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Lawton loses quiet, dedicated leader

Longtime Lawton businessman T.J. Henry has died, ending decades of support for Lawton and its residents.

Henry had long been active on the local and state levels. Not only was he executive vice president and co-owner of Gibson's Discount Centers, he also was patriarch of an active Lawton family and husband of one of the city's most energetic civic leaders. But while his support was strong, it typically was quiet because he preferred to stay in the background. His wife, Pat, has said her intense participation in local, state and national activities was possible only because of the support her husband provided. Henry himself confessed in a 1983 interview "I'm just a pretty private type of guy."

But he raised his profile considerably in 1983 when his friendship with then-Gov. George Nigh led to his appointment to the new Oklahoma Horse Racing Commission, where he served for several years, including a term as chairman in 1986.

Nigh said he and the Henrys had a friendship that dated back decades, and one that drew the couple into state politics when Nigh made his first bid for governor in 1978.

Nigh's friendship with Pat and T.J. Henry started when the Henrys moved to Oklahoma in 1964 to operate Oklahoma's first Gibson's store in Lawton. Nigh said the relationship goes back so many years he can't remember how they met.

"But I would say: If you, reflecting on your life, said that there are 'these people' who are your dear friends, Pat and T.J. Henry would be on that short list," he said.

A good guy for Nigh

When Nigh created his statewide campaign organization to run for governor, the Henrys were there (Pat Henry was one of Nigh's co-chairmen). In addition to that work, that meant the Henrys played another, history-making role.

"Pat and T.J. made possible what became the most significant sign of my campaign: Good guys wear white hats," Nigh said, referring to the slogan that helped sweep Nigh to the governor's mansion.

During the campaign, Nigh's opponent had twisted his "good guy" image to make it seem Nigh wasn't capable of handling the governor's job. A meeting left his staff reflecting on that criticism, but then Nigh asked: What's wrong with being a good guy? By meeting's end, the campaign staff had decided to call themselves Nigh's Good Guys, but Nigh pointed out good guys wear white hats. The problem: Where to find a large number of white hats?

"That's when the Henrys stepped in," Nigh said, explaining the couple contacted a manufacturer their stores used and readily committed to ordering 5,000 cowboy hats when they were told that's what it would take to start up what was a summer production line item.

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