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Sooner Stories Podcast: Spooky Sooners

Hear about a paranormal performer, ghosts who've made OU their home and more haunted happenings in this spooky 30-minute podcast.

Just in time for Halloween, we’re sharing stories of creepy campus lore surrounding OU’s Norman campus. Explore dark theaters, bumps in the night at Evans Hall, Mex the original mascot and that red-eyed horse at OU’s Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art. If you’re ready for some spooky, Sooner-themed stories, this podcast is for you!

Special thanks to #TeamWebComm Video Team’s Drew Bernard for the sound engineering, Mason Drumm for the beautiful photography, FJJMA's Michael Bendure and our knowledgable guests Scott Henkels, Jeff Provine and Mark White.

Boomer Sooner!

Transcript below.

CT: Boomer Sooner! I'm Candace Timmons.

MD: And I'm Morgan Day. 

CT: We work in OU's Office of Web Communications, Marketing and New Media. Morgan is our homepage guardian and I manage OU's official social media.

MD: Today just in time for Halloween, we're going to share stories of creepy campus lore surrounding OU's Norman campus. 

CT: We'll explore dark theaters, bumps in the night at Evans Hall, Mex the original mascot and that red-eyed horse at OU's Fred Jones, Jr. Museum of Art. If you're ready for some spooky, Sooner-themed stories this podcast is for you.

MD: So we're here today with the University Theatre here at the University of Oklahoma and we're really excited because Scott is going to tell us a story about ghost lights. So Scott, before we get into that, maybe you could kick it off and tell us what you actually do at University Theatre.

SH: Great, well my role at the University Theatre is the technical director. Ultimately, I'm helping to support the production by implementing scenic designs. So we have faculty and staff and students who will do the scene design for a show in collaboration with the rest of the artistic team, that hand off the design information and I'll take that and figure out how to implement that with my shop staff and my team. So there's a lot of wood working, a lot of metal working, welding, rigging, a lot of scene paint involved and it's a lot of talented artists as staff and students that put that together.

MD: Very cool! And so today we're going to be talking about ghost lights and from what I understand, these are - it's equipment that's used across every theater?

SH: Oh yeah. They're ubiquitous. It's odd because every theater I've ever been to or worked at or visited has a ghost light. But I'm not entirely clear where that ghost light tradition started. There could be some practical reasons for example, for example, no theater wants to leave all of the lights on over night. It's wasteful. Lights are expensive. A ghost light is a single stand if you will typically made in the shop, put together from hardware that's laying around. And usually just has a single bare light bulb at the top of it and wheels at the bottom. And a very long extension cord attached to it. So we'll plug it in at the side of the stage and roll it out in the middle of the stage at end of the night and turn the rest of the lights out. So overnight, there's just one lightbulb on. And so frequently the story goes that this light is meant to keep the ghosts out because what do ghosts like? A dark, scary, blank environment. And the theater is a very large space, typically and there's not much going on.

So the bare bulb is intended to keep the ghost away. They don't want to get comfortable and so they don't like light. I think that's the theory of that.

MD: I got you. So you're here also to tell us a little bit about a theater in Ohio and a story around the ghost light there?

SH: Yeah, so a lot of theaters will have their ghost story. Sometimes we joke in University Theater that we might have one ghost in one of our theater spaces that cries a lot but there's a very practical reason for that. Namely, there's been a roof leak for two or three decades in the same spot that's very difficult to fix. So we joke that there's a ghost that's always crying in our theater but in reality that's probably not the case. But there is a theater at a school in Ohio - Bowling Green State University - that has a ghost story that's a little too difficult to pass off. And so, namely, the story of this is that there's a ghost that has to be invited to the shows. And I vouch for it mostly because I've been to this theater and I've had a number of friends and colleagues that I've worked with who also vouch for this and say this has to happen. And so what they do - they have a routine that is very private amongst their stage managers and their stage managers are the ones who are making the show run back stage and performance. And so before the show opens the stage manager has a ritual they have to go through that only they know. And so they have to step out on stage and invite this ghost to watch the shows. The scary part about it is that it's documented amongst the people there that when they don't invite this ghost to watch the show, things happen that shouldn't. So for example, every light that gets hung for the show has a clamp that's tightened in place and has a cable that's wrapped around it so it can't fall down. The scenery will be screwed together or bolted together and put into place so it can't fall down. And so events that they haven't invited this ghost, these things have fallen with no explanation. So if you can imagine in our studio, we have lights that are set up. We have microphones that are set up. Can you image those just falling for no reason? That's what happens. And the scary part is when you talk to the people who have been there for that and they tell you all of these stories. So the theory is that if this ghost is not invited to watch the show, she wants to make her presence known and the belief is that it is a woman and there's a few different stories about who she may be and whether she was a student or a part of the department or just a life-long fan of the theater. But if she's not invited to the show, she makes herself known. And things happen that shouldn't.

