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Illinois River ties span a lifetime for two Muskogee boys, John T. Nickel and Dave Whitlock, now 84

TAHLEQUAH — They look a little like a couple of character cast-offs from the movie “Grumpy Old Men” — except these guys are way too happy to have been cast in that Walter Matthau-Jack Lemmon classic.

There are plenty of funny stories between them, most of which center around fishing. But what they call their regular Wednesday visits are meetings of two Oklahomans who have left their mark on their state and the country—if not the world.

John T. Nickel drives to his Caney Creek Ranch in Cherokee County every Wednesday since he moved his family to Tulsa a few years ago. He still has business to attend to on the ranch.

“I have cowboys here I need to talk with and business to do, and I get to see my best friend, Dave, and his wife, Emily,” he said.

His friend is Dave Whitlock. He and Nickel, both 84, were childhood friends in Muskogee. They met when they were 12-year-old schoolmates at Alice Roberston Junior High.

The two boys who used to hike and float and fish the Illinois River, Barren Fork and Caney Creek — and chase chickens and guinea fowl around town to get feathers to tie their crude fishing flies — have come a long way to return home.

Rather than grumpy old guys, these two seem to try consistently to outdo each other with compliments.

“What I’ve done isn’t much compared to what Dave has accomplished,” Nickel said. Making a play on their age — Whitlock was born 9 months earlier, in November 1934 — he said, “I try to follow in Dave’s footsteps.”

Whitlock is an internationally renowned fly fisherman, author of numerous books and magazine articles, an artist, and developer of an in-stream incubator and nursery device for trout and salmon species that has been put to use recovering populations worldwide.

Nickel is founder of Greenleaf Nursery Co. as well as co-creator of some fine Napa Valley wines. At Greenleaf, Nickel developed a system for raising plants in containers and shipping them nationwide, one of the first to do so. It was the birth of a company that would become one of the country’s largest wholesale nursery growers.

He’s also known for his purchase of 14,000 acres in the hills above the Illinois River that he turned over to The Nature Conservancy to create the J.T. Nickel Family Nature Preserve.

Either man could live just about anywhere he likes. They have both traveled the world and lived in other places, but both were drawn back home to the Ozark hills.

As Nickel said, “I just like it out here among the trees and the rocks and the streams.”

Nickel’s purchase of the Caney Ranch coincided with Whitlock’s desire to change his location from the White River and Mountain Home, Arkansas, and change his career focus more to his art and writing than guiding and teaching back about 2005, Nickel said.

The ranch had two homes, and Nickel was loathe to sell off the property with the second home.

The men had not seen each other for years when Nickel’s wife bought a two-day guided trip, “Two Days with Dave Whitlock,” at Mountain Home, he said.

“We kind of reconnected there,” Nickel said. “Then everything just kind of worked out.”

If anyone knows what the Illinois River was like prior to the building of Tenkiller Dam in 1953, these are two who remember it well as one long and winding river. But even with the river changed, developed along its banks and flowing with more pollution than back in their youth, they have the same love for the river they’ve had all along.

“Always when we floated the river, we stopped below the bluff, Goat’s Bluff,” Whitlock said. “That’s just a beautiful spot.”

The bluff is a location Nickel has said he always recalls from his youth that inspired him to purchase the acreage that would become the preserve. He first saw it when he was 10 years old on a float with his father and brother.

It was a different river back then, Whitlock said.

“Before Tenkiller was built, we floated the river and there was a lot more riparian area,” he said. “You could go the whole day and be in the shade with the overhanging trees on both sides.”

Caney Creek, which runs through the ranch that bears its name, was one of the creeks they fished as kids. As grown men, the creek taught them just how difficult it can be to return a stream to its former glory.

They planted trees along its length and tried their best to improve the habitat and halt the erosion tearing away the lush, green riparian areas along that creek, but consecutive floods spoiled their efforts.

“We tried to restore it and spent a lot of money doing it, but Mother Nature just blackened my eye and bloodied my nose,” Nickel said. “Everything was gone. We fixed it again after the first time, but after the second time we gave up.”

It wasn’t a total surrender, however. Nickel said he is using a wide strip of tall Johnson grass along the creek’s banks now to try to minimize the erosion.

Nickel said his observation over the years was that the erosion along the rivers and creeks increased with the return of beavers that cut down shoreline trees; then came the clearing of land for more ranches and houses and business developments, and the problems just grew.

Wide, treeless, gravel bars were not a characteristic of the Illinois or other streams of eastern Oklahoma in the old days, Nickel said.

Fishing was good in the Illinois River back then, and it is still; it’s just different, Whitlock said.

“I’d say it was probably more smallmouth than you’d ever want to catch, and they were all pretty good sized,” he said. “When they built Tenkiller, the smallmouth really dropped off. It seemed like the Neosho (bass) went down into the lake, and once they were there they just never came back up. But it seems like now that population is gradually building back up,” he said.

