Babaamaajimowinan (Telling of news in different places)

Chickasaw master craftsman puts sheen on fixture in Oklahoma Governor's Mansion

OKLAHOMA CITY – Master furniture refinisher Richard Thomas sweeps a bare hand across the blonde-colored French Walnut barn door that dates to 1750.

He emits a low sigh while examining it, pointing to unsightly flaws, nicks, and imperfections crying out for his expertise.

The 264-year-old door has been a guest in Thomas' Portland Avenue workshop before – an unassuming structure with a tiny weather-molested sign saying simply: "Richard Thomas, Master Refinisher."

The door was purchased from a Dallas antique store for former Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating and his wife, Cathy. It was Thomas who first laid healing hands upon it and restored it to its full splendor. When the door needed attention again in February, the telephone in Thomas' shop sounded.

It is not just any old barn door from France. It is a door but it is not used as one.

Instead, Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin and her family breakfast each morning on its fastidiously maintained, hand-rubbed surface at the governor's mansion. It sits atop a stable wrought iron base manufactured specifically for it.

A benevolent organization wishes to keep the door in wondrous condition for Fallin, or for any other governor who might break bread from it in future years. Friends of the Governor's Mansion, Inc., maintains all the furnishings and items donated to complement the 12-room living quarters of the state's chief executive.

Since 2004, the "Friends" have relied on Thomas, a Chickasaw Nation citizen, to refinish, refurbish, rebuild, restore and refine many cherished and historically significant items used by Oklahoma's first family.

The master Chickasaw craftsman has refinished the original formal dining table used by Oklahoma's first governor Charles Haskell. The table is still in use more than 100 years since statehood. Exquisitely prepared meals for exceedingly important people have graced it since 1910. Haskell never resided in the 14,000-square-foot home. It was completed in 1928, a full 21 years after Haskell was elected.

The first Oklahoma Governor to reside at 820 NE 23rd Street for a full term was William H. "Alfalfa Bill" Murray. Probably the most colorful of all 27 Oklahoma governors, Murray served during the Great Depression. He and a team of mules plowed up the mansion lawn to make a garden. Financially struggling Oklahomans were invited to plant vegetables there. And, they did.


In 2014, his long, flowing mane is saturated with salt and sprinkled with pepper, but he once was a 1978 graduate of Putnam City High School and graduated from Oscar Rose Junior College, known today as Rose State College. A life working in computer technology awaited Thomas back in 1983.

That is not the script that played out, however.

"I was a painting contractor throughout college, mostly exterior painting with occasional tasks inside," Thomas said in trying to explain how computers acquiesced to paint, stain, sandpaper and power tools. He was working on high-profile homes, many of them located in Oak Tree Estates, an Edmond real estate development with ornate and magnificent $1 million-plus domiciles dotting the fringes of links trod upon by pro golfing elites.

Thomas earned the respect of a seasoned remodeler and painter. His name was Jack Evans and he knew just about everything there was to know about paint, stain, refinishing and the labor of love embraced by true craftsmen.

"He'd send jobs my way. He also began sharing tricks, tips and secrets about what he knew," Thomas said of Evans, recalling the relationship affectionately. So, at 23, Thomas began refinishing furniture while continuing to paint. Five years would pass before he could eke out a living performing refinishing exclusively.

That was 31 years ago.


"I have always been an artist at heart. I was drawing and carving wood before I was a teenager. I built two or three boats when I was 12-13," Thomas said. "I do leatherwork and craft moccasins, quivers, bows, spears ..." he said, his voice trailing off as the list grows longer. "All of the Native American artistry has come from books I've read or by educating myself in the craft through trial and error – mostly error," he laughs.

His workshop is stacked high with personal projects either in the works or needing a few more hours of his undivided attention. Thomas-made squirrel sticks – a kind of mallet hurled at small game to harvest them – are proudly displayed at both the Chickasaw Visitors Center in Sulphur and Chickasaw Welcome Center in Davis.

But, clients come first and his success is illustrated in his schedule. Projects brought to him today are on a 60-day waiting period.

There is a dreamy-eyed craftsman who, at age 54, owns a second home in the Arbuckle Mountains calling out to him and Pam, his wife of 31 years.

With his youngest child, Henry, graduating Putnam City North High School next month, the couple will have an empty nest for the first time in a long time. Daughter Melissa, 25, has already graduated from the University of Oklahoma; Autumn, 22, will earn a nursing degree from there this fall; Jamie, 20, is pursuing an interior design degree, and Henry is poised to follow the OU family tradition this fall.

Thomas dreams of retiring. He is moving toward retiring, but the business he crafted from scratch keeps the dream just beyond reach.

"I probably will never 'retire retire'," Thomas said with a quick grin. "I'll have important projects to work on and clients who have trusted me for decades, so I'll keep at it," he adds while his eyes drink in all the personal projects in varying stages of incompleteness.

"I am so proud to be Chickasaw," Thomas said. "The Nation's financial assistance has made it possible for my children to receive college educations. If not for the Chickasaw Nation, I'm not sure we could have sent all of the kids to college."


Thomas' desire is strong to connect to his heritage and that of all his Native brethren. "I always was aware I was Chickasaw, but in the 1970s it was nothing you announced," he said sadly. "I've traveled the Natchez Trace to visit the ground where footfalls from my ancestors still exist. I have paid respect at the mounds and have empathy for all Native people."

Another adventure is planned with his son. It is aimed at instructing Henry about the history of Native people, their tribulation and heartache. Cheyenne, Arapaho and Comanche tribes are the focus. The excursion ends in Chickasaw Country where father and son will stop, reflect and contemplate what their ancestors endured.

They will set out in kayaks at the site of the Battle of the Washita, located in far western Oklahoma in Roger Mills County. There, in 1868, Cheyenne leader Black Kettle was slain by George Armstrong's 7th Cavalry, along with 102 braves from other tribes who were wintering along the river.

The trip down the meandering, silted, twisted stream will end at Lake Texoma. Thomas believes the trek will take three weeks.

Father and son will enter Chickasaw Country in western Grady County after paddling through Roger Mills, Custer and Washita counties. From Grady County, they will either pass through, or skirt the boundaries of, 8 of the 13 counties of Chickasaw territory before the river delivers them into Lake Texoma.

"I want Henry to see nothing is easy in life. It takes work, planning, dedication and perseverance," Thomas said. "But rewards are many for the few who see a task through to the end."


Reader Comments(0)