Walking across the graduation stage in 1966, Carlisle Mabrey III grasped a University of Oklahoma diploma commending a degree in History. It was a hard-earned degree for Mabrey given that state history wasn’t taught in Oklahoma high schools during the late ‘50s and early ‘60s when he was a student at Okmulgee High School. Yet, that interest in History lay dormant as Mabrey’s path took him in a different direction.
A post-graduate Law degree led Mabrey to military service in the Air Force JAG corps, and a career in Banking saw Mabrey work his way up to take charge of the family business with Mabrey Bank. Fifty-six years and a lifetime full of accomplishments later, the undergraduate History degree remained nothing more than a memory and a wall decoration for Mabrey until a call from the Governor’s office earlier this year.
A spot was opening on the Board of Trustees for the Oklahoma Historical Society, and Governor Kevin Stitt thought Mabrey would be a good fit due to his relationship with other board members and his long career in local business. While he didn’t realize it until after receiving the appointment, the opportunity came at the perfect time for Mabrey, and it instantly reignited the strong interest in the history of Oklahoma.
“I wasn’t serving on any Board at that particular time,” said Mabrey. “The call from the Governor’s office came when I was maybe looking for something like that. I talked to my wife, Ellen, and she said she thought it was a perfect fit with my natural interest in history. I actually had a chance to thank Governor Stitt in person [at the annual Boots, Bandanas & BBQ event in October]. We had a nice 10-15-minute conversation.”
At Pawnee Bill Ranch and Museum in Pawnee, Okla. during last month’s quarterly OHS Board meeting, Mabrey III was officially sworn in as a Board Member. It was a fitting locale for Mabrey, who is discovering and re-learning the stories and intricacies of Oklahoma history. The Board met at Pawnee Bill’s Big Barn, once a stable where Gordon William Lillie, also known as “Pawnee Bill”, kept his horses for his “Wild West” touring shows.
The Museum is one of several sites throughout the state that the OHS has either built, maintained or preserved through its efforts to showcase and teach Oklahoma history. As a member of the OHS Board, Mabrey not only will help the Society secure and distribute funding for its current sites and projects across the state, but also hopefully spark a passion of history in others.
“I am just very interested to find out about these historical locations across the state,” said Mabrey. “Pawnee Bill’s Museum and Ranch has such an interesting history, and the site is well done. But Pawnee by itself can’t raise enough money to keep that going. The Historical Society’s funds are stretched to do everything it wants to do. I think some of our efforts will be trying to help secure more funds from legislature to add more places that preserve our history, but we also need funding to manage what we have right now.”
Part of preserving the state’s rich history is digitizing it to make it easily accessible to all. It’s a massive undertaking for the OHS and is still a work in progress. In its current state, “The Gateway to Oklahoma” has over 4 million files now accessible and has been used over 10 million times since its launch in 2012. Newspapers, magazines, photographs, maps and documents all are free and available through The Gateway.
“[Preserving history digitally] was one of our agenda items at our last meeting,” said Mabrey. “The Historical Society talked about how much that they’ve done, and of course it takes time and money to keep doing it. But, what it does is it makes all that history accessible to anybody, anywhere. Before you had to go to the Historical Society and dig through paper records to find what you wanted. The Historical Society is dedicating quite a bit of resources and time to continue doing that. Hopefully, it can be a deal where all of that history on Oklahoma is available to people worldwide.”
While Mabrey works on getting his feet wet and contributing to the Historical Society, he and his family have played a part in writing and shaping Oklahoma history as well. A quick search for “Carlisle Mabrey” on The Gateway shows 43 matching results across 11 different decades, a testament to Mabrey being the third in his family lineage to carry that name. It’s more than just mentions in newspaper articles however, Mabrey has served the state and its citizens through his work on several banking Boards, as a former chairman of the United Way, a trustee at Philbrook Museum and now on the Board at the Oklahoma Historical Society.
On the local government side, Mabrey followed in his great-grandfather’s footsteps to become the mayor of Okmulgee and oversaw the city’s efforts to restore the Creek Council House, a National Historic Landmark which is now run by the Muscogee (Creek) Nation as a Museum. To Mabrey though, the history of Oklahoma is more than just the physical monuments that are left behind.
“We tend to mark what has happened in our state with museums or markers, and we all enjoy using those to learn,” said Mabrey. “But, I want to make sure we preserve what really matters. It’s the people. When we travel and meet people who have been to Oklahoma, they all say how amazed they are by how friendly and accepting the people in Oklahoma are. That we respect all people and preserve that. I think that’s an Oklahoma trait.”
That mindset shows how Mabrey views his legacy. As the patriarch of a family with a last name and a business that is so intertwined in the annals of Oklahoma, Mabrey sees the value in ensuring more than just history is passed down.
“My wife and I have always felt like our legacy is our children,” said Mabrey. “That’s where a little part of you lives on. It was always important to us to rear our children properly. That’s our real legacy. The buildings, the bank, all of that is fine, but what people will remember of us is through our children, and my wife has been a wonderful mother.”
Each generation of Mabrey carries that legacy through their work at Mabrey Bank. For nearly 100 years, the bank has been a vital resource to the people of rural and urban Oklahoma. The friendly faces and warm experiences customers remember when visiting a Mabrey branch are a direct by-product of the culture and commitment that the Mabrey family has installed through the more than 270 Team Members which call working at Mabrey Bank a career.
“Building a business like Mabrey Bank takes so many people,” said Mabrey. “We have been lucky to have hired so many great people, and we have been fortunate they have stayed with us. We try to give them the tools and freedom they need to do their job properly, just like with our kids. You give them roots, and you give them wings. We have tried to do that with our employees. That’s our other legacy with the bank – having a workforce and associates that people in our communities know, respect and enjoy.”
Fittingly, while Mabrey sets his sights on Oklahoma’s history with the Historical Society, he has also contemplated doing the same with his own history. After a distinguished career incorporating military service, law, politics and banking, Mabrey has begun to also look backward rather than only forward.
“My focus has always been on ‘what are we going to do tomorrow,’ instead of ‘what did we do yesterday,’” said Mabrey. “While history is very important to me, I never have spent a lot of time looking back. After semi-retiring, some people have suggested I write a book about the history of the family and the bank. That’s the first time I thought much about that, so I may be reflecting on that when it comes time to write, because I have always enjoyed writing.”
Until that time comes though, Mabrey will be hard at work putting his History degree to good use with the Oklahoma Historical Society. Whether its learning more about Pawnee Bill’s Wild West shows or diving into the settling of Oklahoma through the land runs of the 1800s, Mabrey is enjoying his new position as a Board Member for the OHS.
“There is no other state like Oklahoma,” said Mabrey. “It has been a wonderful place to live and rear a family.”