MD: Pretty spooky. Do you have your own theory about the ghost?

SH: Well, the folks that I've all talked to they're interpretation of this story is that it may have been a student who unfortunately passed away while she was a student on her way to the theater and the name of the ghost reflects that and the name is Ethel if I remember correctly. But they all tell me these stories - "Oh well we didn't welcome Ethel to see this show and on opening night these lights fell down that had been setup previously the day before and set up correctly." Weird things happen that aren't just a roof leak. You can't just explain it as "Oh this has always happened." Things that don't happen, happen when she's not invited. 

CT: How do they invite her?

SH: It's a ritual that's very private and only the stage managers know that.

CT: Oh I see. 

SH: And so everybody else has to vacate the theater and the stage manager is passed down from stage manager to stage manager. This is the ritual and they have to do that. 

CT: Wow.

SH: So there's a lot trust in the stage manager doing this ritual.

MD: Do they ever test it out to see, "Well she's behaved for quite a while, maybe we could just not do the ritual for this one night and see how it goes..."

SH: And that's where the events when a light does fall or a wall falls down. That's when that happens. And that's why everybody's so convinced that this is a real thing and not just a fun ghost story is because they do check that and when they don't do it, these things happen. A light falls down, a wall falls over, things happen.

MD: Are you happy that OU doesn't have an Ethel?

SH: Well there's not any big ghost stories that I'm aware of and so that's kind of nice although it is kind of entertainment to be in an environment and a group of people that like these kinds of stories. We like telling these ghost stories, we tend to be a transient bunch, working in many different theaters. So there's always a good story to tell and by nature if you're working in entertainment, you probably like telling stories. So there's a lot of good stories to be told.

CT: True. I think Morgan and I are going to have to start paying more attention to see if we have a ghost up here in Web Comm. 

MD: Yes.

SH: Right. But we sure enough put the ghost light out in all of our theaters every night. Not to say we're trying to invite any ghost stories but we're happy not having any ghosts that tend to be resident in our spaces.

MD: Yeah, Well not being a theater person, I had never heard of ghost lights so this was really fun for us today.

SH: It is fascinating and if you go most places in the world, you'll find a ghost light on stage and so how this ghost light tradition ever started and got spread around is beyond me but everybody knows what a ghost light is in theater if they're working back stage.

CT: I think on So You Thing You Can Dance the dancers all performed with ghost lights. I just didn't know that's what they were called until now.

SH: Oh yeah, I could see that.

CT: But they did all have the wheel base and the really long extension cords.

SH: That sounds like a fun dance.

CT: And they were dressed up as ghosts so I think they were ghosts. But that makes a lot of sense now.

SH: Absolutely. That's pretty cool.

CT: Well thank you for being with us today and telling us your ghost stories.

SH: Thank you for having me. It's a pleasure.

CT: We're here with Jeff Provine. He is the ghost tour leader here on campus. He's also written two books - Campus Ghosts of Norman Oklahoma and Haunted Norman Oklahoma. Jeff, do you want to tell us a little bit about what you do here at OU and a couple of ghost stories?

JP: Sure thing! So I am a curriculum developer. I work with the policy contract and state government making sure that we can train the trainers who are training the people who help Oklahomans. On top of that I'm also an instructor with Freshman Programs. I teach the History of Comic Books course.

CT: Fun! So I understand you have something to tell us about Mex the dog.

