John Elson Kirkpatrick
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John Elson Kirkpatrick was born February 13, 1908 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. The third son born to Dr. Elmer E. and Mrs. Helene Claudia (Spencer) Kirkpatrick.
After his formal education, John eventually was accepted into the Naval Academy at Annapolis, Maryland in 1927. Not long thereafter, John met Mary Eleanor Blake and the couple married on June 20, 1932 at the home of her parents, Mack and Kathryn “Kittie” (Talbott) Blake. John had graduated the year before and was commissioned as an ensign aboard the USS Arizona.
On August 7, 1933, John and Eleanor’s only child, Joan, was born. Between his time aboard the Arizona and then the USS California and later USS Cincinnati, John’s main responsibilities centered on the ship’s gunnery. However, in March 1935, John resigned his Naval commission and, with the help of his father-in-law Mack Bake, enrolled in Harvard University School of Business.
After the death of his father, John returned to Oklahoma where co-founded Allied Steel Products Corporation in Tulsa. Yet, war loomed and in 1939, John was told to report to New York for active duty aboard the USS North Carolina.
John oversaw the ship’s five-inch guns, and, after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, he became Air Defense/Sky Control Officer eventually rising to the rank of Lieutenant Commander.
The North Carolina participated in several Pacific engagements and was even struck by a torpedo in September 1942. John would remain aboard battles on the Solomon and Marshall Islands eventually promoted to Commander in 1944. During that time, John’s father-in-law, Mack Blake, began an oil exploration firm in partnership with another Allied Steel founder, Hubert Bale. Kirkpatrick and Bale was incorporated on May 19, 1943.
In 1944, John was assigned Commander of the Anti-Aircraft Training Center and Officer-in-Charge of the Pacific Fleet Machine Gun School. The base was located at Waianae on Oahu among the islands that made up the Territory of Hawaii. He remined there until January 1945, when John was assigned to the USS Alaska as its Gunnery Officer. In February 1945, the Alaska joined covered aircraft carriers as Allied Forces retook Iwo Jima. In March through June 1945, the Alaska joined in attacks on the Japanese island of Okinawa.
In July, John received orders to report to the USS Oklahoma City as its Executive Officer. The light cruiser patrolled in Tokyo Bay during the September 1 surrender ceremony of Japan. Later that same month, John was released from active duty.
Business and Philanthropy
In January 1947, John was elected a director of Liberty National Bank after the death of his father-in-law, Mack Blake. Also, he increased his involvement in the oil business. John’s partnership with Hubert Bale lasted until 1950 when John created the Kirkpatrick Oil Company. In 1957, Kirkpatrick Oil was able to sell some of its oil and gas production which provided enough cash to pay off the company’s debts. The result allowed John and Eleanor to focus on civic and community activities in Oklahoma.
Over the next few years, John joined the executive committee of the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation, the Oklahoma City Symphony Society, and the YMCA. In 1955, John also joined with city leaders such as E. K. Gaylord, Dean A. McGee, and Stanley Draper to form the Frontiers of Science Foundation.
John and Eleanor established the Kirkpatrick Foundation to help other organizations and causes focusing on Oklahoma City and the surrounding area. In addition to the family’s initial $10,000 gift, John contributed oil and gas leases to fund the new Foundation.
In 1958, the Kirkpatrick Foundation helped finance the building of the Oklahoma Art Center on the State Fairgrounds of Oklahoma. The next year John organized the Oklahoma Science and Arts Foundation which established the Oklahoma City Planetarium and Oklahoma Science Workshop within the Art Center.
On May 10, 1960, John and Eleanor’s daughter Joan married Konrad Keesee, and on December 27, 1961 the family saw the birth of Christian Keesee.
The following year, the Kirkpatrick Planetarium opened on the State Fairgrounds. In February 1963 the Oklahoma City Civic Ballet was formed by the Oklahoma Science and Arts Foundation. Their first show, The Nutcracker was directed by Yvonne Chouteau and Miguel Terekhov and featured Oklahoma’s own Maria Tallchief.
John and Eleanor also helped found Lyric Theater which opened its doors at Oklahoma City University with the musical, Oklahoma on July 1, 1963. In September 1967, the Kirkpatrick Fine Arts Auditorium opened its doors at OCU after John and Eleanor donated nearly half the building’s final costs.
In 1963, John became president of the Oklahoma Zoological Society. Under his leadership, updated facilities, new and more exotic animals, and safe environments conducive to animal preservation began. In later years, John’s work would be carried forward by his daughter, Joan, together with the Kirkpatrick Foundation.
In 1969, John and Eleanor founded the Oklahoma City Community Foundation which allowed for managing philanthropic funds among various local non-profit organizations. John served as its president until 1980. In 1989, John and Eleanor established the Kirkpatrick Family Fund, the largest single endowment by the Community Foundation.
Throughout the 1970’s, John lessened his role within his oil business as he and his wife increased their community work. In 1978 John saw the completion of the Kirkpatrick Science and Air Space Museum which would be the new home for the Oklahoma Science and Arts Foundation and its Planetarium. In over 365,000 square feet, the Kirkpatrick Center held the Omniplex Science Museum, the Air Space Museum, the Red Earth Indian Center, the International Photography Hall of Fame and Museum, and various galleries including U.S. Naval Historical Gallery, the Oklahoma State Art Collection, and the Oklahoma First Ladies collection.
In the 1980’s oil prices steadily decreased and bank failures began to increase. Amidst several Oklahoma bank failures, John and Eleanor decided with their family to preserve Liberty National Bank. At 1988 board meeting, John put forward a plan to invest $20,000,000 of his family’s money into the bank. Years later, John’s grandson Chris would create Kirkpatrick Bank in part to commemorate his grandfather’s legacy.
In November 1993, John turned over Kirkpatrick Oil to his grandson. Over two hundred nonprofit organizations with growing endowment funds were initiated through the Kirkpatrick’s philanthropic work. Over the years, John and Eleanor were celebrated with awards and recognition across Oklahoma and nationally for their success and generosity.
John was preceded in death by his wife Eleanor on May 20, 1997. After John died on October 3, 2006, he gave a substantial part of his accumulated wealth to the Oklahoma City Community Foundation.