John Elson Kirkpatrick was born February 13, 1908 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. He was the third son born to Dr. Elmer E. and Mrs. Helene Claudia (Spencer) Kirkpatrick. John attended McKinley Elementary, Webster Junior High, and Classen Junior High before graduating from Oklahoma High School (later Central High School) in 1925. John and his second oldest brother, Elmer E. Kirkpatrick, Jr. entered the United States Military Academy at West Point that same year.
After his first semester at West Point, John failed English and was discharged in January. He briefly attended the Braden Preparatory School at Cornwall-on-the-Hudson in New York for two months after which he took an exam to re-enter West Point. After John returned to Oklahoma, his parents were notified of his failure on the entrance exam.
In the summer of 1926, John remained active in the National Guard and joined the horse field artillery unit, earning the rank of Scout Corporal Number One. The experience also gave him his first interaction with a battery of canons, eventually defining much of his military career.
While John had not given up on West Point, he also decided to apply for the Naval Academy at Annapolis, Maryland. In October 1926, John was nominated by Congressman Swank to take the Naval Entrance exam. He received his appointment to enter the Naval Academy in the Fall 1927.
In 1928, John took his first training cruise aboard the USS Florida. In the summer of 1929 John met Eleanor Blake while both were in Oklahoma City. Eleanor was preparing to attend Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts at this time. John courted her through correspondence while at the Academy and after he graduated in 1931. John was commissioned an ensign and was assigned to the battleship USS Arizona. He became the ships’ assistant athletic officer and oversaw the storage of ammunition and mechanisms related to the port side five-inch guns.
On a visit with her family, to California in 1931, John proposed to Eleanor, and the couple married on June 20, 1932 at the home of her parents, Mack and Kathryn “Kittie” (Talbott) Blake. John’s parents were also in attendance among other guests. The couple then drove 600 miles to the Kirkpatrick Family cabin in Green Mountain Falls, Colorado.
The couple returned to meet the Arizona in Bremerton Naval Shipyard in Washington state before John sailed for San Pedro, California. The Kirkpatrick’s established their first home in Long Beach, California. In May 1933, John and Eleanor took an apartment in Vallejo, California after John was reassigned to the USS California. John was assigned as communications watch officer, serving on the staff of the battle fleet commander.
On August 7, 1933, John and Eleanor’s only child, Joan, was born. The next year, a few days before the California was to set sail, John received orders detaching him from the battleship and reassigning him to light cruiser USS Cincinnati where he took his examination for promotion to Lieutenant Junior Grade. Although primarily a training cruiser, the assignment did reunite him with brother, Claude. After his promotion, John was assigned Junior Officer in the F-Division in gunnery fire control. When the cruiser returned to the West Coast, John and Eleanor moved into a house in San Diego, California.
In March 1935, John wrote a letter resigning his commission in the active (Regular) Navy. With his father-in-law Mack Bake offering John a salary commensurate with his Navy pay of $165 a month, John and Eleanor returned to Oklahoma in April. In the fall of 1935, John enrolled in Harvard University School of Business and the family moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts.
In March 1936, Dr. Kirkpatrick suffered heart failure resulting in his death. John and his family returned that same year to Oklahoma where he started to work in an oil field machine shop. John met Duke B. Merrill and E. C. Hinkefent. The three men, with the financial backing of Mack Blake, launched Allied Steel Products Corporation in Tulsa in October 1936. The business designed and built steel buildings for petroleum and oil businesses with clients in Texas, Kansas, New Mexico, and Louisiana.
John remained a reservist, and, in 1939, he advanced to a full Lieutenant in June. Then, in orders dated the day before his thirty-third birthday, John was told to report to New York, New York for active duty. He was assigned aboard the USS North Carolina.
John reported to the North Carolina on April 1, 1941 and served as Fifth Division Officer, overseeing the starboard’s five-inch gun battery with one hundred and forty-five men and twelve officers serving under his command. Eleanor and Joan moved with him, finding an apartment in Forest Hills, New York.
