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'Living memorial' to honor Cherokee Purple Heart recipients, other veterans, while capturing their stories

TAHLEQUAH — As he lay there in the rice paddy mud, life ebbing away from four bullet wounds, Don Nichols resorted to something he normally would not have.

He started praying.

“I wasn’t raised necessarily to go to church,” he said. “But I told the Lord ‘if you let me live, I’ll do something for you.’”

The 19-year-old Marine, who’d been wounded in an enemy ambush, didn’t have to wait long for a response.

Rescued shortly after, he received medical care just in time to save his life.

Nichols never forgot his promise to God. Over the years, he’s tried to keep it by serving his fellow veterans. Most recently, it’s been through a project that he hopes will live on well after him.

A memorial — for all veterans, but dedicated to Cherokee Nation Purple Heart recipients — is currently in the works at the studio of Cherokee sculptor Troy Jackson.

Expected to be completed for dedication in November 2020, the outdoor memorial will have a permanent home in Tahlequah at a site near Muskogee Avenue and Bertha Parker Bypass.

The memorial will come with a modern twist: Using their smartphone’s QR scanner, visitors will be able to access videos of veterans telling their stories.

“We’re calling it a ‘living memorial,’ ” said Nichols, commander of the Tahlequah chapter of the Military Order of the Purple Heart.

“It’s for this and future generations. We’ll start with a few interviews, but add more. We want to be capturing the stories of veterans 20 or 30 years from now.”

Nichols said the plan is to start reaching out to veterans through local service organizations soon about being interviewed. The interviews will be collected in an online database, and accessed through an app.

“I don’t think there’s anything else like it in the U.S.,” he added. “And we hope as word gets out, it will draw people from around the country.”

Nichols worked for 30 years for the state Department of Veterans Affairs and is a former national officer for the Military Order of the Purple Heart.

He’s met a lot of veterans through his work, he said — “World War II veterans, Korea, code talkers, POWs.”

“And I’ve heard some amazing stories. I always thought it was too bad other people couldn’t hear them, too.”

‘Daily remembrance’

The 14-foot-tall bronze memorial depicts two warriors on the battlefield, one who’s been wounded, the other signaling for a medical helicopter.

The concept, which Jackson came up with, hits close to home for Nichols.

On Sept. 14, 1966, he found himself in exactly the position of the wounded man.

A self-described “country boy” from near Morris, Nichols hadn’t been in Vietnam long when, while serving as pointman for his patrol unit, he was caught in an enemy ambush.

Cut down almost immediately by artillery fire, three of Nichols’ four wounds were life-threatening, he said.

“One hit me in the hip and shattered my pelvis. Another one in the right leg severed an artery,” he said.

However, the worst was the shot to the chest, he said.

Like the wounded man in the memorial, Nichols was aided by comrades and evacuated by helicopter.

Jackson said his goal is that the memorial will serve as a “daily remembrance” of what veterans like Nichols have done for the country.

“This freedom we enjoy did not come easy,” he said.

So far, fundraising for the project has brought in $106,000, which will cover the cost of the memorial. Nichols said they are seeking another $24,000 for the base on which it will sit.

Jackson, who was named a Cherokee National Treasure in 2018, did a previous project with Nichols — a bust of late Medal of Honor recipient Jack C. Montgomery which is at the Cherokee Nation Veterans Service Center.

After that one, “we decided wouldn’t it be great if we could do something to honor all veterans,” Jackson said.

Nichols emphasized that, although dedicated to Cherokee Nation Purple Heart recipients, the memorial “is for all veterans — native or non-Native Americans” and their stories.

“Something I’ve always wanted to do is capture these stories,” he said. “Now, the technology is there to do it.”


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Black Friday has local retailers seeing green

Neither nagging rain nor see-your-breath cold could keep Lululemon shoppers from their appointed rounds Friday in Brookside.

About 70 people had wrapped around the apparel store’s front entrance shortly after its 9 a.m. opening. Because of the shop’s limited capacity, patrons were admitted in waves.

“We didn’t make it for the first cut, so we have to wait and hope that there are things still left on the rack,” said Angela Bizzarri of Omaha, Nebraska.

Bizzarri was among the thousands in Tulsa who took part in Black Friday, when retailers traditionally offer their deepest discounts of the Christmas shopping season.

An estimated 114.6 million people nationally are expected to search for gifts on Black Friday, 66.6 million on Small Business Saturday and 33.3 million on Sunday, according to a an annual survey by the National Retail Federation and Proper Insights & Analytics. The shopping weekend will conclude on Cyber Monday, when 68.7 million folks are expected to capitalize on online bargains.

Bizzarri was in Tulsa shopping with her two teenage children, Bizzarri’s sister, Hillary Keely, and her daughter.

“We have children that are determined that they need the Lululemon specials that are supposedly on the other side of these doors,” Bizzarri said. “It’s expensive but it wears well. It seems to be the trend for men as well as women.”

The group arrived in Brookside after a stop at Woodland Hills.

“This is where they wanted to go more than any other place,” Bizzarri said.

Mitch Renberg shared that sentiment. He was at Lululemon with a group that included his sister, 12-year-old daughter and niece.

“The clothes really do hold up well and last forever,” he said just after being summoned to head inside. “I’d wear them.

“Plus, they are trendy and they’re in style. They are what all the kids want.”

Just down the street, Urban Outfitters advertised a buy-one-get-one-50% off sale. It opened Friday two hours earlier than usual.

