Henry Winkler, Emmy-winning actor, director, producer and New York Times best-selling author, inspired more than 370 attendees at OBU’s eighth annual Green and Gold Gala Tuesday evening, March 3, at the Bricktown Events Center in Oklahoma City. The Gala raises funds for student scholarships at OBU and showcases how an OBU education transforms students’ lives as they, in turn, impact the world.
The event was emceed by John Holcomb, OBU alumnus and sports director of KOTV the News On 6 in Tulsa. He was recently named the 2019 Oklahoma Sportscaster of the Year, his fourth time to win the honor. Holcomb spoke about the impact OBU made on his life and how he is now the proud parent of a current OBU student.
OBU students were featured throughout the evening, with performances by the Bison Jazz Orchestra and True Voice, an auditioned vocal ensemble of mixed voices, both from the Warren M. Angell College of Fine Arts. Student Misael Gonzalez, a senior biblical and theological studies major, offered the invocation. Alumna McKenzie Reece, class of 2019, was featured in a moving video showcasing her transformation while a student at OBU and her life now as an aspiring Broadway performer in New York.
Dr. Heath Thomas, OBU president, and Dr. Will Smallwood, senior vice president for advancement and university relations, presented the Presidential Leadership Award to Steve and Jeanetta Bagwell and Vision Bank. The award is presented annually in recognition of exemplary leadership and support for Christian higher education.
The Bagwells were recognized for many years of supporting OBU, gifting their time and expertise to advance the vision and mission of the University. Jeanetta, a 1988 alumna, has served OBU as a trustee, through the OBU alumni association board, and as a founding member of the Women of Vision giving circle advisory board. Steve likewise served as a member of the OBU Board of Trustees, and as president and chief lending officer of Vision Bank, has led the bank to support numerous capital projects and programs, including student scholarships, athletics, and the Green and Gold Gala. Vision Bank likewise served as a key partner in constructing the Jane E. and Nick K. Stavros Hall, home to the OBU College of Nursing.
Thomas then shared remarks about the transformative power of an OBU education and how scholarships make that possible for so many students.
“Scholarships provide a way for an affordable, world-class, Christian liberal arts education for students who otherwise might not be able to afford it,” he said. “In only eight years, the Gala has become an ongoing scholarship resource for our students, a much anticipated University tradition, and an all-around great time. What you invest in our students will make a difference for their lives, for our university and for our communities.”
“OBU is a special place with a wonderful story. Like many prospective students, I was captured when I came here for the first time on a campus visit. My life and my trajectory, the very trajectory of my future, was eternally transformed because of my time on Bison Hill. But my story is not unique. For more than a century, OBU has transformed the lives of thousands of students who, in turn, impact their world.”
Thomas noted that each year, OBU provides more than $32 million in student scholarships, allowing students to receive the life-changing, transformational education found on Bison Hill.
“Our society, our country, our world needs OBU students more than ever before. Students who understand what it is to think, to work, to live in a way that is good for our communities and good for our world. Students who live worthy of the high calling of God in Christ. Students who are leaders in their industries and exemplars in their work.”
Following dinner, Winkler took the stage, sharing his story, from growing up in New York as the son of German immigrant parents, to his five decades of success in acting, directing, writing and more, all while overcoming personal learning challenges. Growing up, he dreamed of making it in Hollywood but received very little encouragement, at home or at school.
“I was told I would never get there because my grades were so low, because I flunked everything. I was bad in math. I was bad in English. I was bad in science,” he said. “All I wanted was to be an actor and all I was told was that I would never make it.”
Following high school, he attended the drama school at Yale University. After beginning to earn money in the repertory theatre, he started to dream bigger. He went to New York and made it into commercials. In 1973, he flew to Hollywood and got a job on the “Mary Tyler Moore Show.” Soon after that, he auditioned at Paramount Studios for the role that would change his life. He landed a part on a new show called “Happy Days” playing the iconic character Fonzie.
He became a star seemingly overnight and began receiving gifts and letters from fans. One fan sent him a metal cutting that said, “If you will it, it is not a dream.” That expression hit home for Winkler and became his mantra.
