A Sense of Place – EPOTM: Stillwater, OK

Lowell Caneday is a Regents Professor for Leisure Studies at Oklahoma State University. But during our conversation, he was a prophet.  He delivered his personal oracle of The Great Outdoors Education, People and Their Connection to Places over a “Wake Up Breakfast” at Granny’s Kitchen in Stillwater.


The only difference between Caneday (pronounced: can-uh-day) and his wife’s order was the meat: he ordered sausage, she preferred bacon. The atmosphere was so over-the-top American Diner we had trouble with our audio that day. Just when our discussants got to a point they were making, the waitress kindly asked to fill our coffee cups, dishes clanked, or the clatter of flatware against stoneware covered their response.

But the breakfast noise pollution didn’t dampen our conversation.  Caneday and his wife Diane were in their element. Granny’s Kitchen was a comfort zone, so much so that when friends or former students come to town, this was where they are taken to catch up.


The Canedays were so kind, it felt like WE were catching up…and we had just met them. Discussion flowed freely.  And one of Caneday’s most comfortable topics was the science of recreation, parks and how people learn in natural environments.

We didn’t know it at the time because Stillwater was the first stop on our route, but the subject of “how people learn in their natural environments” set the stage for every subsequent location on our “Dam Run” in one way or another.

In Pryor Creek, we learned that Google “came to town” because of the abundant water supply and their local school system has received a windfall because of that change. Larry in Adair reminisced about the disappearing wildlife while our Strang family set the stage for their own “sense of place” by watching the sunsets from a local bridge. The Grand River Dam Authority has a full staff helping assist families in their trek to enjoy the lake, while Russell in Disney rails against the establishment for the right of Oklahoma taxpayers to have access to their State Park lands.  And of course, the view from Sonny’s back porch in Spavinaw looking across the lakes and streams completed our education.


At one point, Caneday mentioned something else we later witnessed: the Great Outdoors levels the playing field for people of all cultures and races.

He told a story of how he and his wife met, sharing the intersection of outdoor leisure education and the need for integration “back in the day”:

I had moved from Minnesota to Texas to go to school; I knew all of her friends, she knew my friends. I didn’t like her friends, she didn’t like my friends. I didn’t know her. She didn’t know me.

My senior project from college was development planning in the Department of Recreation for the city (of Longview). Their idea of recreation was –  boys played sports. Girls were cheerleaders. So I had proposed a very different kind of recreation program for the city – an interracial program. This was two years after the civil rights act was passed. [My proposal] was interracial and inter-gender [focused], boys, girls, it didn’t matter. The city bought the idea. And, I needed to hire a staff.

I was rooming with one of the guys [Diane] knew – because her best friend was dating him. He suggested getting together, so I said ‘Bring her over, I’ll cook dinner.’ We spent that evening together, but that morning I discovered she had applied for one of these staff positions.

I ended up doing exactly what I’m not supposed to do. I ended up dating an employee – – that’s probably as good as indication…how joy happens little by litte. I end up telling my students, ‘I violated most federal laws, because you end up dating your own employee – is that harassment? Is it a power play?’ But, in fact, it worked out very very well. She supervised one of the parks in that program – – they still have that program.

The summer that we were dating they had a bus bombing, because they were going to be busing the kids.

The city of Longview had a swimming pool – – but it was Whites only. When an African American could swim in that pool, the whites quit coming. So they built a pool north of highway 80 that became the whites pool – [and then African Americans needed a pool] so they built another one by Martin Luther King street – so the “mixed pool” was never used.

I was a kid from Minnesota – – I was like “what’s the deal?”

There was a great deal of information wrapped up in that small illustration. Preconceived notions of race, gender and class were broken down by offering opportunities through outdoor, recreational settings by working and playing together.  It’s funny, but because the work was so valuable and enriching, Caneday justified dating an employee he hired – because of love…and love of the outdoors. And it makes perfect sense to me.

Trees don’t discriminate. People can hike, swim, fish, our play outdoors because the birds and grass have their own beautiful diversity.  And in his lifetime, Caneday has mentored approximately 60 doctoral students through their PhD process, each of them studying some element of outdoor and recreational life.  It’s clear he loves his students. Breakfast was filled with illustrations of students stopping at their home when visiting Stillwater.

It’s also clear he loves his wife.

Caneday married someone he met while doing his work. Someone who has struggled with Multiple Sclerosis, who survived an auto accident involving a semi-truck. And who fills in on the phone when Caneday isn’t around to give advice to former students:

Jeff Ziger – Chicago, Jewish, semi-religious – married a German Lutheran. When he was about to make a major decision he would call [me] and say, “Okay, you’re closer to God than I am…help me with this decision.”

“So, one day I wasn’t there, and Diane answered the phone, and Jeff said, well Lowell wouldn’t have married somebody who didn’t have a conduit to God…” so they talked it out.

And at the end of breakfast, it was also clear that – although Lowell Caneday wasn’t born in Oklahoma – he had found his own sense of place here in our state.

Every place has its unique characteristics. Ecologists say, “Oklahoma is the most diverse state in the nation – from a geologic and ecosystems perspective.” “We say – this land is your land – we know we belong to the land, and the land we belong to is grand.”

There’s something about being comfortable in the land. Yeah – you learn. You learn about what’s out there in these parks…the tremendous diversity – from a Beavers Bend to a Black Mesa …but it IS a place to learn.


He gave an example when I asked, “If all the parks could be the professors, what would they teach us?”

I’ll give you one example that was in the news – – Foss Lake Oklahoma. Right about this time last year, a gentleman was out walking and came upon some exposed bones. Turns out it’s a mammoth. So, inside the park OU began a dig.

Sometime in February, park staff was doing something using sonar – getting a sense of the lake depths. They found two objects…they were cars that had been lost in the 1960s.

At that point, Caneday paused and got a far away look in his eyes.

I had my answer, but he was still working on his.



Field notes:

When we began this project, we created a Kickstarter project to fund a small start up.  One of the levels we offered was that if a person donated a fairly substantial amount, they could choose a person in one town in Oklahoma with whom we would document our discussion.  Michael Bradley from Eastern Kentucky University saw our note on Twitter, donated to our project, and identified Lowell Caneday as the person he wanted us to speak with.  Caneday was his major professor at OSU…he was giving back, in a sense, from some of what he had received in his education.

Bradley also asked that if we would consider him suggesting a second person, to speak with Terry Aylward in Pryor Creek.  He had attended Boy Scouts with Aylward’s son.

It’s clear from this information that Michael Bradley learned enough during outdoors recreation that he wanted to pass those lessons along with us, our readers, and the students he teaches now that he’s the professor.  Take care, Michael…we enjoyed exploring your turf during our Dam Run series. ~ The EPOTM Team

Downtown Stillwater during another time and another place.
Downtown Stillwater during another time and another place.
Rachel, our photographer, sitting on a stump by a historical home just down the street from our breakfast stop.
Me. I guess we thought that stump was pretty cool. At this point, I'm wondering where April was. This was her first stop with us, and it's likely she was wondering the same thing: Why is this stump important?
Me. I guess we thought that stump was pretty cool. At this point, I’m wondering where April was. This was her first stop with us, and it’s likely she was wondering the same thing: Why is this stump important?
Out takes…