“We started kind of gearing up at 8 a.m.,” said Monique Wehrspann, store manager. “This is a good block party for us. It will start getting busier around the lunchtime hour.”

The Urban Outfitters’ sale extends through Monday, she said.

“On days like Black Friday, you’ll see a lot more traffic in the Tulsa Hills area or at Woodland Hills,” Wehrspann said. “We do compete with them.

“But we’ll start to see those people in the afternoon. They go out and do all their big-box, chain shopping and then come here.”

Customers began filing into Ida Red, billed as Oklahoma’s general store, as soon as it opened its Brookside venue at 10 a.m.

“Our biggest thing is Small Business Saturday, obviously,” said Maggie Donoho, general manager. “But this is like the beginning of our season. It’s kind of like when the ball starts rolling, where you are out of control.

“The great thing is we do have a lot of other big-box retailers like Urban (Outfitters) and Lululemon. They wait in line for those stores, and then we either kind of get the overflow from that or once they are done shopping and getting those deals, they will shop around in these areas. It’s nice to have the mix of local with big-box people. I feel like we legitimize them and they legitimize us in a way. It’s a good give-and-take.”

Over on Cherry Street, patrons frequented shops such as Rustic Cuff and Modern Cottage. If they had gems in mind, Bruce G. Weber had an assortment to choose from.

“The last couple of weeks (before Christmas), that’s when we’re the busiest,” said Store Director Michelle Holdgrafer, alluding to the store’s lack of bustle shortly after its opening. “If we were doing everything at 50% off, I’m sure we’d have a line outside the door.”

Only 36% of people said they planned to do most of their holiday shopping on Black Friday, down from 51% just three years ago, according to a survey by PricewaterhouseCoopers. Helping get people in Bruce G. Weber on Friday were items such as hoops, pendants and bracelets that cost $150 or less.

“That’s kind of our Black Friday thing,” Holdgrafer said. “As we get closer to the big holiday, it just kind of ramps up.”


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'Superbowl' of BMX racing returns with anticipation for new Tulsa facilities

Amid high fives and pictures, Donny Robinson offered encouragement and tips Friday to some of the youngest among the next generation of BMX racers.

The Olympic bronze medalist and director of the BMX Racing League was posted up at the River Spirit Expo for the USA BMX GoPro Grand Nationals. Professional BMX racers from more than 47 states and 21 countries and the fastest amateur riders are competing here through Sunday.

USA BMX held its first Grand Nationals in Tulsa in 1983, and Expo Square has been host to the event every year since 1998.

Robinson has spent 26 of his past 28 Thanksgiving holidays in Oklahoma for the “Superbowl” of BMX racing, and he wouldn’t have it any other way. He’s excited for the Olympic-quality track coming to Tulsa in 2021 with a long-awaited BMX facility north of downtown. The nearby Sand Springs BMX track will mean a range of accessibility from beginner to Olympic athlete that Robinson said is all he could have wanted when he was just starting out.

“People still like riding bikes; they love doing it on our BMX tracks,” Robinson said. “To give them the opportunity to do it for fun or eventually as an Olympic sport, not many people get that opportunity.”

The new track is expected to have a 2,000-seat outdoor arena with a roof, next to USA BMX’s new headquarters and hall-of-fame museum. For now, however, BMX spectators and competitors are soaking up the grand national’s unique aura at Expo Square.

“It is so lively,” said 26-year-old Jake Shepherd, a first-time grand nationals competitor from near Seattle. “I’ve been so happy. It’s a really great vibe. The energy is through the roof.”

Michael Schonheri of Nowata had a seat staked out in the front of the bleachers with family. He was watching his 12-year-old niece ride at the event for the first time. As a new fan, he said the atmosphere is exciting and should only grow with the future developments in Tulsa.

“I think it’s going to blow up big and be a lot bigger than it is now,” Schonheri said, adding how impressed he was with each team’s setups in the expansive pit area. “This is great, and bringing it to Tulsa is amazing.”

His niece, Tierra Nelson, was thankful for the family-like relationship among competitors. She said she had crashed multiple times but continued to receive encouragement.

“It’s not just about winning,” Tierra said. “It’s about having fun with other people.”

And Tulsa’s burgeoning entertainment footprint is offering more incentive for families to travel to middle America.

Cari Herrera brought her family from Utah to Tulsa this year for the second time. A year ago the family enjoyed Gathering Place and talked all year about returning, although rain so far had postponed those plans.

Ryleigh, her 11-year-old daughter, competed all year across the country in preparation for the biggest races in Tulsa. Along the way they’ve made friends from all over that they get to see here in a central location.

“We love coming out here,” Herrera said.

Broc Vierzba, seated on his bicycle as he watched other racers go by, said he felt Tulsa’s embrace as soon as he landed.

“You get off the airplane and it says, ‘Greatest Race on Earth’ — there’s stickers on the floor,” said the 37-year-old from Minneapolis. “It’s pretty cool. It’s like wow, you figured you’d show up and nobody knows anything. It’s kind of a big deal.”

Robinson, who captured his Bronze medal in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, said Tulsa and Oklahoma have been so welcoming and accepting of BMX racing, with the city serving as the sport’s epicenter since 1997.

“We have our hub down in San Diego — the Olympic training center — so all of the Olympic teams up until now have kind of trained down there,” Robinson said. “But for Tulsa to be that place now moving forward, that’s special because Tulsa meant so much to our sport for so long because of the grand nationals.”


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