JP: Right. So Mex the dog was our first mascot. The story of Mex goes all the way back to 1914. He was a Boston Terrier mix puppy that was part of an abandoned litter out on the Mexican border. So as the US Army was going through patrolling for Poncho Via and those guys, they found these puppies and decided to adopt them. Which Mex was one that was given to the Army medic. So as soon as he finished he went and joined the OU football team as their medic. He liked his dog so he brought Mex along and being a cool dog, Mex became very popular. They gave him a little jersey with an "O" on it and big had with a big red "O" on it and you can still see pictures of him over at the athletics department's website. It's a very cool, cute dog. What you can't see, however, is that according to legend, they had trained him to bark every time there was a touchdown and to give a howl every time there was a kick. Very popular dog. But his real popularity happened in the 1920s, shortly after legendary coach Bennie Owens came on. OU was going up to Iowa to play Drake University, which not one of the biggest names in football today, but no necessarily the biggest challenge then either so they were expected to have a good time. However, once they go there, they had taken the train and traded off in Arkansas City, but upon their arrival, Mex wasn't there. You know, which people were like, you know, it's a dog. Let's play the game. And they got smashed. Just triple digit smashed. It was bad. Which, halfway through, some guys had had enough and they said, "No. We need Mex. He's been to the other games and we did pretty well and he's not here so we clearly need him." So they booked it back and they found Mex just sitting there on the platform, waiting for everyone, got mixed up in the trade. So they rushed back with him but by that time, the game was clearly over and not in OU's favor. So they decided to be Mex's body guard and from that point on they took Mex to each game in a car that they drove individually. So with that, over the next three seasons, OU only lost like two games. So maybe there was something to it. He was a good dog. He lived to be about fourteen years old, which is like 130 in dog years. Just really old dog when he finally passed away and it was such a big deal that pretty much that entire town of Norman shut down. All classes were cancelled. Most of the businesses closed up shop and they had this big funeral procession down Lindsay Street. About 2,000 people showed up they said. It went down Lindsay and all the way to Owen Field where he was buried on the 50 yard line so that he could still be at every game.

CT: And he's still there to this day?

JP: That's what they say. The field's been redone so many times that I don't know if there's bones or anything left but there's all kinds of crazy stories where players will be sitting on the bench with their hands dangling by their feet and then feel something lick their fingers and they'll look around for a dog or something but nothing is there.And other people say they have something brush up against them or even lean against them as their standing on the sidelines. They said that's Mex being friendly.

CT: Have there been any reports of him being up to his usual tricks on a punt or a field goal or a touchdown.

JP: I've heard people claim they can hear him, but I certainly can't. It's just too loud.

CT: Yep. It is. It is very loud out there.

MD: And next Jeff, we're going to hear about a story from Evans Hall, which is our administrative building. I hear that we might have a ghost there?

JP: Or more than one depending on who you ask. We have all kinds of stories of doors rattling and things knocking on the windows, stuff moving around offices and so forth. Evans Hall is the third building to be known as University Hall before it was renamed after Evans, our second president. So the first two University buildings had problems with burning dow. The first one burned in 1903. It was a little wooden structure, about where Evans Hall is today. It's a little bit on kind of the eastern side. So it's story goes in the middle of January before classes had started, the night watchman was going around campus checking things out and saw a flickering in one of the windows. He thought professor was up studying or something so he went to go check on him and the room was on fire. So he ran out and rang the emergency bell, which was a physical bell that you have to ring and rouse the people from campus corner to come over and check on it. They called the Norman Fire Department which came out with their horse and wagon and then realized that the water system for Norman hadn't come out that far yet. There was nowhere to plug in their hoses. So they formed a bucket brigade and tried to save what they could but it was way too late and it was a total loss. Not just the building but the entire library collection was burned up. Like 8000 biological specimens that had bene collected - just everything. Pretty much the entire university was wiped out. We had new Science Hall under partial construction but that was it.

CT: But no lives lost in that one?

JP: Right. So there was one injury, according to the newspapers - President Boyd himself. He was out directing people, trying to do what he could to help the university and collapsed from smoke inhalation and spent the next week in bed from what the newspapers diagnosed as "weak lungs." But he got better and so did the university. Actually the city of Kingfisher came down with a $10,000 check, saying, "Hey just come on up to Kingfisher and we'll take care of you. But Boyd said, "No, Norman's been good to us so we're going to keep up with that promise." And I think that's worked out pretty well for us over the years.

