Landlocked and situated more than five hundred miles from the nearest international border, Oklahoma is not typically known for its international ties. Yet the Sooner State is a top destination for foreign students, travelers and companies. Oklahoma-made products are shipped far and wide, stimulating the state’s economy while adding to employment. According to the Oklahoma Department of Commerce’s 2014 Global Report, foreign companies employ more than 48,000 Oklahomans, while the state exported more than $6.3 billion worth of goods and products.
These vital economic metrics are the result of decades’ worth of work by local business and government leaders in raising Oklahoma’s international profile. One such leader was former Governor George Nigh.
Nigh’s focus on building the state’s international ties truly began with his affiliation as a member of the Junior Chamber International. The then-lieutenant governor played a key role in campaigning for Oklahoma City’s role as host for the group’s annual international congress. As both a governmental representative and junior chamber member, Nigh attended international meetings in locales as far flung as Paris and Hong Kong to promote Oklahoma City as a host for the International Jaycees.
“It wasn’t easy because the Jaycees had rules that allowed for only one host city per country,” explained Nigh. “That meant Oklahoma City had to be selected by the junior chamber’s members above everywhere else in America, and then win the international selection process as well.”
With Nigh helping lead the charge, Oklahoma City was selected above major metropolitan areas like Los Angeles and San Juan, Puerto Rico. In 1965, Nigh was one of the participants in the international congress taking place in the heart of Oklahoma City at the Skirvin Hotel. Nigh even arranged for the conference’s official hostess to be Perle Mesta, a member of the Skirvin family and a famous Washington D.C . socialite, former ambassador to Luxembourg and subject of the Broadway musical “Call Me Madam.”
“We had representatives from 70 countries from around the world come to Oklahoma City to attend that conference,” said Nigh. “Getting that international conference held here, that is what got me interested in more international things as they related to Oklahoma.”
He recalled that one of his biggest challenges in building Oklahoma’s international ties, one shared many governors’ who’ve followed Nigh, was trying to put the state’s best foot forward to potential investors abroad while being criticized back home. Legitimate concerns about funding for international delegations often times became muddled with sniping by opponents looking to score easy political points.
Nigh’s experience in drawing multinational company Hitachi to Norman stands out particularly in this regard.
After months of discussions with the Japanese corporation, Nigh and Hitachi’s president reached a tentative agreement that would see the company open a location in Norman. The only condition was that the governor hold on releasing the announcement until the company president had time to present the plan to Hitachi’s board of directors.
“Word got out that I had been in Japan, and someone at The Daily Oklahoman ran an editorial cartoon looking into the cabin of an airplane as I ate rice with chopsticks,” recalled the state’s longest serving governor with obvious disappointment. “Hitachi called me and said that if that is how Oklahoma saw Hitachi, that we could forget about them coming.”
In a last minute bid to save the deal, Nigh boarded an airplane that very night and flew to Japan alone. Meeting with the Hitachi board, Nigh explained the political dynamics at play in the state and the cartoon’s true target.
Said Nigh, “I told them that is not how our state viewed Hitachi, but rather how one newspaper viewed me.”
The governor’s last minute bid proved effective, as Hitachi’s ongoing presence in Norman can affirm.
Nigh found challenges in overcoming misconceptions about the state abroad too, many of which were fueled by the United States greatest export; its popular culture.
“I was at a reception for a trade delegation in Hong Kong where the host came in late, walked by me without introducing himself and took to the podium to say that the only thing he knew about Oklahoma was what he read in ‘The Grapes of Wrath’.”
While he combated misconceptions about the state’s true potential versus the landscape popularized by the Jodes, Nigh credits the association with one native son, Will Rogers, and one play, “Oklahoma!” for presenting the it in a better light.
In fact, Nigh’s association with the latter extends further than his role as the politician responsible for introducing legislation making it the state’s official song. As he tells it, during his participation in a delegation of five U.S. governors touring Japan in 1982, the country’s emperor met each member of the delegation with a hand shake.
“He greeted us individually and said something nice about each state, but didn’t speak more than that initial greeting to any of the other governors. I’m the last one he shakes hands with, and he tells me that when he thinks of Oklahoma, he pictures wheat, cattle and oil,” recalled Nigh. “Then he turns to walk away. But then he turned back to me and says very enthusiastically, ‘Great musical!’.”
The former governor has dozens of stories like this, each told with an enthusiasm about the experience but also for the state that each tale centers on. This unbridled passion for Oklahoma and its potential for connections globally is just one reason why he was awarded the Sister Cities International OKC Global Vision Award in April 2015.
“George Nigh was a visionary in understanding how important international relationships would be for Oklahoma’s future,” said Vicki Clark Gourley, president of Sister Cities OKC in a release regarding the award.
Looking back to where Oklahoma has come from the days when Nigh was first promoting Oklahoma City as a premier destination for the International Jaycees, the Sooner State has benefited greatly from the foresight of its longest serving governor.