On October 31, 1941 the USS Reuben James, a Naval destroyer, was sunk by a German U-Boat. John wrote in his journal that the Executive Officer aboard the North Carolina notified the men to begin preparing for action. After Japan’s attack on December 7, the North Carolina went on a higher alert status, and John sent his wife and daughter back to Oklahoma City. John’s ship sailed for Hampton Roads and Chesapeake Bay as German submarines began patrolling and launching attacks against shipping on the East Coast.
John and Eleanor reunited in February 1942. John was promoted in March and assigned as Air Defense/Sky Control Officer, making him an assistant to the ship’s Gunnery Officer. Finally in June 5, 1942, the North Carolina together with six destroyers and three air craft carriers sailed along the East Coast, through the Panama Canal, and towards California. Just before the ship reached San Francisco, John was sworn in as Lieutenant Commander.
John and Eleanor spent a week together in San Francisco before the North Carolina left July 5 for Pearl Harbor. On the trip, John began writing his Fire Control Officer’s Manual, a reference for training gun crews and especially in using the five-inch battery effectively in battle. Ten days after the ship arrived at Pearl Harbor, the North Carolina joined a Task Force made up of sixty-three ships headed for the Solomon Islands in the South Pacific. John was within 100 miles of the Japanese-controlled Guadalcanal.
On August 7, 1942 the North Carolina screened the aircraft carriers USS Enterprise, Saratoga, and Wasp and the marine landings on the Solomon’s and Tulagi. On August 24 after John gave the “commence firing” order, the North Carolina shot down seven Japanese planes. John later received his first Bronze Star for his work as Air Defense Commander during the battle.
On September 15, 1942 following the Battle of the Eastern Solomon’s, the North Carolina was struck by a torpedo from a Japanese submarine. Damaged, the ship sailed to Pearl Harbor for repairs. During the return voyage, John learned that his Fire Control manual had been bound and would be made available for the entire fleet.
After its repairs, the North Carolina sailed to New Caledonia, east of Australia, and remained in the area throughout December 1942 before returning again to Pearl Harbor in March 1943. Around this time, John’s father-in-law, Mack Blake, began Kirkpatrick & Bale, Inc. as an oil exploration firm. On May 19, 1943, the firm was incorporated.
Between November and February 1944, John’s ship joined part in retaking much of the Solomon Islands and the Marshall Islands from the Japanese. He was also promoted to Commander and 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. Before the assignment, John was given a thirty-day-leave. It would be the first time in nearly two years that he had seen his wife and daughter.
Although John had to begin his duty on Oahu on June 1, 1944, he was able to return briefly stateside in July where he met with Eleanor in Point Montara, California during a three-day gunnery conference. It marked the last time John and Eleanor saw each other until the end of the war. John returned to Oahu working with lifelong friends including Clay Ross, C. H. “Nick” Seger, and Richard C. “Dick” Walker.
In addition, John completed his second gunnery manual, this one focused on gun sights for submarines. According to the Bronze star awarded to John for his work, the new sights increased the accuracy and contributed to the overall success of submarine warfare in the Pacific. A Combat “V” and Gold Star were added to the medal to show commendations John received with the award.
In December 1944, John reunited with his younger brother Claude whose crew came to the Anti-Aircraft Training Center. In January 1945, 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.
In October 1946 John was named senior battalion commander of Oklahoma City’s Naval Reserve unit. He worked, together with the other battalion commander, Clay Ross, to upgrade the reserve facilities and increasing its recruitment. John oversaw the opening of a Naval Reserve training center in 1948. He was promoted in August 1951 to Captain and in 1955 to Rear Admiral just before his retirement from the Reserves.
The origin of the Kirkpatrick Oil Company dates to the 1920’s when Eleanor’s father, Mack Blake, purchased oil and gas royalties in Gray County, Texas and Reno County, Kansas. Mack hired Kirkpatrick & Bale, Inc. to drill on a 160-acre farm he had originally bought near Pampa, Texas in 1926. Twenty years later, John enjoyed success with the first four wells drilled there. Soon, the company developed wells throughout western Oklahoma and parts of northwest Texas.
In 1946 Eleanor’s father Mack Blake died. John’s partnership with Hubert Bale lasted throughout the war and up until 1950 when John moved out on his own with the newly named Kirkpatrick Oil Company. As the business grew, other opportunities arose: Kirkpatrick Supply, Kirkpatrick Well Servicing, Jennings Engine Supply, and Kirkpatrick Oil & Gas were formed. 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.