CT: Yes, very nice of Kingfisher though.

JP: Yeah, good of them. So we pressured on and did pretty well, in fact we wrote up a letter saying, hey this is what happened to us and sent it to the Carnegie Foundation, which the Carnegie Foundation giving libraries all over the country - the first library given to a university is here at OU campus.

CT: So then they rebuilt Evans.

JP: Right! So then we got the second University Hall, which was built kind of a little bit over toward the west. And this University Hall was kind of planned like the US Capitol, where you have a big dome in the middle and these two big wings off the sides. Except they ran out of money part way through so they chopped off one of the wings and it was kind of this weird lopsided building. But it was good and rebuilt all the collections and things and fast forward to December 1907, classes ended on Friday afternoon. All the finals were done and everybody was packing up and heading home. Going over to the train station with their luggage to get picked up like Harry Potter style. So on campus, everybody was trying to get all of the things taken care of that you have to like they oiled all the wooden floors and dusted everything, painted what they had to. There were some guys up on the dome painting. They had just finished painted and had a little can of linseed oil that they were heating up so they could seal everything and the oil splattered and then caught in the gasoline furnace and then the whole dome caught. They said the flames were so big that you could see them from the train station. 

CT: Which was were, in relation?

JP: Which was not the train station that there is today downtown at the corner of Jones and Commanche, but it'd be across.

CT: Oh ok.

JP: That's a pretty hefty walk. But some of the students - some of them old enough or had been here long enough to remember the first fire- so they were saying, "Not again!" so they booked it down here to see what they could do to help. About the time they got here the fire had gone through the beams supporting the dome so it fell through three stories and down into the basement. Which all those floors that had been freshly oiled, they went up and it was clear that there was not going to be a way to save it. So they students said, "Well, we might lose the building but we're not going to lose our stuff again. And so they got ladders and broke out windows and climbed inside and just started throwing out globes and maps and books and anything they could get their hands on. One student got into President Boyd's office and sitting on his desk were the stack of papers that had all the student grades not yet recorded with he state, so everyone's work for the entire semester almost gone up in smoke. But he rescued it! A couple of other enterprising guys got down into the basement which was on fire but they managed to rescue the microscopes that were down there, which were thousands of dollars back in 1907 money. So serious guys. But eventually the building did completely burn down. We had to start over.

CT: So they start over.

JP: They start over once again.

CT: And now we have what is currently Evans Hall.

JP: Right. Currently Evans Hall but the garden to the side of it has these really nice foundation stones set out in front, which those are the foundation stones from the second university hall showing that it's still going strong.

MD: It sounds like it's pretty apparent what started the second fire, but when we think back to the first one, when somebody just walked into a classroom and saw that it was burning, are we going to blame that on the ghost? Is that where it all started?

JP: I'm going to say that's just an accident. I mean back then people, you know your only source of light was either fire or shotty electricity that will probably start a fire. 

CT: Or the sun. 

JP: Right. So, which, I was talking to a paranormal investigator and typically you think of entities as spirits and such, these named people that you go back and track. But then other times she said that there are spirits that they call residuals. So rather than being a conscious individual, it's kind of an emotional impression on a very excited time that keeps replaying it through history. So rather than these being students trying to escape fires, this is actually the spirit of students trying to get in and see what they can do to help the university. 

CT: So they're helpful spirits.

JP: Yes! School spirits.

CT: School spirits! I like it. So what are, the evidence of ghosts currently in Evans. Like what are the things that happen in there that lead people to believe that there are spirits in there currently?

JP: Most famously people just like to talk about the doors, specifically the doors on the north side and the south side, kind of that middle. They swing around even when there's not breezes blowing. It's kind of a scary ordeal if you're caught in the middle of it. I guess you could probably, scientifically argue maybe some air pressure but it's a lot more fun to talk about ghosts.

CT: Has President Boren ever mentioned any type of auras or spirits or mysterious happening in Evans Hall or in his office?

