Former Oklahoma State Sen. Earl Garrison has died at age 78. According to a death notice in the Muskogee Phoenix, Garrison died early Monday.
A rancher and former school superintendent, Garrison served 12 years in the Oklahoma State Senate, the duration of which spanned Democrats’ transition from the majority party to the minority party.
Sen. Dewayne Pemberton (R-Muskogee) succeeded Garrison and praised his predecessor in an interview Monday afternoon.
“Earl was always a giant of a man, but he always had that smile on his face and was always friendly and always jovial,” Pemberton said. “He just had a big heart and would do anything he could to help people. Earl was a good person inside and outside.”
Garrison’s wife, Faye, served as Hilldale Elementary School principal when Pemberton was the district’s high school principal.
“He has always been a favorite of the education community,” Pemberton said of Garrison, noting that the former state senator had served as superintendent of Fort Gibson Public Schools and Indian Capital Technology Center.
‘He fought for his beliefs’
Former Sen. Kenneth Corn (D-Howe) served with Garrison from 2002 through 2010.
“Earl Garrison had a heart the size of Oklahoma. He was one of the most caring, compassionate and loving men I have encountered. He brought those values to the State Senate,” Corn said Monday. “Earl was a champion of public education, and it was what drove him to serve. He always called you ‘little brother.’ It was appropriate because he was like an older, wiser brother to all of us that served with him.”
Amber England worked on Senate staff during half of Garrison’s tenure and said he impressed her in many ways.
“Sen. Garrison certainly knew he had big boots to fill because (his predecessor) Sen. Ben Robinson was so beloved in Muskogee. But Sen. Garrison stepped in and filled those boots tremendously,” England said. “He was super passionate about education issues, having been a former superintendent. He fought for his beliefs — specifically when it came to education — even within his own caucus.”
England said Garrison “stood his ground, even if that meant bucking leadership.”
“He came in at a time when there was a lot of seniority in the caucus, and he was a freshman coming in having bold conversations with people in power. I respected him for that,” she said. “He was always a very kind man, and when you think of rural Oklahoma and someone who cares about people and transcends partisan politics, that was Sen. Garrison.”
Former Sen. Ron Justice (R-Chickasha) echoed Corn, England and Pemberton.
“We knew many farmers and ranchers in the same area,” said Justice, who now works for the Oklahoma Farm Bureau. “Even though I was from the other part of the state, I had worked in that area years ago so we had common friends.”
Justice and Garrison served the same 12-year period in the Oklahoma State Senate.
“So I considered Sen. Garrison a good friend. We had coffee together many times. I respected his opinion, and he truly worked hard at trying to represent the people in his district,” Justice said. “He always looked forward to the weekend when he could get back to his farm because he enjoyed going out and looking at the cattle and spending some time with his son.”
Former Sen. Randy Bass (D-Lawton) said he found it “an honor and a privilege” to work with Garrison.
“Oklahoma has lost a great man today. My deepest sympathies go out to his family,” Bass said. “He was a man that truly cared about Oklahoma and always spoke from his heart. He became like a brother to me. In fact, when we parted in person or on the phone, his last words were always, ‘Love you, brother.’ And I would say to Earl, ‘Love you, too, brother.’ Hearing those words and his friendship are what I will miss the most.”
Norman PD pushes back on innuendo of media reports
Garrison’s death comes less than a week after former Sen. Jonathan Nichols (R-Norman) died of a gunshot wound at his home. National media published brief articles connecting Nichols’ death to the shooting death of a former state senator in Arkansas named Linda Collins-Smith, despite statements from the Norman Police Department to the contrary.
“As of Friday when I spoke with investigators, they said they have no reason to believe this is connected to the Arkansas case,” Norman Police Department public information officer Sarah Jensen told NonDoc on Monday afternoon.
After hearing of Garrison’s death, some in the Capitol community worried that national media might allude to his passing in the same way.
“There’s no conspiracy to this passing for sure,” Pemberton said. “People like their conspiracies. They like to put two and two together and get six, but I’m not into all that, to be honest with you.”
Pemberton said Garrison had been in poor health for some time.
“I know he’s had a lot of health issues, especially since he had that stroke a few years back before he got out of the Senate,” Pemberton said. “I was surprised (by his death), but I was not overly surprised because I had heard his health had been failing for the last several months.”
Like England, Corn and Justice, Pemberton called Garrison “a good man.”
“He’ll be greatly missed by family and friends and the education community because he’s kind of a pillar in the education community over here,” Pemberton said.
(Update: This story was updated at 9:12 p.m. Monday, June 10, to include comments from Bass.)