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Odd jobs, family ties and the 'Macho Man': How G.T. Bynum became a leader

Odd jobs, family ties and the 'Macho Man': How G.T. Bynum became a leader

class="headline">Odd jobs, family ties and the 'Macho Man': How G.T. Bynum became a leader

Dec 4, 2016

Mayor-elect G.T. Bynum, a native son of Tulsa with a family tree of mayors, wasn’t born a politician.


On Monday, Bynum will become Tulsa’s 40th mayor. Those 39 before him include cousin Bill LaFortune, grandfather Robert LaFortune and great-great grandfather R.N. Bynum.


Despite the pedigree, he wasn’t born to be mayor, city councilor, father, lobbyist, college-student president, caddy or professional-wrestling buff.


According to his family and friends, Bynum became those things through genuine interest, learning to focus and following lessons learned from those around him.


Part of the story can be found in a number of jobs Bynum held from a fairly young age. One of his first jobs was cleaning behind the counter at a local Braum’s. Others included maintenance worker at St. John Medical Center and caddy at Southern Hills Country Club.


“In high school, G.T. sold knives for Cutco by going to people’s homes and giving demonstrations,” said his mother, Suzie Bynum. “One of his early sales meetings was with my parents. G.T. was demonstrating the ability of a particular knife by cutting through rope and cut off the end of his thumb. My dad said blood was everywhere, but he made the sale.”


Another part of the story is Bynum’s evolving interest in politics and community involvement.


He started in politics, ironically, by volunteering for Mayor Dewey Bartlett’s first campaign, at that time a run for Tulsa City Council.


From there, Bynum went from Cascia Hall Preparatory School to Villanova University, where he became class president.


After college, he served as a staffer for U.S. Sens. Don Nickles, from 2000 to 2005, and Tom Coburn, from 2005 to 2006, before returning to Tulsa, starting a family and a business and being elected to the City Council.


His return to Tulsa and his time on the council are well-documented. But through his family’s eyes, the earlier years are more fascinating.


Suzie Bynum, mom

“He loved Mr. Rogers. We got him a little coat for Thanksgiving or Christmas. On his own, he’d go get the coat with the little hanger. He’d take it off and button it up, and we have him on video singing along. … He was only about 3, I think. He still thinks the world of Mr. Rogers. … G.T. was a dork.”


Suzie Bynum didn’t see her son as a future mayor of Tulsa when he was younger, unlike a 1977 Tulsa World birth announcement headlined “Mayor Gets A Grandson” that reads, “George T. Bynum 4th will have lots of tradition going for him if he ever decides on a political career in Tulsa.”


“I didn’t see him as the mayor when he was little,” Suzie Bynum said. “Not until about a year ago did I see that.”


An early clue, though, was a fascination her son had with the “Childhood of Famous Americans” book series for children that featured biographies of historical figures, she said.


Her son was obsessed with the series, especially the ones on U.S. presidents.


“He had all the presidents,” she said. “That’s what he wanted for birthdays. He wanted to get those paperback books. He’s always loved history.”


Another collection he had was representations of the Statue of Liberty, which he would show off to anyone interested.


“One day he took a table out to the sidewalk in the front yard and set up all of his Statue of Liberty things,” Suzie Bynum said. “He had made a 5-foot-tall Statue of Liberty cutout and colored it.”


Given the evidence, even a loving, doting and proud mother like Suzie Bynum couldn’t cut it any other way: “G.T. was a dork.”


“I’m just so excited for G.T.,” she said. “I’m just so proud of him. Whether he had won or lost, I would still be so proud.”


Dr. Jay Phoenix, cousin and best friend

“We would do stupid little stuff and get in trouble as kids. But he was always the one making us do the right thing.”


Dr. Jay Phoenix, a doctor at St. John Medical Center, was born six months after his cousin, Bynum, and the two have been friends ever since.


“He was hugely into wrestling,” Phoenix said, referring to professional wrestling heroes of the 1980s like Jake “The Snake” Roberts, The Ultimate Warrior and Hulk Hogan.








