Norman Airbnb makes community impact: One couple’s top-notch hosting, a college town advantage and keeping a legacy alive

By HALEY HARVEY

The 1936 Oklahoma bungalow is furnished mid-century style. Subtle pieces express its vintage vibe — an old Lite-Brite sitting among the array of games stored under the living room TV, a 1961 Frigidaire Flair taking the place of a modern stovetop and oven and rooms adorned with lava lamps and antique items.

Yet still providing new convenient amenities, the old-school treasures are met with a stone-tiled walk-in shower, a flat-screen TV, Wi-Fi and a keypad on the front door for keyless entry to the home.

“Mar’i’s Place” can be found not only nestled in First Courthouse neighborhood in central Norman, Oklahoma, just north of downtown, but Airbnb.com. The quaint home has been available for overnight stays since September 2017, and the couple next door are the ones behind it — Oklahoma City and Lawton natives Kamala and Adam Stewart.

The Stewarts originally bought the neighboring home with the intent to have a place for their 19 nieces and nephews — “niecephews,” they call them — to stay when they come in town. The idea to open it up for business to travelers came later when the couple was renovating their own home.

“The architect renovating our kitchen had owned a bed and breakfast in town and suggested when the house next door to us became available, we buy it and list it on Airbnb,” said Kamala, who is self-employed through renting their Airbnb.

The couple said they didn’t expect to get as many customers as they do since their main motivation was to house visiting family and friends, but said the extra income is a plus, charging $75 a night for the two bedroom, one bathroom house.

“We thought, ‘OK,’” she said. “This could possibly work.”

***

Mar’i’s Place was named after its old inhabitant and dear friend of the couple. Mar’i McCrory lived next door when the Stewarts moved to their current home in 2009. Little did they know their neighbor was hosting an unwelcome guest.

“She lived for 10 years with stage four cancer, but very few people knew that because she was just the most optimistic, genuine person,” Kamala said.

When McCrory died in 2015, her daughter inherited the home and the couple later purchased it.

“We named it after Mar’i because she was so special to us, and we wanted to make sure it was forever her place,” Kamala said.

The couple’s purpose for the house became not only providing a cozy guest house for visitors to stay but keeping a legacy alive.

***

From check-in to check-out, the Stewarts make guest accommodations a top priority.

“We are set up for instant booking, so if someone has reviews from other hosts and has government IDs that are verified, then they can book instantly,” Kamala said. “For our safety and for our neighbors’ safety, we prefer they have some sort of government ID so we know the people that are staying are who they say they are.”

She said when they get a notification that someone has booked, they also see what their arrival time is. The guests are greeted upon arrival and provided with a list of questions regarding their living preferences. Special requests are handled along with other little but thoughtful touches, like providing local coffee to guests along with a roast preference, local teas for tea-drinkers and cleaning the home only with gentle, non-irritating products.

“We’re very sensitive to food allergies, and we don’t use any harsh chemicals or fragrances in the house,” Kamala said. “We ask all of that and then we prepare everything for them.”

She said she and her husband always try to walk over and meet the visitor to show them around the house and help them settle in. From there, they are at the disposal of the guest.

“Throughout their stay, we are available as much as they want us to be,” Kamala said.

She said some guests have arrived when she and her husband were not home, so they didn’t get the chance to greet their guest, but with others, they have been very friendly — to the point of going to dinner with them.

Kamala says the interaction is what she looks forward to most during their guests’ stay.

“I love meeting people from different places and finding out why they’re in town and that kind of thing,” she said. “That’s my favorite part.”

***

Airbnb officially started in 2008 in San Francisco by two men trying to make extra money to pay rent. Roommates Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbia met at Rhode Island School of Design and opened their apartment for guests to stay in their loft on an air mattress with the promise of breakfast, calling it “Airbed and Breakfast,” according to Business Insider. Ten years later, the lemonade stand-esque idea has transformed into a $25 billion company.

