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Oklahoma State University

Norman Durham still impacting OSU graduate students

By Taylor Young
His story illustrates the Oklahoma State Graduate College vision of being an education leader. His administrative style and philosophy were inspiring. His dedication to research was admirable, and his relationships with students were truly touching. As the longest-serving dean of the Graduate College, we honor and recognize his 41 years of service.
Dr. Norman Durham came to OSU in 1954 as a part-time microbiology professor. He advanced to full professor and published more than 50 scientific papers by the time he was appointed graduate dean at the young age of 39. For 24 years of his service to OSU, Durham was the primary investigator or co-investigator on more than three quarters of a million dollars in grants or contracts. His research programs were successful, even with his demanding schedule as an administrator. Still, he has remained humble about his role in OSU graduate research.
“We accomplished a lot, and we were fortunate to have great leadership to get things done.” 
Durham was born in Ranger, Texas, west of Fort Worth. Later his family moved to Eastland, just ten miles away. His mother was a schoolteacher and his father worked for Texas Electric Service Company, a power distribution company. After high school at the age of 17, Durham joined the U.S. Navy, serving for 18 months as a hospital corpsman during World War II.
“When I came out of high school, I thought I wanted to be a medical doctor, but when I left the Navy and went back to school, I got involved in some teaching and research, and I liked that very much,” Durham said. “From there, I switched gears and decided to pursue my Ph.D.” 
Durham attended North Texas State University for his bachelor’s degree and the University of Texas (UT) at Austin for his doctorate. There, he met his wife of 64 years, Jane Durham. 
“I saw her walking down the hall one day, and I thought ‘boy that’s a good looking woman.’” 
Jane was attending UT for her undergraduate degree in microbiology. Originally from Fredrick, Okla., Jane moved to Texas with her family after high school. She attended Texas Tech as a freshman and transferred to UT to finish her degree in 1952. At the time, Durham was doing his graduate work in microbiology and biochemistry. He happened to be Jane’s teaching assistant for her immunology course. 
“It was interesting because I was elated to serve as a teaching assistant, but I had to tell her professor that Jane and I were dating,” Durham said. “I told him I would grade all of the papers, but I will not grade hers, and we got along just fine.” 
When Durham finished his graduate work in Austin in 1954, he accepted an offer at Oklahoma State University in the microbiology department to be closer to his family in Eastland. Durham says he was fortunate when he joined the faculty at OSU. He secured research grants from the National Institutes of Health his second year. Durham quickly ascended to a full-time professor. He was elected to the graduate faculty in 1957, and was named dean of the Graduate College within a decade. 
“I enjoyed teaching, and I was recognized for some of my teaching activities,” he said. “I enjoyed doing research, and I had some very excellent graduate students, so we had a very good program going.”
Oddly enough, at the time of his dean appointment, Durham was on leave from OSU to serve as program director for the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission in Washington, D.C., after spending time doing research in the nuclear program at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee. In 1964, Durham and his wife built a new home across from Boomer Lake in Stillwater, but they’d only lived in the house for about six months when he received the offer.
“I knew that Jane really loved me to say ‘whatever you want to do,’ pick up our four daughters and move to Washington, D.C.,” Durham said. 
He said he never anticipated returning to Stillwater until OSU President Robert B. Kamm called in 1967 and asked if he’d like to come back as dean of the Graduate College. 
“That sounded exciting,” Durham said. “I thought that I could make some real changes in the Graduate College.”
And that he did. Durham’s dean administration differed greatly from that of the past. First, he increased the amount of office personnel and introduced the position of associate dean and hired Odell L. Walker, an agricultural education professor, as the first associate dean. 
“My administrative style was to find good people, give them responsibility, and get out of their way,” Durham said. “And it worked.” 
Walker believed the most important thing Durham did as graduate dean was to remain an active researcher because he set an example. Durham said he preferred his work with students to the administrative work. It was important to him to remain active in his research programs and keep a relationship with his graduate students, and he attributes his success as dean partly to those relationships. He got to know them as people. 
“I set up the Graduate Student Council, and that worked exceptionally well. It was a very beneficial exchange.” 
The council began in 1928, but Durham resurrected it in 1967 to encourage scholarship and the identity of the graduate program.  
During his tenure as graduate dean, Durham held a number of other positions. He served as a microbiology professor, a researcher, director of the Water Research Institute and interim assistant vice president for research. In addition to his administration responsibilities at OSU, Durham ran a cow-calf operation at home with Jane. 
“The cattle were psychotherapeutic for me,” he said.
For about 16 years, the Durhams showed cattle with three of their grandchildren. Although Jane wasn’t raised around cattle, she really enjoyed the lifestyle with her husband. 
“I was a day-time rancher, and he ran the show on the weekends” she said.  
The family cattle operation inspired Jane to return to school to pursue another bachelor’s degree in animal science.
“She’s the best cowgirl in the nation,” Durham said.
Durham retired in 1995 and was inducted into the Oklahoma Higher Education Hall of Fame in 1999. Today, the Durhams still live near Stillwater and support many different areas of the university, such as the Microbiology Department. Durham recently endowed an annual fellowship for microbiology graduate students. Sway Pradhan, an Oklahoma State microbiology master’s student, was the first recipient.
“I trust the department to select students that are deserving, and I think we have an excellent recipient the first crack of the box.”