On January 6, 2001, Oklahoma State University lost one of its most ardent supporters. Edna Mae Phelps died peacefully in the family home in Seminole, Oklahoma from cancer. She was eighty years old. Born Edna Mae Hough on June 12, 1920 in Tulsa, she lived a life so full that its accomplishments are almost overwhelming. With the exception of college days at Oklahoma A & M College and the World War II years spent in California, Edna Mae lived out her life among family and friends in Seminole as homemaker and mother. After her two sons, Ronald and Mark, reached maturity, Edna Mae entered the world of politics, first serving as President of the Seminole County Democrat Women’s Club in 1968 and later as President of the Oklahoma Federation of Democrat Women’s Clubs. Under her inspired leadership, both organizations experienced substantial increases in membership and fundraising.
Mrs. Phelps was the first woman to serve as Chairperson of the Oklahoma State Election Board, filling that role from 1969 to 1975. In addition, she was elected to three successive four-year terms as a member of the Democratic National Committee. She attended every Democratic National Convention beginning with the violent 1968 affair in Chicago to the 2000 convention, a mere five months before her death. Other accomplishments and public service included state co-chair of the organization to pass the Equal Rights Amendment and member of Senator John Glenn’s National Policy Council. In 1986, her induction into the Oklahoma’s Women’s Hall of Fame reinforced her national recognition as one of the Women of the 80s. Edna Mae’s continued dedication to the public good has earned her entries in Who’s Who of American Women, World Who’s Who of Women, and Who’s Who in American Politics. Her national presence enabled her to garner accolades from a number of powerful political figures. In a less serious vein, she was designated Honorary Lt. Governor of Oklahoma, a “Yellow Rose of Texas” and an “Honorary Kentucky Colonel,” by the governors of those states.
In the early 1980s, Mrs. Phelps devoted much of her attention to her alma mater, Oklahoma State University. From 1983 to 1988, she served as Member and Chair of the Oklahoma State University Board of Regents. During this period, Mrs. Phelps founded the Friends of the OSU Library. Her determination to insure the library’s status as a first-class facility is evidenced by her 1984 statement, “I want the people of Oklahoma to know that this Board of Regents won’t stand by for a second-rate library.” As a result of her dedication and hard work, she was and continues to be held in high esteem by library administration, faculty, and students. The Edna Mae Phelps Award for employees and supporters of the library and the Edna Mae Phelps Endowment for journalism students are further evidence of the university’s admiration for Ms. Phelps. In 1999, Edna Mae was afforded an especially proud moment when the OSU Library acquired its two-millionth volume, effecting her statement, “I can safely say that my association with OSU, as a regent and as an advocate of the library, makes me the most proud of anything I have done.”
In addition to her dedication to public service, Edna Mae had a playful side as well. She was an avid OSU fan, following its teams from wrestling to basketball with equal enthusiasm. It is rumored she never missed a homecoming and was present at nearly every home football game. Accustomed to the outdoor life of rural Oklahoma, she was a bird watcher and active gardener who took great pleasure in sharing the seeds and cuttings from her yard with her neighbors. She loved books, movies, music, and travel. Trips enjoyed by her husband and lifelong friends included excursions to Ireland, Las Vegas, an Alaskan cruise, and nearly every state in the Union. Other hobbies and interests included a bridge club, stock market investment club, modern literature club and coin and stamp collecting. On Sundays, she faithfully attended the local Presbyterian church. A passionate interest in writing began at an early age as her numerous poems, short stories, and sketches will attest.
Despite the obvious variety of interests, it is her collection of campaign buttons and other political memorabilia that would appear to elicit the most attention. Much of the collection of over forty-three hundred buttons, lapel pins, ribbons, hand clickers, and other items pertain to presidential elections, Oklahoma politics, and special interests such as the Equal Rights Amendment, abortion, and other feminist issues. Though a committed member of the Democratic Party, Mrs. Phelps also collected the campaign paraphernalia of Republicans and those that expressed strong anti-Democratic sentiments. Of particular interest to Edna Mae was her assortment of buttons depicting FDR, Ike, Taft, Dewey, Wilkie, and William Jennings Bryan. After her death in 2001, her family donated the collection to her alma mater. It is currently located in the Edmon Low Library Special Collections & University Archives.
Though Edna Mae was much loved and admired by those she met in her life, it was her family that gave her the most joy. She met her husband, Joe E. Phelps, at Oklahoma A & M College and lived in California while he served his enlistment in the United States Navy as a submarine officer in the Pacific Theatre. After the war, Joe and Edna Mae returned to Seminole where their sons, Ronald and Mark, were born. During the 1950s, Joe Phelps formed a civil engineering partnership that designed and constructed buildings, roads, bridges, lakes and water and waste systems throughout Oklahoma. It was during this period that, he too, became involved in Oklahoma politics, counting both Governor Raymond Gary and Senator Gene Stipe among his closest confidants. Joe died in 2005. The Phelps are survived by their sons, Ronald and Mark, their daughters-in-law, Judy and Bonnie, and granddaughters, Lauren Shatzel and Lane Phelps. Lauren, much to Joe and Edna Mae’s delight, graduated from Oklahoma State University in 2002. Lane received her degree in 2005.