“It’s still a good river, especially considering all it’s been through,” Whitlock said. “The fishing is still very good, and it’s actually getting better, I think.”

The men still go fishing together on the Illinois, and they plan an annual float trip when the fall colors are at their peak.

In November, Whitlock will be the presenter for his old friend as Nickel is inducted into the Oklahoma Hall of Fame.

“I’ve got some things to say about him nobody knows,” he said with a grin. Then added, “He’s my best friend, and he’s Oklahoma’s best friend. …

“When I grow up, I’m going to be just like John.”

State auditor to look into OETA Foundation's spending in its final days

In its final days of operation, the charitable organization that raised money for public TV in Oklahoma awarded its terminated employees $240,000 in sick pay, renewed computer software subscriptions for a year and filled up gas tanks.

Daphne Dowdy, president of the OETA Foundation, left with more than $700,000 in severance pay and other compensation, records show.

Now, OETA — the state agency that once partnered with the foundation — is questioning whether those final expenses and others were a misuse of funds. On Tuesday, the state auditor will commence an investigative audit of the OETA Foundation because of those concerns.

“It’s a real shame. ... It’s very disheartening,” said former OETA board chairman Garrett King, who asked for the investigative audit.

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Oklahoma's economy may be slowing, new tax data suggests

OKLAHOMA CITY — For the second day in a row, state officials have released tax figures that seem to indicate a slowing of Oklahoma’s economy.

On Friday, Treasurer Randy McDaniel reported that gross sales tax payments to the state treasurer were off in July for a second straight month.

McDaniel also noted that gross production receipts would have been lower if not for rate increases on certain wells.

“Gross receipts continue to generally reflect the expansion that has been ongoing in the state’s economy,” McDaniel said in a news release. “Nonetheless, we are beginning to see indications that a potential slowdown in growth revenue is on the horizon.”

Overall collections are continuing to rise at a healthy pace, with July’s up 9.5% from July 2018.

The flattening of sales tax receipts is troubling, though, because it is one of the state’s two largest revenue sources and by far the most important one for municipalities.

Sales tax receipts were 2.5% less in June than for the same month a year ago and 0.7% less in July.

“We had hoped the reduction in June sales tax collections was an anomaly caused by severe weather damage,” McDaniel said. “However, if that had been the case, we should have seen a rebound in July.”

Gross receipts to the treasury include all taxes paid to the state, including those collected on behalf of local governments and money that will be returned to taxpayers as rebates and refunds.

Gross receipts in July were $1.12 billion, or $97.4 million more than for the same month a year ago. Income tax receipts were 12% higher than a year ago.

Motor vehicle and gross production receipts also increased, as did use tax collections. Other sources, which include medical marijuana, fuel and alcohol taxes, rose by more than one-quarter to $153.7 million.

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El Paso shooting suspect said he targeted Mexicans, authorities say

EL PASO, Texas — The man accused of carrying out last weekend’s deadly mass shooting at a Walmart in the Texas border city of El Paso confessed to officers while he was surrendering and later explained that he had been targeting Mexicans, authorities say.

Patrick Crusius, 21, emerged with his hands up from a vehicle that was stopped at an intersection shortly after last Saturday’s attack and told officers, “I’m the shooter,” Detective Adrian Garcia said in an arrest warrant affidavit.

Crusius later waived his Miranda rights and agreed to speak with detectives, telling them he entered the store with an AK-47 assault rifle and multiple magazines and that he was targeting Mexicans.

Twenty-two people were killed, and about two dozen were injured. Most of the dead had Hispanic last names, and eight were Mexican nationals.

Authorities believe that shortly before the attack, Crusius posted a racist screed online that railed against an influx of Hispanics into the U.S. The document parrots some of President Donald Trump’s divisive rhetoric about immigration, but the writer said his views predate Trump’s rise and that any attempt to blame the president for his actions was “fake news.”

Many El Paso residents, protesters and Democrats have blasted Trump over his incendiary words, blaming Trump for inflaming political and racial tensions throughout the country. Trump has denied stoking division and violence, contending this week that he “brings people together. Our country is doing incredibly well.”

Authorities say Crusius drove more than 10 hours from his hometown near Dallas to carry out the shooting in the largely Latino border city of El Paso. An attorney for the Crusius family, Chris Ayres, told The Associated Press that the rest of the family never heard Patrick Crusius use the kind of racist and anti-immigrant language that was posted in the online screed.

Crusius has been charged with capital murder and is being held without bond. Federal prosecutors have said they are also considering hate-crime charges.

The attack came hours before another mass shooting in Dayton, Ohio, in which nine people were killed. The dual shootings, which killed 31 people in all and wounded dozens more, reignited calls for Congress to take immediate action to reduce gun violence.

Trump said Friday that he believes he has influence to rally Republicans around stronger federal background check laws. But at the same time, Trump said he had assured the National Rifle Association that its gun rights views would be “fully represented and respected.”