he said. “People like to say, ‘I know I am in there.’ Everybody who is anybody in Tulsa is probably in there somewhere.”
John McCormack sought out a benefactor to preserve the collection when the McCormack family decided this year to sell the McFarlin Mansion, 1610 S. Carson Ave., where the McCormack Studios had been housed since 1969. They realized the collection, housed in the 7,000-SF historic structure, needed a place to be preserved.
The mansion is significant for its association with one of Tulsa’s leading businessmen and civic leaders, as well as its architectural excellence and fine craftsmanship. Robert M. McFarlin, with his nephew James A. Chapman, formed the McMan Oil Co. McMan had one of the most successful operations in the Glenn Pool oil field. In 1910, McFarlin, with Harry Sinclair and other oil men, organized the Exchange National Bank of Tulsa, now the Bank of Oklahoma.
McFarlin, known in the Southwest for his contributions to church and educational memorial buildings, and his wife, Ida Mae Barnard McFarlin, donated the McFarlin Library structure, as well as the book stacks and the furnishings, to the University of Tulsa.
John McCormack pictures the agreement with TU as a sign of providence.
Noting that the collection “was all stored in his (McFarlin’s) mansion and now it is stored in his academic mansion at TU,” McCormack said six weeks before the house was to be vacated in September for its new owners, he was distressed because he had not found a home for the collection.
“I give complete credit to the Lord because I did get down on my knees, asking, ‘What do I do?’ and an hour later, TU called,” McCormack said.
McCormack said his father’s links to the University of Tulsa date back to the late ‘30s after he had come to Tulsa in 1935 and was hired as a photographer for the Tulsa World.
McCormack recalled a story his father told him. Late one night, while waiting for his girlfriend at the train station, pacing the platform, Bob McCormack noticed another man also pacing, waiting on the train from Kansas City. Soon, they shook hands and started a conversation.
“When the train came in, people started coming off, and my mother stepped off the train with this other man’s girlfriend, and they had coincidentally just made a great friendship on the train coming down,” McCormack said. “It became a lifelong friendship of both couples, and that man that my dad shook hands with on that platform was Ben Henneke.”
Dr. Ben Henneke was president of the University of Tulsa from 1958 until 1967 after joining the TU faculty in 1936 as assistant professor of speech and director of theatre. He was named President Emeritus of the University of Tulsa in 1982.
“I know that my dad must be happy that this is all being saved to the school where he enjoyed watching the football team and photographing so many aspects of TU life,” McCormack said.
The negative collection is being held in temporary storage as the university prepares a location and begins seeking funding to catalog and preserve the images, Alexander said.
He said the intent is that the collection will be given to TU as a gift and John McCormack will serve on staff on a contract basis as curator of that collection.
“We need his knowledge and expertise to help get that all organized,” Alexander said. “He literally could walk through any of the area where the negatives were stored and pluck out an envelope and tell before he reached in what was there.”
He said preliminary plans call for using part of the Hardesty Press building, 1911 E. 11th St., as a processing center. TU purchased the building for use as a remote storage facility for the library.
“We can set up a team of people to work when we get the funding in place and get ready to roll,” he said. “They can ultimately unload all of the McCormack materials there except for the cameras – there is an extensive camera collection.”
The camera collection, which includes 13 8×10 box cameras, are in the library where the special collections staff, led by Mark Carlson, librarian of Special Collections and University Archives, is sorting and organizing them.
Alexander said work on the negative collection will begin after remodel work is completed on the Hardesty Press building.
“It will probably be in 2009 before we get started organizing and sorting out things, determining how we want to catalog and what our restoration needs will be,” he said. “We have a whole host of issues that we have to start working on now so we can get started as we get into the Hardesty space.”
A primary consideration will be the search for public and private funding sources, Alexander said.
“We are going to be looking at a variety of funding sources,” he said. “We need to talk to some local foundations, and we need to look at some grant opportunities.”
Alexander said the university was immediately very supportive of the initiative to obtain the McCormack collection.
“It is tremendously exciting for us in the library,” he said. “When I first talked with TU President Steadman Upham about it, he realized the necessity of somebody stepping up and doing this, and he was committed to having the university play a major role in doing that.”
Because of the size of the collection and the fact that most of it is still in negative form, the initial plan is to digitize the images and create a library that would be publicly accessible from the TU Library Web site “so anybody could come and research this resource,” Alexander said.
“It is going to take us a few years to get that done,” he said.
John McCormack, who has moved his photography business into a 200-SF space at 123 E. 18th St., “at the other end of the Phoenix Cleaners building,” plans to split his time between the collection and his business.
“I hope someday to be able to just give myself completely to the collection, and live the rest of my life to honoring my Dad and the city of Tulsa through the collection,” he said. “Probably 99 percent of this is still in negative form. What is still waiting there is like hidden treasure.”

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