Joe L. Conner, Ph.D., proud Osage Nation member, tribal health researcher, and publisher of The Fairfax Chief, passed from this life on Tuesday, Sept. 12.
Dr. Conner was born above the drugstore in Shidler, OK, to Thelma Leone Carr Conner and Don I. Conner. Early education was at Grainola, OK, schools, then graduation from Shidler High School, where he earned his Eagle Scout award. Grounding for his dream of becoming a psychologist happened at Northwestern State College in Alva, OK.
It was at Alva where he met Carol Nice Conner. Within months of meeting, the two were married, remaining partners in life and working throughout the rest of his life.
His master’s and doctorate degrees were earned at Oklahoma State University. He was the first American Indian to complete a doctoral degree in both clinical and experimental psychology.
Dr. Conner began his career at the Pawnee Indian Hospital as a Clinical Psychologist. There, he started a pattern of seeing needs and doing something about them that he followed throughout his life. While there, he began an inpatient alcohol treatment unit.
Transferring to the Seattle Veterans Affairs Hospital when Carol began her clinical internship, Joe was the Medical Consulting Psychologist for the large hospital, was immediately appointed Deputy Director of the Psychology Service and also named to a position on the medical faculty of the University of Washington.
At the Seattle VA, Joe created a biofeedback laboratory at a time when those in charge thought it was too new to be considered. With his usual persistence, he made it happen anyway – providing a source of treatment to returning Vietnam vets that was unavailable elsewhere.
Joe also provided clinical services at the W.W. Hastings Hospital in Tahlequah, OK, to all the Puget Sound tribes in Washington state, and at the Santa Fe Indian Hospital. It was in Santa Fe where he saw the critical need for psychologists to prescribe medications for mental health problems – as there was only one psychiatrist for the entire area of New Mexico and Arizona.
The protocol he developed led him to become the first psychologist ever to receive prescription privileges at a hospital. His work was later appropriated by others – eventually resulting in a state law in New Mexico allowing prescription privileges for psychologists.
Returning to Grainola, Joe and Carol began a health research business, Paradox. The name came from Joe’s father’s joke to them when they’d both been in school for far longer than he’d ever considered. “If the two of you ever finish, it’ll be a ‘pair of docs’ – Paradox!”
Through this business, Joe continued to innovate field research, develop prevention efforts, provide large health surveys for tribes including the Cherokee and Osage Nations, and consult for and with federal agencies. He estimated that Paradox has provided services to more than 150 tribes.
Joe was not only proud of his Osage heritage, but he also worked to educate people about tribal and Osage history. He co-founded the Native American program at Northern Oklahoma College in Tonkawa; he spent time with staff at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., when he donated his grandfather’s Carlisle Indian School uniform to them; he appeared on television and in many newspaper and radio interviews. He was always generous and gracious in giving time and knowledge to others.
Joe was incredibly community-minded. He worked tirelessly on projects he thought would benefit his town of Fairfax, Native people or the Osage Nation. A former basketball player himself, Joe co-founded Oklahoma Indian All-State Basketball. His tireless work to recognize young Native players resulted in many attending college who might not have done so otherwise.
Dr. Conner was an important part of the group that took a year to listen to Osages on the reservation and around the state and country, leading to a new Constitution for the Osage Nation. He led the charge to get a grocery store back in Fairfax – persisting for the five years it took to do that. He worked to right the unlawful mining of the Osage Mineral Estate by the wind farm. He supported efforts to keep the Fairfax Community Hospital open. For the last many years, Joe has been the chief advocate and worker trying to restore the TallChief Theatre in Fairfax. On his own initiative, he created an exhibit, now seen by thousands of visitors from around the world, about the events leading up to the murders of Osages in the 1920s. While many talk about what should happen, Joe always simply and quietly took action. A film about his efforts to save the TallChief will soon debut.
A generous man, he enjoyed cooking for others. A kind man, he helped with the care of his disabled sister-in-law Edith for 10 years. He was both wise and funny; handsome but not conceited; always glad to have meaningful work to do; always there to support his wife and partner, Carol.
He was predeceased by his parents, Thelma and Don Conner; and his three siblings, Mike Conner, Chloe Buffington and Ida Roberts.
He is survived by his wife Carol, his beloved in-laws Luella and Monte Nabors, and Ray and Rose Nice. He is also survived by nieces and nephews Sam Conner and wife Nancy, Cole Conner and wife Joselyn, Rita Farmer, and Carrie Short and husband Jeremy. He is also survived by their children and by his cousins Karen Highfill, Billie Jo Webb and husband Willard, Bill Hamm and wife Evilin, and Dennis McAuliffe Jr. and wife Fleur.
Pallbearers will be Owen Hutcheson, Bill Hamm, Kent Nabors, Caleb Cook, Tom Ashmore and Jake Roberts. Honorary pallbearers will be Ken Kelsey, Travis Eaton, Sam Conner, Dennis McAuliffe Jr., Joe Brown and Billy Robertson.
Services were held at the Fairfax Methodist Church with Monte Nabors and Archie Mason officiating. Graveside services were held at the Fairfax Cemetery and a traditional Osage meal followed at GrayHorse. Arrangements were entrusted to Hunsaker-Wooten Funeral Home.
Donations in his memory and honor should go to the TallChief Theatre fund, at www.tallchieftheater.com. Mail donations to the Fairfax Community Foundation at 301 S. 4th, Fairfax, OK 74637.
His friend Shari Cookson said, “May Maria Tallchief dance with his magnificent spirit.”