Oklahoma State University-Oklahoma City

New OSU-OKC President Brightens Up Campus

BY PAULA BURKES pburkes@opubco.com

 

The first order of business after Natalie Shirley in May became president of the now 50-year-old Oklahoma State University-Oklahoma City: Break out the orange paint.

 

Before her arrival, the predominant colors across campus were green, gray and a red far too similar to that other state school's colors. Adding orange, the OSU logo and Pistol Pete to buildings was an easy way to get an instant pop, said Shirley, a 1978 undergraduate of OSU at Stillwater who succeeds the school's 11-year President Jerry Carroll, who died in October of esophageal cancer.

 

“It's a head's up that it's a new deal,” she said. “We are OSU and everybody get ready.”

 

Though an average age of 27, the estimated 7,700 students of OSU-OKC, along with the 230 faculty, are so excited to be OSU Cowboys, Shirley said.

 

Formerly state secretary of commerce and tourism for Gov. Brad Henry, Shirley believes it's natural to go from that role to her current one.

 

In her former position, she was proudest of the 21st Century Jobs legislation, which reimburses Boeing and other incoming employers 10 percent of the their payroll over 10 years, providing they pay more than three times the average state salaries.

 

In her current position, Shirley can help build the educated workforce that those employers seek, she said.

 

Though Oklahoma has one of the lowest unemployment rates nationwide, the state ranks 47th among families who live in poverty, Shirley said.

 

“The only thing that can change that is education,” she said, noting many OSU-OKC students are the firsts in their families to earn college degrees or have families and full-time work when they go back to school to complete degrees.

 

“We're a special niche of student that will propel Oklahoma to a better place,” she said.

 

Shirley, 54, recently sat down with The Oklahoman to talk about her professional and personal life. This is an edited transcript:

 

Q: Can you tell us about your roots?
A: I grew up in Blackwell. My father, who's now deceased, was a manager for the cable system, and mom, who now lives in Oklahoma City, was a homemaker. I'm the oldest of four children. I have a brother in Singapore, sister in New Jersey and a sister here. We speak to each other once a week on Skype. Growing up, our family was of modest means.

 

Still, our parents, who didn't go to college, always said we all were going to college — and we all did. Three of us earned postgraduate degrees. To make it affordable, I worked — as a cab company dispatcher, bookkeeper, sandwich maker and other odd jobs — and attended Northern Oklahoma College in Tonkawa my first 18 months.

 

From age 7, I wanted to be a lawyer, because I believed lawyers can make a difference. Before going full-time to law school at OU, I, in four years, earned two bachelor's degrees from OSU — in psychology and political science. My husband, Russ, and I met between my last two years there. We married after graduation.

 

Q: And after law school?
A: I went to work for the state Department of Securities and quickly became involved in the national organization for security regulations. That led to project work for the mutual fund industry, for which I commuted to D.C. for three years. Then, as Russ likes to say, I got an offer he couldn't refuse, and relocated to D.C. where I ran the ICI Mutual Insurance Co., which is the mutual fund industry's own insurance company and the ninth largest insurance company nationwide. I worked there 16 years and loved it. My staff numbered fewer than 50, but I dealt with trillions of dollars, and also with basis points. Either Russ or I would travel every week, or every other, to see each other, and we'd talk on the phone one or more times every evening. We spent so much time on the phone for so many years that I still today find myself talking on the phone with him, when I'm sitting in my car in the driveway and he's in the house!

 

Q: Why did you come back home?
A: Once we had three kids — who with two dogs, two cats, a tarantula and a lizard, lived with me in D.C., one mile south of the Pentagon — commuting became too hard, and we decided I'd move home versus sell the successful gypsum mining company Russ founded.

 

Included in my negotiations were: we'd buy a house I wanted in Heritage Hills, he'd fill up a jewelry box, he'd stop smoking and I'd play tennis until I found what I wanted to do, which was soon afterward when Gov. Henry invited me to join his cabinet.

 

Q: You and your husband adopted all of your children. What led you to that decision?
A: We always knew children were on the horizon. But after we both were established in our careers, we had several years of infertility. My daily prayer always has been, “God, make me available for whatever is your will.” He kept putting children in our path and they're just amazing kids.

 

Our first child, a daughter with special needs, we adopted from Romania when I was 39 and she was 3. Our second, a son who's half Creek Indian was born in Oklahoma, where we adopted him from birth two years after we adopted our daughter. Our third child and second son, who's now our oldest and a freshman at OSU, we adopted from China when he was 13½. Our other three children are biological siblings from the area who needed a home because their foster family was moving. They joined our family only this past Christmas — after we all went skiing together in Utah, where we have a vacation home.

 

Q: Wow, that's a big family. What's a typical work day like for you?
A: Except for Sundays, I get up at 5:45 every morning and run four and half miles, the first mile and half with our 110-pound dog. Then I get breakfast for the kids, which is usually cereal or hot pockets. But on Fridays, I cook bacon and biscuits. I pack lunches, and my husband takes the kids to school. I'm in the office by nine and stay ‘til about seven. Most nights, our nanny makes dinner and we try to eat together, unless a kid eats first because they have a football or soccer game or practice. Then, it's homework until 10; we go to bed; get up and start all over again. I love it.

 

Read more on NewsOK.com: http://newsok.com/new-osu-okc-president-brightens-up-campus/article/3609314#ixzz1ZjObcsuD

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OSU-OKC President Natalie Shirley