Airbnb rentals have gained a presence across Oklahoma, especially during the fall with people looking for a place to stay for football games. According to a press release from Airbnb on Dec. 2, college football in Oklahoma brought in the cash for Airbnb hosts in Norman and Stillwater during the 2018-19 season, Airbnb Public Affairs Manager Laura Rillos said.

Hosts in Norman welcomed 1,840 guests and earned $185,000 during seven home games, with Stillwater hosting 1,350 guests generating $156,960 this season.

An article on the best-reviewed college towns by Airbnb last fall showed Norman taking the top spot when it came to hosting, with a 74 percent hospitality score — higher than any other major college town in the country.

Having a high public profile and well-respected sports team nearby is a good indicator of the number of satisfied customers, according to the article. In fact, nearly every city on their top 10 list is home to that state’s major university.

One OU student recognized this flood of guests and began renting out her Norman apartment on Airbnb as a way to make extra money. Sophia Phillips, social work graduate student, said she became a host this fall.

“I knew a lot of people would be coming in town for that,” Phillips said. “I thought, ‘I have an extra bedroom, so why not make some money on the side?’”

As opposed to the Stewarts who rent out the entire home, Phillips offers the guest bedroom in her apartment.

“On Airbnb, it’s described as a private room with a shared living space,” Phillips said, who charges $70 per night. “You can use the kitchen, laundry room — help yourself.”

Like the Stewarts, Phillips said most of her guests have been parents in town to see their children at OU or for football games.

Hospitality is an added plus her visitors can expect.

“I provide them with all the essentials — toothbrush, toothpaste, stuff like that,” Phillips said. “After guests come, they can rate their stay. I have all five stars.”

***

AirDNA, a company that tracks Airbnb prices, shows there are currently 163 active Airbnb rentals in Norman. Of those, 71 percent are entire home listings, 28 percent are private room listings and one percent is a shared room rental.

The option to have an entire home for a stay is optimal in college towns like Norman where families travel to attend football games, visit their children who go to OU and for other reasons.

Kamala said the location of Mar’i’s Place has been an advantage to visitors.

“With downtown and Campus Corner between us and the stadium, we’re in a really good location,” she said.

Located just north of Main Street near the intersection of Porter Avenue and Gray Street, Kamala said walks to the stadium are a plus that you wouldn’t have staying in most hotels in town.

“We’re not quite two miles (from the stadium), and some people think that’s too far to walk, but if you know where you’d typically park for a game it’s really not that far,” Kamala said.

As for peak seasons, Kamala said October and November have been the couple’s busiest months so far, with many of their guests in town for OU games.

“The vast majority of our guests are parents visiting their children attending OU, but we also host a lot of people who are in town for work-related travel or for special occasions,” Kamala said.

The couple said they have received positive feedback from their guests, many saying they prefer staying at Mar’i’s Place over a hotel.

“I think it’s just more comfortable for people to have that home experience while they’re visiting,” Kamala said. “Even if it’s spending time tailgating or otherwise.”

One interesting part of the job is the interaction with their guests with diverse backgrounds. The Stewarts have hosted people from not only all across the U.S. but other countries as well.

“We’ve had people from both coasts, up and down the coasts,” Kamala said. “We’ve had people from Mexico, Peru and Puerto Rico, so we’ve had a few international travelers. It surprised us — we were only about seven or eight guests in until we had anyone from a state that even touched Oklahoma.”

Apart from football games and other OU-related events, she said guests have come to Norman from all over and for various reasons — concerts, conferences, weddings and yoga workshops.

Kamala said the artistic scene in town is also what draws many of their guests to Norman, and is also what brought the couple there, with Norman offering much more than just football.

“My husband is an artist, so we love being close to the arts district and to activities very central to Norman,” she said. “It’s really fun to see your town through a tourist’s eyes. When you live here you kind of take things for granted, but when you get to show your town off to people who haven’t discovered it before, it’s surprising the things you see that remind you just how special home can be.”

