Michael Wallis, Route 66 expert and author, to be resident historian at Tulsa Historical Society
BY JAMES D. WATTS JR. World Scene Writer
Sunday, February 17, 2013
2/17/13 at 7:32 AM
Michael Wallis puts it this way: "I'm a road guy."
It's an assessment that should come as no surprise to anyone who's read any of the 19 books Wallis has published in his career.
He's written definitive books on this country's two legendary highways: "Route 66: The Mother Road," which earned Wallis a Pulitzer Prize nomination and national fame, and "The Lincoln Highway: Coast to Coast from Times Square to the Golden Gate."
But the concept of the road - whether seeking out the new or trying to escape the past - echo throughout his work, from biographies of outlaws like Charles "Pretty Boy" Floyd and the young man known as Billy the Kid, to books that chronicle Wallis' own travels through the American landscape.
Even his role in the animated film "Cars," as the Sheriff of Radiator Springs, centers around roads and travel.
So perhaps it's a bit incongruous that Wallis will now hold the title of Historian in Residence at the Tulsa Historical Society.
"It's true I'm on the road a lot," Wallis said. "But when my wife, Suzanne, and I first came to Tulsa in 1982, I figured we would be here for just a few years at the most. Now, some three decades later, we're still here.
"That's because Tulsa has been very good to me," he said. "And I hope that I've been good to Tulsa."
Wallis will be officially be welcomed as historian in residence at a private ceremony Thursday at the Tulsa Historical Society, 2445 S. Peoria Ave. The evening will also serve as the opening of an exhibit titled "Songdogs: The Journey of Michael and Suzanne Wallis," that will include examples of some of the memorabilia Wallis has accumulated in the travels necessary to find stories to tell.
"It's not going to be a large exhibit," Wallis said. "It's sort of the story of the journey of our lives, Suzanne and me - these two children of the '60s whose lives gently collided on the campus of the University of Missouri, where she had the miserable duty of trying to teach me Spanish."
The exhibit will include photographs, manuscripts and such items as "Pretty Boy" Floyd's death mask, an axe that D. H. Lawrence used during his time in Santa Fe, N.M., and a baseball autographed by the late Stan Musial.
"I'm not an employee of the Historical Society," Wallis said. "The staff there is rather small, but they're all sharp, energetic people who are doing a great job. I'm just trying to do what I can to boost what they are already doing."
Michelle Place, executive director of the Tulsa Historical Society, said that Wallis will have office space in the Tulsa Tribune Library on the second floor of the Travis Mansion that serves as the home of the Tulsa Historical Society.
"Michael was a great friend of Jenkin Lloyd Jones, who was the editor and publisher of the Tulsa Tribune," Place said. "And the Tribune made it possible for the Historical Society to have the Travis Mansion as its home. So it seemed like a perfect match to have Michael's offices in the Tribune Library."
For Wallis, however, the most important part of his new arrangement with the Tulsa Historical Society is that the society's facility will serve as the headquarters for the Route 66 Alliance, the nonprofit organization that Wallis co-founded to help preserve, promote and enhance the "Mother Road," as well as the cities and towns along its 2,451 miles.
Later this week, Wallis will be traveling to Galena, Kan., one of the few towns in that state through which Route 66 passes, to see how that town has used the "Mother Road" as a way to develop tourism.
"It's really coming back to life," he said, "and we hope to use Galena as a template up and down the route, to show towns they can rejuvenate themselves. We're also working on having Route 66 curriculum in the schools there. Preservation is a main goal, but so is education - we want future generations to understand the importance of Route 66, past, present and future."
Wallis is moving a portion of the research and historical materials he has accumulated over the years to the Tulsa Historical Society. Another portion is held at the library at Oklahoma State University-Tulsa, along with the papers associated with his other books.
"Between these two archives, this should help make Tulsa designated as a major research site for the highway," Wallis said. "There are eight of these along Route 66, usually associated with a university."
Place said Wallis' position as historian in residence will greatly enhance the organization's profile and activities.
"We're also glad to have the Route 66 Alliance here, because I fear that is an aspect of Tulsa's history and culture that we as a city have sort of missed the boat on," Place said. "Tulsa is really where East meets West on Route 66. Cyrus Avery, the father of Route 66, was from Tulsa.
"And so many people who are fascinated by the highway and its history are coming through Tulsa," she said, "it makes sense that there be a place here where these people can stop and experience a bit more of Route 66 past and present."
The original plan for the Route 66 Alliance was that its headquarters would be built at Cyrus Avery Plaza at the corner of Southwest Boulevard and Riverside Drive.
"I was one of the people who urged the city to buy that hill," Wallis said, "and I thought a Route 66 museum would be there by now."
In November, the monumental sculpture "East Meets West," depicting Cyrus Avery in a Model T Ford nearly colliding with a horse-drawn carriage, was installed at the site.
"When I spoke at the dedication of the sculpture," Wallis said, "I took everyone - myself included - to task, because this is the place where an interpretive center on Route 66 belongs.
"Until that gets done," he said, "I'm very glad we have a home at the Tulsa Historical Society."
Original Print Headline: Route 66 expert and author named to historian post at THS
James D. Watts Jr 918-581-8478
Michael Wallis and Michelle Place are seen at an exhibit in the Tulsa Historical Society. Wallis holds the title of the historical society's Historian in Residence. STEPHEN PINGRY/ Tulsa World
Michelle Place and Michael Wallis chat while walking through the Tulsa Historical Society. STEPHEN PINGRY/ Tulsa World