BY KEN NEAL
We called her “Bad Penny,” and “Bright Penny,” and she could be both at the same time.
Penny Williams died April 16, leaving an enviable legislative record that spanned 23 years.
She was a very serious lawmaker who was in the forefront of whatever cause or movement that she considered progressive and good for her city and Oklahoma.
One of her major accomplishments included a university consortium for Tulsa at a time when the city had no state supported higher education.
Later, she worked to create the Oklahoma School of Science and Mathematics, even though it was to be located in Oklahoma City. It was typical Penny. She wanted it for Tulsa but did not pout when it was decided otherwise.
She was best known for HB 1017, the 1990 landmark education reform. She was the driving force in the bill that Gov. Henry Bellmon pushed despite opposition from his own Republican Party.
Penny lived to see 1017’s good work destroyed by a string of backward Legislatures that refused to enforce the reform’s progressive requirements. Yet she was upbeat about the future.
The praises of Penny Williams are still coming. Virtually everybody who knew her appreciated her intellect, her determination and her desire to improve life for the people of Oklahoma.
Perhaps her most enduring and endearing quality was her sense of humor. Nobody laughed more at Penny Williams than Penny Williams.
She had the remarkable quality of being your friend even when you opposed her. Always an advocate for education, she sometimes drew opposition for specific programs. But even in opposition she was lovable, funny and persistent.
The members of the Tulsa World editorial board always enjoyed a visit from Penny. Her quick brain sometimes outran her sentences, leading her to constantly interrupt herself with new thoughts.
Some insufferable wag at the World described her visits as “the Marx brothers interviewing Gracie Allen.” She loved it and repeated it often to entertain her wide circle of friends.
Illness slowed her final years, but it did not stop her passion and her good humored observations of Oklahoma politics.
It’s not possible, of course, but I would trade the entire Tulsa County legislative delegation for her.
It’s a cliché, but it’s true: We will miss her.
–Ken Neal is former opinion pages editor of the Tulsa World
Editor’s Note: Tulsan Penny Williams served as a Democratic state senator from 1989-2004 and state representative from 1981-88. A memorial service is set for 2 p.m. Saturday, April 28 at Trinity Episcopal Church in Tulsa.