***

Nothing but rave reviews have been written about Mar’i’s Place and the host couple.

“I’m so thankful I came across Adam and Kam’s place as it is truly such a special Airbnb experience,” said Mattie, Airbnb guest from New York. “From the moment I arrived, I felt so welcome. I loved being around the vintage vibes and really appreciated all the local tips provided. The location is awesome for enjoying your time in Norman, right there in the coolest area of town.”

The hospitable hosting of the Stewarts has drawn several repeat-guests to Mar’i’s Place. One family used the Norman Airbnb during their son’s journey to make a college decision.

“They were doing campus visits and the son had five different schools over spring break, and (OU) was one of them,” Kamala said. “In July they contacted us and said they were coming back for summer enrollment, and then they later came back to move their son in. They stayed with us three different times from March to August, so to then find out he chose to be a Sooner was pretty neat.”

Kamala said hosting has brought along other special experiences, one being a surprise engagement proposal.

Although the couple wasn’t there to witness it, they were able to read about it from the detailed entry left in the guest book they provide for visitors.

“We have a guest book that’s a little doodle book, so we have guests pick a page and finish the doodle or write something, sign and date it,” Kamala said. “They left us the neatest little two-page spread of a list of all the events and things that happened while they were there, so we had that little memento of their stay.”

The Stewarts’ friendly hosting can be owed in part to their own experiences as guests in other Airbnbs they have stayed in when they travel.

“Hosts all have very different approaches,” Kamala said. “There are some things that make some hosts more hospitable than others. We’re pretty passionate about hosting.”

Kamala said hospitality is especially important to her. She spoke of recent guests celebrating a birthday, so she brought them cookies.

“We try to do those little extra touches,” she said. “That’s probably not as typical for hosts to do, but it’s something that I really love — to help make their stay special.”

 

Q&A with Chloe Klingstedt

By Haley Harvey

Chloe Klingstedt, formerly Chloe Moores, attended the University of Oklahoma pursuing a degree in journalism. After graduating in the spring of 2017, when she was also the arts & entertainment editor at The Oklahoma Daily, Klingstedt married and moved to North Carolina. There, she worked as a reporter for a small newspaper in her town, the Statesville Record & Landmark, before landing her current job as editorial assistant at Our State Magazine.

During her time at the newspaper, Klingstedt wrote a compelling feature on an immigrant mother who overcame being undocumented, homeless and a victim of domestic abuse. Nesa Coleman’s story reminded her of the importance of journalism in shedding the light on subjects that could be misunderstood or hard to talk about.

https://www.statesville.com/news/once-homeless-undocumented-nesa-coleman-succeeding-on-her-own/article_746a6c08-8e93-11e8-befc-674e3a111b39.html

HH: How have you been adjusting to life after graduating?

CK: It’s kind of a long story, but I’ll make it short. I got married in May — my husband and I went to OU and we dated all through college, and he proposed. He is getting his master’s degree in North Carolina. He was applying for master’s programs our senior year of college, so I kind of knew we’d be moving out here, so I started looking at different media organizations. I stumbled upon Our State Magazine and just immediately fell in love with it — the gorgeous photography and wonderful writing. I applied for a position and didn’t get it, but they said they would keep me in mind. I thought, ‘OK, yeah, whatever,’ and in the meantime got a job as a news reporter at a small local paper here called the Statesville Record & Landmark and worked there for a year. About two months ago, I got an email from the Our State managing editor, and they said, ‘We have this position open. Do you want to apply?’ I was just floored that they remembered me, and I applied. After a few interviews, I got the job. It’s in Greensboro, which is about an hour northeast of Statesville.

HH: What has been your favorite story you’ve written so far?

CK: Oh, gosh. At the Statesville Record & Landmark my beats were court and agriculture, which kind of sounds like an odd combination, but in North Carolina there is a very heavy agriculture industry. The county I was living in produced the most milk for the state. They were a big dairy county. So, that’s what I did. I was also one of four reporters there, and when I left I was one of two. I kind of did anything and everything. I wrote everything from court stories, to business openings, to feature stories about artists or unique people, to bigger, agricultural issues in the county. I just did a little bit of everything.