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“Everyone in our age group knew about it,” Phoenix said. “But he knew everybody. He had all the action figures.”


Bynum’s favorite pro wrestler? “Macho Man” Randy Savage. No one did it better, if you ask Bynum. The late Randy Savage’s performance at Wrestlemania III, when Bynum was 9, is still second to none.


The fascination with wrestling, which lasts to this day, even got physical between Phoenix and Bynum.


“He would do all these wrestling moves on me,” Phoenix said. “He would all of a sudden put me into some hold. I didn’t know how to respond to it. He can still just rattle out stuff. We were on our big Thanksgiving family dinner, and he started talking about wrestling with our cousin.”


Going to school with Bynum through high school, Phoenix said Bynum struggled early on as a student.


“He wasn’t the most motivated student,” Phoenix said. “There were always things — like he was an Eagle Scout — anything he was interested in he did very well.”


Phoenix said all the teachers loved him but were critical of his focus on schoolwork.


In high school, Bynum joined the debate team, which Phoenix said changed him in the academic sense and focused his education.


“He’s always managed to make things that look really difficult on the outside seem like he’s achieving them as a matter of course,” Phoenix said. “I know there’s a hell of a lot of work on the inside, but from the outside he made it (becoming mayor) look like it was always going to happen.”


When they were 15, both worked as caddies at Southern Hills Country Club.


“That was one of the worst jobs I ever had,” Phoenix said. “We’d sit there all day — 7 a.m. to 1 or 1:30 p.m. … We’d sit there and just joke around the whole time waiting for something to happen.”


For Phoenix — and he expects it was the same for Bynum — the caddying job was a motivator to consider what they wanted to do later in life.


“As much as it was maybe the worst job either of us had, it was motivating,” Phoenix said.


Phoenix doesn’t remember any particular moment that indicated Bynum was destined to become mayor, but he said the time in high school when Bynum got involved in debate seemed to set him in that direction.


“His trajectory doesn’t surprise me at all,” he said. “The debate stuff was the first time when things really clicked for him.”


Robert LaFortune, grandfather and former mayor of Tulsa

“My father was very involved civically. I became that way. So G.T. grew up in an environment being accustomed to the family’s interests there.”


Former Mayor Robert LaFortune, Bynum’s grandfather, said there’s no secret recipe to his family’s success in politics.


In fact, he said, Bynum showed an early interest that he himself never had.


“I didn’t work in any campaigns before I ran for street commissioner,” LaFortune said. “They (friends encouraging him to run) said, ‘You’re an engineer. Why don’t you run for street commissioner?’ I said, ‘Well, OK. I’ll try it.’ ”


LaFortune was Tulsa’s street commissioner before he ran and won the Mayor’s Office from 1970-78.


LaFortune, who served as Bynum’s campaign chairman, said campaigns have changed drastically since his time, and he credits Bynum with generating a modern political career that LaFortune wouldn’t have done as well at.


“Coffees here and lunches there,” LaFortune said. “You did a lot of personal politicking, so to speak. There wasn’t any Facebook. There wasn’t email.”


Bynum is special among the rest of the politicians in the family, he said, including Bynum’s cousin, former Mayor Bill LaFortune.


“G.T. was active in different campaigns early,” LaFortune said. “He worked in Dewey Bartlett’s (first) campaign.


“He worked in a bunch of earlier campaigns. That came as an interest of his own.”


Phoenix said Bynum, like all the former mayor’s grandchildren, idolized LaFortune, but even more so.


“You saw it all the time how much respect people had for him (LaFortune) in public,” Phoenix said. “That always meant a lot to me, but for G.T., he learned a lot from that. … I think that was a great influence on him.”


But LaFortune claims no credit, saying his own interest came from his father, and there’s no pressure for the family to get involved in politics.


“There’s no expectation that certain people are going to develop this kind of interest,” LaFortune said. “I think those things just kind of happen because of the interest that people have.”