By Patrick B. McGuigan
Odilia Dank, whose funeral service was held last Saturday, was a key player in the advance of school choice, right-to-work, legislative transparency and a host of other reforms in the Sooner State.
The first Republican to chair a legislative committee on education, her niche in Oklahoma history, including the rise of the GOP, is secure. On certain causes, including government transparency, editorialists at The Oklahoman respectfully deemed her “An Army of One.”
An Ohio native, she taught at Casady, Oklahoma City’s most elite private college preparatory school – and for decades in local public schools.
Her political gifts were many, manifested in abilities to combine substantive positions on policy issues that mattered with grace in personal relations.
My wife and I met Odilia as she first campaigned in House District 85, seeking to replace a young legislator named Mary Fallin, who had decided to run for lieutenant governor (both ladies won their elections that year). Our initial encounter came when Dank reached our house, walking door-to-door across the district.
As years passed, we joked that even if we didn’t make it to the same events, we would catch up with Mrs. Dank the next time she sat with us on the porch or in the shade of a tree, talking about policy, and about life. She regularly visited public and private school classrooms, answering questions with grace and patience.
She was the legislator most responsible for humiliating leaders in both parties to end – reluctantly — the ancient legislative tradition of circulating final language of important bills minutes before legislators had to vote.
In colorful but proper language, she described to voters and reporters what it was like to have a bill handed to you – “literally still warm from the photocopier” – and have to cast a vote. They don’t do that any more, thanks to Odilia and the courts, and the public interest is better served as a result.
She was a quiet player in a group of a dozen, both public officials and private citizens, who met regularly in the 1990s to discuss ways to advance the right-to-work.
An old expression fit her – “when Odilia talks, people listen” – as she shared who might be “reachable” among Democrats, who was bravest among Republicans, and who was best positioned to carry this or that amendment or maneuver for the cause.
Others later got, or took, public credit for work she did to press the right-to-work ideal forward in a reluctant Republican legislative caucus, in a body still controlled by Democrats.
She never worried over renown for her quiet role in that band of sisters and brothers. Members of that group self-referenced as “we few, we happy few,” even as the ranks of allies increased after the 2000 elections to include bi-partisan legislative majorities.
On the night returns showed voters had approved the right-to-work amendment, in September 2001, no one was happier than Odilia Dank, and her husband David.
Dank transformed Oklahoma education policy, when she worked with members of both parties to pass the laws creating charter schools.
During a two-year stint teaching at a charter school, I worked with Rep. Dank to organize a day for students, faculty and parents to visit the state Capitol. She arranged a busy day for our group representing a dozen pioneering charters.
At the last minute, she was unable to introduce our youngsters to colleagues during a House session, and asked state Rep. Kevin Cox, a liberal Democrat who admired her, to fill in. He did, in a moment of grace.
Other measures she nurtured included a House commendation for the first combat medic to reach Baghdad airport in Operation Iraqi Freedom. Then, she attended the homecoming party for PFC Stefan McGuigan at Our Lady’s Cathedral, his home church in Oklahoma City, staying in touch after he suffered severe injuries in a motorcycle accident.
Odilia somehow memorized the name of everyone in our extended family. That was another example of grace, and — given our number of voters — damn good politics.
Her seat deftly passed, after term limits, to her husband, who has continued to build the Dank legacy.
Odilia Dank was tender and tough, feminine and firm. She was a diamond in the legislative rough, a role model in personal relationships, a graceful lady and indeed an “Army of One” in cause after cause. She made the state, and all those who loved her, better.