HH: Let’s talk about your story about the undocumented, homeless immigrant woman from Barbados who overcame several struggles. How did you find Nesa Coleman?

CK: It just kind of fell into my lap. I had been working there for a few months and I got this press release about this man who was homeless and got hit by a car in a tragic accident. Through a court settlement, he received a fairly hefty amount of money but lived in a disabled home after the accident, and his life was never the same. After learning about that and talking to some of his caretakers, I started thinking, ‘What does homelessness look like in Statesville and Iredell county?’ which was the county I was living in, and ‘What resources are available?’ I just fell down a rabbit hole. I just started researching all the resources I could get my hands on and started talking to different organizations in the community — the housing authority, different healthcare organizations, the homeless shelters, just everyone. I really just needed to find someone who was going to be this face of homelessness. So, me and our staff photographer went out one day to this homeless camp in the woods and met this man named Daniel. I started reporting on him and right as I started doing that, these two women just walked into our newsroom one day and one of them was Nesa. It was crazy because they said, ‘We’ve discovered this homeless camp in the woods and we feel like we need to help them out. Have you written anything about it?’ I said how I was actually starting to write about it, and Nesa told me that homelessness was important to her because she used to be homeless. When I first started reporting on homelessness, it was going to be like a three-part series. My editor decided that one part of the story would be like a ‘success story,’ like someone who has broken the cycle of homelessness, so I reached out to Nesa. She was once homeless and was also an immigrant survivor of domestic abuse, and I asked her if she wanted to be a part of the story, and she did. I just kind of reached out to her and talked to her, and we just went from there.

HH: Why do you think it’s important for people to know about people like Nesa and the struggles they have faced?

CK: I think it’s important to shed light on something like this because it’s not talked about. Statesville is a fairly small community, the population was approximately 25,000 people, and it is very conservative. Most people didn’t really talk about serious things. So what was really neat was that I got to shed light on these topics because they are something that people don’t talk about, but they’re there if you look for them. I think in every community, no matter how wealthy or well-off it is, educated, or whatever, there are people who are homeless and living in an unstable situation. I reported on this story for months and months and finally got it published, and because I lived in a small community, I had people coming up to me at church and in the community saying, ‘I know Nesa. My kids go to school with her kids and I never knew that about her,’ and how what a powerful story it was. That was really cool. If I had been living in a bigger community, they might not have reached out to me. I think that just reaffirms the fact that that’s what journalism is for — to get those stories out and to bring them to life. They’re not what people think of when they hear of people living in society day-to-day.  

HH: Were you faced with any challenges during the making of this story?

CK: Oh, yeah, but not so much in the actual story itself. Nesa was always very open with me. She welcomed me into her home, let me interact with her kids. I asked her a lot of really personal questions and she was always very straightforward with me, and that was just so cool. I felt so honored that she let me do that. More of my struggles came from the broader struggles that are facing the newspaper industry in general. I started reporting on her story in January, and I don’t think it got published until the summer or early fall. A lot of that had to do with the fact that we were short-staffed, and I was having to report on a ton of things. I wasn’t really able to give the attention that I wanted to that story. Even looking back, you know, I’m my own biggest critic, but there were things that I was not even happy with when it did get published. It was just having to feed the beast of putting a paper out every day. There were a lot of times when I came in in the morning and had no idea what we were putting in the paper the next day. My whole day consisted of turning in content for a few things in the paper, and that’s kind of the struggle of the newspaper, and then on the side having to fight for the story. I had to remind my editor why it was important and why this story needed to be told. So that’s mostly where my struggle came from, not necessarily from reporting on the story itself.

HH: Did you learn anything or come away with any new experiences upon completing the story?