“I finally realized those were just not beautiful words,” he said. “It actually made the world go round. Your will changes the course of your whole life. If you will it, it is no longer a dream.”
He spoke more about his parents and compared their relationship with him against the role all parents should play in encouraging their children.
“I did not need them to be proud of me when I figured out how to do what my dream was. I did not need them to be proud of me when I figured out how to start my road to success. I needed them to be proud of me when everything was confusing, when I couldn’t figure it out, when I needed support.”
When Winkler was 31, he was helping his stepson, Jed, with a report on the Hopi tribe. The family traveled on vacation to meet members of the tribe and learn about them as part of Jed’s project.
When Jed tried to write his report, he struggled to put anything down on paper. Winkler recalls that despite urging him on in every way they could think of, Jed just couldn’t do it. Suspecting a learning challenge, they had him tested. Winkler quickly realized that he, too, had the same learning challenge that Jed did.
“We had him tested, and everything that they said to Jed was true about me. I had something with a name. At 31, I found out I was dyslexic, and I finally defined dyslexia for myself. You spend a third of your time trying to figure out school. You spend a third of your time trying to figure out why you cannot figure it out. And you spend a third of your time covering your shame and humiliation.”
This experience led him to ultimately become an author, writing books for children about learning challenges.
He also shared about developing a passion for fly fishing. He had long wanted to try it, but put it off out of fear and apprehension. This led him to learn a valuable lesson.
“You don’t know what you can accomplish until you put one foot in front of the other,” he said. “I changed my mantra to ‘I will try,’ because the world opens like a flower if you try. If you use your power.”
“I say to every child that I ever meet in the universe, whether they understand me or not, whether they want to hear it, or not. ‘You’ve got greatness inside you and your job is to figure out what your gift is, dig it out, and give it to the world, because everybody cannot wait to see who you become.’”
Winkler closed with an inspiring charge to the audience.
“You all have greatness, and it’s your job to figure out what your greatness is, dig it out and give it to this community, to your state, to our country, because we need every single one of you to be who you are. And you start where you are. It doesn’t matter where you are. That’s where you start. It doesn’t matter if you think, ‘Oh, I should have done this earlier. Oh, I think I’m going to wait until then. Start now.’”
Winkler is known worldwide for his portrayal of ‘The Fonz’ for 10 seasons on Happy Days, winning two Golden Globe Awards for Best Actor in a Comedy Series, and earning three Emmy nominations in the same category. He has enjoyed a highly successful Hollywood career for five decades, starring in numerous films, including “Here Comes the Boom,” “The Waterboy,” “Click,” and “Scream.” He currently co-stars as acting teacher Gene Cousineau on the hot HBO dark comedy Barry. The role garnered him an Emmy Award for the Best Supporting Actor in a Comedy in 2018.
Winkler has co-authored children’s novels with Lin Oliver, including, “Hank Zipzer. The World’s Greatest Under-Achiever” and their newest series “Alien Superstar.” In 2011, he wrote, “I Never Met an Idiot on the River,” a collection of the lessons and photos he gathered while fly fishing in Montana. His own challenges with learning led him to send a message to children coping with their own learning difficulties, that, “no matter how you learn, it has nothing to do with your brilliance. You have greatness inside of you.” Winkler and his wife Stacey have three children and five grandchildren, and they reside in Los Angeles.
For 110 years, OBU has impacted the world, through a close-knit community of faith that inspires academic and personal excellence. U.S. News and World Report has rated OBU one of the top 10 regional colleges in the West for 28 consecutive years. Forbes.com consistently ranks OBU as a top university in Oklahoma, and the Princeton Review has named OBU one of the best colleges and universities in the western United States for 15 consecutive years.
With a decade of strong enrollment, OBU welcomed students this fall from 35 states and 34 countries. Every new student receives a guaranteed minimum $7,000 annually in tuition assistance. Without scholarships, these students might never have the opportunity to receive the life-changing education OBU offers. Events like the Green and Gold Gala help the University achieve this mission and help students find their place both at OBU and in the world.