The Woodward News

March 30, 2014

Rea recalls a career in history

Rachael Van Horn
Woodward News

— Retirement for some people can begin a transition fraught with a little spell of depression and even grief over the loss of one’s job, which many use to define themselves.

But none of that applies to Oklahoma Historian and Fort Supply Historical Site Curator Bob Rea. He said he isn't going to get a chance to miss the place.

“I guess I will be going from head employee to head volunteer,” he said. “There is a lot to try and learn here for the new guy, so I will be on call to help.”

This week was Rea’s last after nearly 23 years working as first the site supervisor at Fort Supply and later as the Oklahoma Military Sites Director. He ends his tenure with the state as the Historical Site Department Director. He will be replaced by recent hire Shayne House of Woodward.

Rea is happy and excited about his retirement or, “I wouldn't have put in for it otherwise,” he said.

Rea plans to return to his art, a possibly little known aspect of the man, who paints and draws primarily early western scenes.

“I was an on-again-off-again artist through my life and I was invited to show my art at a couple places," he said. "And so I am planning on getting back to focusing on that."

Rea’s rise to the status of a respected historian followed an improbable path.

It was unlikely that the 1967 Northwest Classen High School graduate from Oklahoma City would end up in Northwest Oklahoma at all, let alone as the holder of such detailed knowledge of the history here.

His arrival here was kismet. A combination of things - his double art and history major at then named Central State College and a romance, which blossomed with Woodward native Brenda Blasdel.

This was the woman who would bring him from Oklahoma City and whom he married and later with whom he carried on a ranching tradition as the two began managing some of the family ranch. His wife continues to teach art for Woodward Public Schools, Rea said.

Art and History

Quite predictably in his early years, Rea went from Northwest Classen High School to a nearby college when he graduated.

“I was in the first museum course that Central State College taught back then,” he said. “And while I was there I worked at the Cowboy Hall of Fame as the assistant to the curator – not the assistant curator – the assistant to the curator. I was a peon, a gofer - make sure that is clear.”

But it’s probably fair to say that the time spent in that museum, carrying coffee or paperwork to the curator was punctuated with tiny pauses in his steps, admiring a bronze sculptures or an abstract of the Trail of Tears. Perhaps these moments even planted some of the seeds of interest in early American art subjects which dominate his own work now.

Yet, it wasn’t that kind of art Rea went into after he graduated, he said.

After graduation, Rea needed to make a living.

“At the Vocational Technical School there in Stillwater, all of the promotional material went through the graphic arts department and I worked there for six years,” he said.

In 1978, Rea said he began ranching with the Blasdel family. At the same time, he had a real estate license and sold some real estate.

“I didn’t really care much for that though,” he said and allowed the license to lapse.

So he moved to managing a print shop in Woodward called Fast Print and later when the shop owner sold out and moved, he found himself back to doing primarily ranch work and various other jobs.

“So one day, it was winter and I was helping a guy lay water line and it was all frozen and we talked about needing a job with insurance and a retirement,” he said. “That guy told me about this job at Fort Supply being open. And so I started here in December of 1991.”

In 2003, Rea was given some extra duties and his title became “Military Site Director’ for the four military sites in Oklahoma that include Fort Gibson, Fort Towson, Fort Washita and Honey Springs Battlefield site.

Through the years, there are a few things that will always stick out in Rea’s mind about his work bringing to life history, which played out on fields that now just seem like land people pass in their cars.

A highlight of his career, he said, was the work in researching the old Guard House on the Fort Supply site.

“It had been gutted and we had to do interior archaeology (with the help of registered archaeologists) to find the interior wall lines,” he said. “Then, we furnished it. but there was never any photos we had to go by of the inside of a guard house and so we had to just base it on common sense.”

Rea credits many of those incarcerated at the nearby William S. Key Correctional Center with the building and skill applied to the new stockade and the craftsmanship at the Guard House.

“We incarcerate some very talented people,” he said. “I couldn't have done all this without the work of those prisoners.”  

Rea also remembers well his participation in the 150th anniversary and reenactment of the Battle at Honey Springs near Checotah.

“That was Oklahoma’s major battle in the Civil War,” he said. “It was our Gettysburg.”

He describes his most discouraging times, if there were any in his 23 years as a full time historian, were when he wanted to preserve a site or work on deteriorating buildings to preserve those of historical value and there was no money.

“People call this place Fort Supply but I call it Fort Scrounge because if it were not for scrounging up material to work with and the labor to do the work, we couldn't have done it.”

Being the understated gentleman he is, Rea was rather quiet about his pending departure to that other part of life known as retirement. So there was no retirement party, no gold watches, no cake and punch.

But that’s because most in the circles Rea runs in have no expectation that he will disappear from society.

“Well, it slipped up on us so quickly that we didn't even have time to plan anything yet,” said Rob Roberson.

According to Roberson, the loss of Rea as a full time historian will be felt not only by those who stop in to see and hear the stories that took place there, but all of academe here.

 Rea spoke at many classes at Northwestern Oklahoma State University and worked with the Woodward Plains Indians and Pioneers Museum on numerous projects, Roberson said.  

“He is really going to be missed because he is a very knowledgeable man,” Roberson said.

But Roberson is not letting him off the hook so easily.

“I want him to do some more of his art because we need to have a show for him,” he said. “We have some pencil drawings he has done here and he is just an awesome artist.”