CK: I think what I learned from reporting on this story was, I think a lot of times when you talk about hard subjects like sexual assault, homelessness, gun violence, or any of those really hard, ugly topics in our society, a lot of times we don’t think to ask where the resources are for these people who need help. I was really impressed to see that a lot of those resources are there, and I think I learned that more of their problem was connecting the dots between those resources. It wasn’t necessarily that there wasn’t healthcare available to people who don’t have insurance or are homeless, it wasn’t that there was necessarily nowhere for them to get a job. In those situations, her husband never applied for her green card, and she didn’t have a car or a source of income because she didn’t have a green card. It was connecting the dots of all of those things so that she could start taking the steps to be independent, and to kind of get out of that homeless situation. So that was a huge thing I learned and kind of changed my perspective on homelessness in general.

HH: Did you receive any reactions to the story from any of your sources or the public?

CK: My first reactions were kind of what I said earlier about the people at church who pulled me aside and told me their kids went to school with her kids, and they thought the story was so important, so that’s cool. I had colleagues that I worked with at The Daily who were really sweet and gave me a lot of great feedback about the story. Statesville is a really conservative community, so when we did share the story on Facebook, a lot of the public were very insensitive and ignorant when it came to being undocumented or being an immigrant in the country, which was part of Nesa’s story. They weren’t very understanding of that. But what was really cool that came out of that was that there were people in the comments that called them out on it, or kind of talked about what that means, so that was cool as well. I expected people to react negatively to that aspect of things, but it was cool to see other people in the community have that discussion.

HH: From your experience so far in the world of professional journalism, do you have any advice for journalism students preparing for a career upon graduating?

CK: Honestly, I think the biggest shock — and everyone tells you — is that you’re not going to get paid a lot. But even then, I was really shocked. When I first started at the Statesville Record & Landmark, I made $12.26 an hour. I didn’t know reporters made hourly wages for starting, that was kind of news to me. Which isn’t a bad thing because it means you’re getting compensated for your work, but I made $12 an hour when I interned at the Tulsa World the summer before, and now I had a ‘big girl job’ and it wasn’t much of a step up. My biggest obstacle was honestly making sure I could pay my bills, and that aspect of things was a rude awakening. It’s different to be able to do this at your college newspaper and love it, but then you actually have to try to support yourself. Fortunately, I made it work, but that was kind of a wake-up call. I think you just have to know that going into it, especially for newspapers. You have to really love it because that’s what was fulfilling to me. Obviously I needed to buy groceries and put gas in my car, but the cherry on top was that I believed in what I was doing and thought it was really important work. You have to believe in that or it’s going to be really tough. I guess from more of a newspaper industry perspective, it’s grim right now. I was so sick of everyone telling me in undergrad that print was dead, the newspaper industry is dying, blah, blah, blah. It was easy to brush that aside when I worked at The Daily when advertising and money wasn’t a big part of it. We just kind of got to focus on putting out really great work and engaging with our audience. In the professional world, standards are there. When I started out working at the Statesville Record & Landmark there were four reporters, and when I left it was me and one other guy — the editor who had hired me left. There was a lot of turnover and it was crazy. Even in just the year I was there out of college so much had changed. There are a lot of reasons to be discouraged, so I would encourage anyone who really cares about this industry and think what journalists do is important to have that reality going into it, and to have a really good support system of friends and peers who can cheer you along because it’s definitely not for the lighthearted.

 

Bird scooters used for class commute

By HALEY HARVEY

The beep of an electric scooter being activated can be heard as a student at the University of Oklahoma gets ready to make her morning commute to class. Feet grounded, hands gripping, she pushes off and scoots toward campus.

Amanda Gould, psychology senior, began the transition to riding Bird scooters with their arrival this school year. While many use the e-scooters for recreational purposes, Gould started to use them to get to class instead of walking from her Norman home.

