Rhythms and Reflections; A Mosaic of Southwest Oklahoma Heritage
An Ethnic Exposition Revisited Twenty-five Years Later


According to Russell at Lawton's Firehouse #5, the weather on June 2, 1979 for Lawton's first, "Ethnic Exposition", was as follows; High 76 degrees, Low 59 degrees, and overnight it had rained from 1:30 a.m. to 8:30 a.m. After all the grant writing, planning, organizing, scheduling, promoting, and late evening meetings, one can only imagine the organizers' concerns for weather, especially Oklahoma weather!

The exposition was born from a desire to promote greater awareness and appreciation of Lawton's diverse heritage. The principle behind the project was the Lawton Public Library with Ms. Katherine Hale and Ms Betty Bochantin as Co-Project Directors. Cameron University's faculty, Dr. Ralph Blodgett, Kenny L. Brown and Dr. George Smith, also assisted in developing the project. Oklahoma Humanities Committee and the National Endowment for the Humanities funded the event.

Otis Spears wrote the participating group's history for the program and Mr. Kenny Brown was the event Moderator. In total, nine ethnic groups participated. They were from Austria, the African Continent, Philippine Islands, Germany, Korea, Latin America, Laos, and Vietnam The Kiowa tribe represented the Native Americans.

Assisting in the event's preparation were City of Lawton employees, the Lawton Chamber of Commerce and its Red Coat Ambassadors, Virgil Hamity and Howard Edwards fabricated the display units, and Curtis Jones coordinated stage's set up, and Luther Christensen, handled the publicity. Yes, due to the weather, there was folk dancing and singing in the Library's reference area! Mrs. Sally Herzig of the Philippine group remembers being a bit nervous for the first performance but that the audience was so warm and appreciative that she soon felt comfortable. The exhibits were setup in the library's conference rooms. About 150 volunteers from the community took part in the exposition with approximately five hundred people in attendance.

Over the next few years, more organizations became involved in sponsoring the event. The Lawton Arts Council became a cosponsor in 1981. In 1982, the event's name was officially changed to "The International Festival". The City of Lawton, Parks and Recreation Department's Arts and Humanities Division was added as cosponsor in 1983. That year the Lawton Arts and Humanities council created a special Board of Directors to organize and oversee the Festival. The International Festival was expanded to two days in 1986 and eventually became a three-day event.

Debra Burch at Lawton's Chamber of Commerce commented that, "Today's International Festival is a major contributor to Lawton's economy and adds greatly to the city's tourist base that builds upon it's self." Last year the Arts and Humanities Division reported that the event's attendance was over thirty thousand visitors. As Carolyn Pate, a Friends of the Library member said, "Great things from a small grant!"

From its inception, artwork has been used to set the tone of the festival's theme. The program's first design utilized prairie grass and ribbon banners. Poster competitions followed and the artist's design was used on clothing, maps, and promotional items. Kealii Thompson, a festival volunteer for seventeen-years, feels that the posters reflect our city and nation's changing times.

Most important is that the festival could not go on without support from federal, state, and local private and public sponsors and volunteers. To operate the three-day event alone, takes a volunteer staff working over 700 man-hours! That does not include the volunteer hours spent planning and organizing. Today, a family tradition of International Festival volunteerism runs strong for many of the original volunteers from staff to entertainers. Mr. and Mrs. Henry Herzig family is now represented by three generations of service. Other familiar names from the original performers and volunteers that continue to this day are the Leal's, Chavez's, Thompson's, Waldbauer's, and many more. Many agree that the festival not only showcases Lawton's diversity but also and more importantly provides the opportunity to bring together cultures together and foster a sense of community among them.

In looking back, from the very first "Ethnic Exposition" to today's 25th International Festival, all agree on one thing . . . the original focus, intent, and passion of the festival remains unchanged, unlike our Oklahoma weather.