JP: Actually, he joined in on a ghost tour kind of accidentally. He was coming out of his office just as we were at Evans Hall telling stories and actually on the Halloween weekend last year. He was surprised to see so many people standing outside and he asked what was going on and we said, "Oh it's the ghost tour." And he said, "Oh! Well guess what I just saw!" And told a little joshing tale about what he'd seen.

CT: That's the best. What led you to become interested in these types of things? You're known around here as being kind of the foremost ghost expert on campus, but what first sparked your interest in the super natural and then led you to learn so much about OU's history and OU's ghost culture?

JP: Well I've always been really fascinated by folk lore - the stories that people tell but don't necessarily get written down. Some really interesting things that i think should be written down and that's really where I've gotten into a lot of recording on it. How the OU Ghost Tour started in 2009, I had earlier done study abroad in England, which I highly recommend to everybody if you get a chance, go study abroad somewhere. Later I went backpacking and visited a bunch of my friends, which England is a thousand years old so they have ghosts all over the place and lots of ghost tours and at that point I knew one story about OU, which is the little boy who roller skates around up in Ellison Hall, the old infirmary. So he's having a good time up there and the Arts and Sciences seem to like him pretty well. So I told that to my friend Tessa and she said there should be an OU ghost tour and I said, "Nah there's not enough stories." At that point I was teaching in the English Department and started digging into it and it turns out there are tons and ton of stories. So many in fact that I decided maybe there should be a tour. So we got this kind of charity tour started. First, started slowly with friends of family and so forth and then in 2011 during Halloween we got on the news and one hundred and fifty people showed up to one of the tours, which was a big tour. At that point, the Visitor's Center said, "Hey why don't you do this year round as a formal tour?" And I agreed, that's a great idea. So now we do tours monthly from March to November as long as the weather is nice and typically we have just one or two tours a month but on Halloween - as Halloween is approaching in October - we have five or six tour scheduled so far and they're all full. It's uncanny. We're already filling up November.

CT: So if someone wants to go on a ghost tour, how can they join in and participate in the ghost tour on campus?

JP: Those people can go to visit.ou.edu - the Visitor's Center website and they can check out when we have tour dates lined up.

CT: And sign up online?

JP: Yes, those are for the public tours. We also have private tours, which is you get groups of twelve or so going up to about 25-30 is about the max we can fit on a good tour. But we've had different departments come in with their professors that have a good time. We've had birthday parties, family reunions and all kinds of great stuff.

CT: Sounds like a lot of fun. Thank you so much for being here today. We really enjoyed the ghost stories, specifically the one about Mex and I know everyone else will enjoy it too.

MD: Yes, thank you so much, Jeff.

JP: Thanks for having me.

MD: Next up, the story behind the University of Oklahoma's Mesteño sculpture. It's the eight foot tall, rearing mustang with glowing red eyes that overlooks Boyd Street from inside the Fred Jones Jr Museum of Art. Here to share that information with us is Mark White, the museum's director. So Mark, when it comes to Mesteño, I know three things: the name is Spanish for mustang, it used to be outside but now it's not and there's some pretty interesting and kind of unfortunate lore around this guy. So maybe you can help us fill in the blanks.