Before “birding” around, Gould occasionally used the Cleveland Area Rapid Transit, or CART, a Norman service that provides bus transportation to residents and OU students. With recent cuts in funding, CART will stop running on Saturdays and also reduce route frequency to Alameda and Main streets starting Jan. 1. This can be a concern to those who have used the service to and from work or class for people like Gould.

“When I took the CART, it was nice, but it can be a pain having to wait at the stops for the bus to come, and sometimes it can be pretty crowded,” Gould said. “With the canceling of some of the routes next year, I think more people will transition to riding these scooters whenever they can.”

With this threat soon approaching, the arrival of the e-scooters in Norman have come at the perfect time.

“I first started riding them for fun, and one day, I decided to ride one to class because I had a long walk to the Physical Sciences Center,” Gould said. “It’s by far the fastest and easiest way to get to class in my experience.”

Concerning price, Bird costs $0.15 per minute to ride in Norman. In contrast, students who use CART are charged a $2.50 per credit hour “transit fee” to their bursar, according to Taylor Johnson, planner and grant specialist for CART. The scooters may not be as wallet-friendly in the long run, but can provide a quicker alternative without the bus stop wait.

This new form of transportation, which has recently flown into Norman, has added a new way to travel on OU’s campus. Norman residents and OU students are using e-scooters that have landed in the city not only for recreation but also transportation since their arrival in mid-August.

Originating in Santa Monica, California, in 2017, Birds began appearing in different urban cities and college campuses around the nation this year. Norman is one of many college campuses where Bird has placed their scooters. Among others are UCLA, Ohio State and Texas.

“I ride the scooters for fun on days when it’s nice outside, and I’ve also used them to get to class when I’m running late but don’t want to drive or can’t get a ride,” said Hannah Phillips, supply chain junior. “I don’t have a parking permit because I live fairly close to campus so I usually walk, but I’ll ‘Bird’ on days when I’m in a rush because it’s so much faster.”

The scooters can get up to speeds near 20 mph and are to be ridden in bike lanes whenever possible.

Functioning by way of the Bird app, users can ride after logging their driver’s license information as well as credit card number. Riders are supposed to avoid sidewalks and not block other public pathways.

Use of the scooters instead of cars for short distances also helps the environment by lowering pollution emissions. Rachel Bankston, corporate communications member for Bird, said the company celebrated their first anniversary with over $10 million environmentally friendly rides since the company’s launch in September 2017.

But it hasn’t always been all fun and games when it comes to the scooters.

Norman city officials released a statement shortly after the arrival of the scooters that the company had until Wednesday, Sept. 12 to remove them from city limits or else would be subject to impoundment when it was discovered the company was operating without the correct permit and appropriate documentation. Despite the threat, the scooters remain.

Terry Floyd, development coordinator for the city of Norman, said Bird and other scooter companies, such as Lime, are in the process of finalizing a right-of-way agreement.

“It lays out some different parameters to accomplish what would probably ultimately be final as far as licensing, and allows them to operate in the meantime,” Floyd said.

Signatures from the company are being finalized, and once they are received in the next few weeks they will be signed by members of the Norman City Council for final approval.

Gould says the only problem she has encountered regarding the scooters is the lack of  nearby scooters at times.

“Sometimes it can be hard to find one that’s parked near me,” Gould said, who lives southeast of Headington Hall. “They’re easy to find once you’re on the South Oval and near other classroom buildings, but they’re more scarce around my neighborhood.”

The scooters have also caused some concerns from other members of the community.

Sara Kaplan, retail marketing coordinator for the city, said she has heard mixed reviews   about the scooters from residents.

“Some people absolutely love them, and some want them off their property,” Kaplan said.

Floyd also said some Norman residents are concerned about their right-of-way and riders leaving the scooters in areas that block walkways.

“A lot of it has to do with blocking our sidewalks for a lot of our disability community and scooters that are in the way of ramps or clearances for those who may be wheelchair-bound or sight impaired,” Floyd said. “It’s very crucial how those distances are maintained.”

