At UHD, the name O’Kane is ubiquitous. Both our gallery and our theater are named for this person. But how much do we really know about the life and work of Harry O’Kane, for whom these two places are named?
When I began working here, I assumed Harry O’Kane was some kind of art professor. His name is attached to fine arts in a very tangible way, so my assumption could probably be forgiven. Later, I heard that he was actually the Dean of Students, and that he started the basketball team, and the rodeo team, at South Texas Junior College. What? I asked myself. Basketball? But his name is on an art gallery.
The other day, as I was listening to the oral history of the first basketball coach at South Texas, Coach Dickerson, I heard him say that O’Kane hired him in 1955, as part of his attempt to create an atmosphere of camaraderie among the students at the junior college. With no dorms and no campus life to speak of, O’Kane probably realized this was an uphill struggle. Unfortunately, there is no way to know what O’Kane thought about nearly anything: we have no archival materials from his work or life.
This happens sometimes, in archives. When I was writing my masters thesis, for instance, there was a man named Hackett who was integral to the story I was telling. But he had no story, because his papers were never donated to an archives (there is a good possibility that they were destroyed after he took his own life). So when I heard about Harry O’Kane, I felt like I had to at least try to piece his life together, if I could. With no primary archival materials to work from, I resorted to the genealogists’ tools: vital records and census files.
This is the story of Harry Ward O’Kane, as far as I can tell:
He was born April 19, 1905, in Polo, Illinois. He may have been the youngest son of Aaron and Sadie (McNair) O’Kane. They moved to Waverly, Nebraska by the time Harry was 5. By 1920, Harry’s two older brothers, Charles and John D., had both moved out to Sacramento, California, to work for the railroads. By 1930, young Harry had joined them there (we must assume that he either did his bachelors degree in Nebraska or in California, but there is no record at hand of where he did his studies). Harry is listed in the 1930 census as a Methodist/Episcopal pastor in the rolls.
In the 1940 census, we find Harry has turned up in Chicago, Illinois, working as a “clerk” and boarding in the 46th Ward (this is north side Chicago, so we could make the assumption he was studying at either Loyola or DePaul for his Bachelors of Divinity, a postgraduate degree that he claimed to have earned).
The census records go quiet after this, because the National Archives does not make records post 1950 available to the public without permission of the individual or their descendants. However, we have something better: the catalogs and yearbooks of the South Texas Junior College.
There is, unfortunately, no record of when Harry arrived here in Houston, although he came to be the Dean of Students sometime in the 1940s. From all he accomplished here, he must have kept very busy with his work at South Texas, and with hobbies (he never married). He was one of the founding members of the Houston Philatelic Society, and as mentioned above, started many clubs and other social endeavors for the College. The catalogs of the College don’t mention staff members until 1950, and he is listed there and afterwards, until his death in 1967.
O’Kane died of carcinoma of the tongue, March 31, 1967–his attending physician stated on the death certificate that he had been treating him for nearly a year at the time of death. He is buried in the Lawndale cemetery. While we know that O’Kane had at least 6 nephews and nieces, we only have records of them to the 1940 census, and show them as living in Sacramento (his two brothers both passed away before him, and both in California). As far as I can tell, there was no obituary sent to the papers.
The gallery and the theater, both named for him, were founded in 1970, and the story is that they were started from his monetary donations. We can only assume it was designated from his will and estate.
When we have so little information to use, piecing together a life can be very difficult. But in the case of a man as important to our history as Harry Ward O’Kane, it is worth the trouble.
O’Kane in 1957
O’Kane in 1958
First catalog record at South Texas, 1950-1951