Into the 1950’s, 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.
In January 1947, John was voted as a director of Liberty National Bank where his father-in-law, Mack Blake, had also served. In 1955, John and Eleanor established the Kirkpatrick Foundation to help other organizations and causes focusing on Oklahoma City and the surrounding area. The family set aside $10,000 initially, and John also used oil and gas leases which would also fund the new Foundation. In 1957, John gave the newly established Foundation nearly $500,000 in stock shares.
In 1959, John organized the Oklahoma Science and Arts Foundation which established the Oklahoma City Planetarium and Oklahoma Science Workshop within the Art Center. In addition, the Kirkpatrick Foundation contributed to over 100 organizations and causes including medical research, educational opportunities in the public schools, improvements in caring for the elderly, and helping children get free dental care.
In July 1957, John’s mother, Claudia Spencer, died at the age of 82 in Green Mountain Falls, Colorado near the family’s cabin. In 1958, the Kirkpatrick Foundation was able to donate $250,000 towards the building of the Oklahoma Art Center on the State Fairgrounds of Oklahoma. Together with Nan Sheets and Eleanor, John oversaw the preliminary drawings for the building which was completed in December 1958 with an exhibit of over 172 pieces from around the world.
On May 10, 1960, John and Eleanor saw their daughter Joan marry Konrad Keesee, and on December 27, 1961 they welcomed in their only grandchild, Christian Keesee. Also in 1961, John co-founded Sooner Tractor Company of Tulsa with his former executive officer at Waianae, Nick Seger. John also organized Kirkpatrick Oil and Gas Company which continued to enjoy success along with other oil-related business ventures he had begun.
Throughout the 1960’s, John and Eleanor’s civic involvement increased. In 1962 John successfully opened the Kirkpatrick Planetarium, larger than the original Oklahoma City one, on the State Fairgrounds. In February 1963 the Oklahoma City Civic Ballet was formed by the Oklahoma Science and Arts Foundation. The Ballet produced its first show, The Nutcracker under the direction of John’s good friends 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. Years later, 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’s involvement with the Oklahoma City Zoo began when he became president of the Oklahoma Zoological Society. Soon after, John began his hands-on work to improve the zoo with updated facilities, new and more exotic animals, and more environments to help preserve and rebuild animal species. In later years, John’s work would be carried forward by his daughter, Joan, whose work through the Kirkpatrick Foundation focused on improving the care of animals and their habitats and funding a collaborative zoological residency program.
While the Zoological Society took up much of John and Eleanor’s time, they continued to help other organizations throughout Oklahoma City. In 1967 John and Eleanor helped to bring James Earl Fraser’s “The End of the Trail” to the National Cowboy Hall of Fame and Western Heritage Center. Later in 1969, John and Eleanor developed the Oklahoma City Community Foundation which allowed for managing philanthropic funds in the area and distributing money in the Oklahoma City community to various 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 met with representatives from Pittsburg, Pennsylvania who were interested in acquiring Liberty National Bank. After considering the amount of work his father-in-law had put into preserving Liberty, John, despite approaching his eighties, was determined to keep Liberty an Oklahoma-owned bank.
At a June 14, 1988 board meeting of the Banks of Mid-America which owned Liberty, John put forward a plan to invest $20,000,000 of his family’s money to capitalize the bank. Within just five months, the remaining capital had been obtained, and Liberty was saved. The energy John put into saving Liberty was again realized when his grandson Chris purchased the American Bancorp of Oklahoma. Years later, Christian changed the American Bank’s name to Kirkpatrick Bank to honor his grandfather.
In November 1993, John turned over Kirkpatrick Oil to his grandson. However, the legacy of John would not be just his success in professional business. Over two hundred nonprofit organizations with growing endowment funds were initiated through the Kirkpatrick’s philanthropic work. Over the years, John received several awards of recognition: Outstanding Oklahoma Oil Man, Governors Arts Award, Oklahoma Humanitarian of the Year from the National Association of Christians and Jews, the American Association of Museums’ Medal for Distinguished Philanthropy Oklahoma Commerce and was inducted into the Industry Hall of Fame and Oklahoma City Public Schools Wall of Fame.
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.