MW: Sure, the artist is Luis Jiménez. He's originally from Texas and he grew up working in his father's sign shop. So he was, as a child, exposed to the kind of glittering lit signs that we would expect to see, especially on Route 66 in the 1950s and 60s and he was also very much exposed to the beginnings of low rider culture and so the low rider with their elaborate pain jobs and lavish accessories all had an influence on Luis Jiménez. So he wanted to create objects that somehow dealt with the mythology, the culture of the American Southwest where he had grown up and for him, the mustang, or the Mesteño was a central icon of American Southwest. And keep in mind that this is something that the American government has even acknowledged in I think 1977, Congress declared the mustang the symbol of the American west. So for Jiménez, this was a very important piece of the American mythology. The piece for many years sat outside on Boyd Street. Before that it was actually sitting in a rose garden that was in a green space where now our Lester Wing sits, where the Weitzenhoffer Collection of Impressionism and Post-Impressionism is housed. So when that was a rose garden, that's where the mustang sat. We moved it inside recently primarily because it was not fairing well with the weather. Being a fiberglass sculpture, you can imagine what the Oklahoma winters and summers can do to that. So just as if you left your corvette outside for long periods of time, it would show wear so too does mustang. So we moved it inside but normally it looks out from our window. Now we have it moved temporarily but it is going to return to its place of prominence so you'll be able to see it from the window. The piece is a maquette for a much larger work that Jiménez completed for the Denver airport. The unfortunate situation there is that Jiménez in creating that monumental sculpture that you can see as you're leaving the airport - in creating this monumental sculpture, there was an accident and a piece fell on Jiménez and pinned him and he bled out before help could arrive. So unfortunately there is a kind of romantic yet tragic story about the artist being killed by his own work of art. The piece, I think, has the ability to really confront a lot of viewers. It is a rearing horse in blue and grey so it's quite flashy in that respect but also you have the glowing red eyes that I think a lot of people remember. And for Jiménez, this was a way of showing the power of the mustang. He was really interested in this symbol, not just the horse itself, but really this symbol as being something that had a lot of spirit, a lot of power within the context of American culture. And so he wanted to give it that kind of power. Well, just putting normal eyes in the mustang would have probably been sufficient but it wouldn't quite have expressed the ferosity, the power of that animal. The red eyes, which are in fact red light bulbs, speak to that earlier sign making culture of his father and it gives it a kind of flashy pop culture appearance. 

MD: Was there a story behind how Mesteño got to OU?

MW: Well Mesteño was given to us by the Westheimer family, Jerome M Westheimer Sr and Wanda Otey Westheimer. They're in fact great patrons of the university and a lot of the public sculpture around the museum was given to us by them. They also gave us the Jesús Moroles as well as one of the also more infamous sculptures on campus - Fernando Botero's 'Sphinx,' which sits out in front of the museum.

MD: I feel like there's a lot of lore around this particular sculpture. How, as a student who's just coming to OU, how do you learn the things like this about campus?

MW: Well I think on one hand, if you come to the museum, it is hard to miss a work like Musteno. And we do give tours and that piece is always on the tour because it is one of our most popular pieces and has been since it was installed on campus. I think museum staff is always happy to talk to people about the work. One of the things that we want to do is to be a resource for the university as well as the greater-Norman community. And that means education, discussion and so we're very interested in helping to tell the story of this piece. And in some cases, either supporting the lore or or discounting it.

CT: So we've established the background of Mesteño. Was there ever a time when Luis Jiménez came to campus to explain his work of art and if so what was that like?

MW: Well he did come to campus in the mid 1990s. 1995 or 1996 and I can't recall at the moment but he had a large exhibition at the Fred Jones, Jr Museum of Art and for that occasion, a number of his works were installed not only in the museum but also around campus - including a piece out in front of Boyd House. The response was somewhat mixed. There were a lot of people who were very interested - very engaged in the exhibit. But there were a lot of people who were perhaps bemused by what they saw and so when Jiménez came to speak as part of of the opening, there was a very large crowd and I think people were very unsure of what they were going to see. I think a lot of people figured that Jiménez would show up looking like a Hells Angel or some sort of rough type and he actually arrives in a three-piece suit and proceeds to completely bowl over the crowd, very charismatic personality and managed to persuade a lot of the people that were uncertain or uninterested in his work that he was doing something that was very much within the American experience and was part of American popular culture of the late 20th century.

CT: That's great. I feel like a lot of people, after hearing this story will feel differently about Mesteño, much like the people who heard him speak feel differently about him now. 

MW: I hope so. I hope that they can see that Mesteño is really a celebration of the American west and how the west is this sort of untamed, unbridled region and in that respect, Jiménez was really saying some positive things about this part of the country.

MD: Well Mark thank you so much for joining us on the podcast today. It was a pleasure to have you here.

MW: Thanks it was great to be here.

MD: That's a wrap. Thanks for listening. You can find us at ou.edu, The University of Oklahoma on Facebook and @uofoklahoma on Twitter and Instagram. If you have an idea for our next podcast, email us at webcomm@ou.edu. Until next time, I'm Morgan Day.

CT: And I'm Candace Timmons.

Both: And we'll see you on campus!