With the riders having the choice to park anywhere, there is potential of property owners disliking their presence outside their business or home. Floyd said the company has been efficient in fixing problems and tending to complaints.

“My understanding is that in the event that a private property owner doesn’t like them there, the companies will try and respond within a couple of hours if they’re called to pick them up,” Floyd said. “If that doesn’t happen, private property owners can have them impounded, and I believe some have.”

Anyone can contact Bird officials through their website for any questions or issues they may have.

“But in my understanding the company tries to be pretty responsive if someone does not want them there,” Floyd said.

Despite concerns, some property owners like the presence of the scooters.

“Some businesses actually like them being near their business because it draws foot traffic,” Floyd said. “But to say there aren’t some who have complained or private property owners who have had them picked up, I’m sure there have been.”

One Norman store manager is an example of this.

“I don’t mind the scooters as a whole, but there have been problems with them blocking the sidewalks,” said Andrew Koszarek, manager of Al’s Bicycles on Main Street. “If I can’t park my bike on the sidewalk, I don’t think the scooters should be there either.”

 

Although a fun form of transportation and recreation right now, the future of the e-scooters is unknown.

Floyd said the city is trying to set this up as if it would be a long-term business and transportation model in the community. Whether it will continue into the future or is just a fad, he is unsure.

“We’re working right now with our councils of committees to develop what would be an annual license for them that will lay out additional parameters,” Floyd said. “I know these companies are doing very well now, so, we’re just preparing ourselves to have licensing if they will be here for a long time.”  

As for Gould, she hopes the scooters will be around for a long time for students and others to use around the city.

“Bird has helped me out a lot with a better way to get to class,” Gould said. “So I’m sure they’ve been helpful in some way to other people to get them wherever they need to be in a cheap, fast manner that’s better for the environment.”

 

The art of teaching

By Haley Harvey

Instead of standing at the front of the room, he sits among students. In front of him sits a paper cup of water, cough drops strewn about and a bulky, old-school projector filled with individual film slots of the paintings he discusses. He doesn’t bother with the modern overhead projector nor a PowerPoint presentation.

 

Victor Youritzin’s passion for art which at the University of Oklahoma has spanned for 46 years, is clear during his lectures, even to the adults sitting in the Thurman J. White Forum Building. Today, speaking about American paintings of the 19th century, he goes through the images and pays great attention to the details in every painting, frequently using words such as “marvelous,” “dazzling” and “magnificent” as he points his green laser at different areas of the works. He speaks very quickly and precisely, noting the shapes, shadows and lighting, overflowing with insight as if it’s a secret he just can’t keep.

 

“He gave us more information than we could ever absorb in the hour of class time,” said Gloria Groom, a former student of Youritzin’s. “He would speak about the paintings with such love and understanding of the techniques of the time, how and why they were done. He is just a born teacher.”

 

Throughout his life he has carried with him admiration of art. From his childhood, to his time as a student and eventually to the classrooms at OU, where he has taught since 1972. After officially retiring in 2016, he continues to teach part-time on campus and spreads his love of art to anyone willing to listen.

Groom, a Tulsa native, surpassed the Oklahoma borders to go on to the Chicago Art Institute, where she is the European Painting and Sculpture Chair. She says it was Youritzin’s class on paintings of the 19th century that inspired her career.

Donna Merkt, another former student, is the curator of education and marketing at the Mabee-Gerrer Museum of Art in Shawnee, Oklahoma. She says Youritzin had a genius way of helping students see what made art important and relevant.  

“The experience of examining art with Victor has continued with me always. I find myself asking, ‘What would happen to this artwork if this brushstroke were missing?’” Merkt said, noting one of her old professor’s often-used lines. “He made art very accessible, explaining how the artist’s choices contributed to the viewer’s experience.”

Youritzin’s lifelong passion for teaching traces not to a gallery, but back to when he coached his younger brother in football in a nearby park growing up.

“I love coaching,” he said. “Any time I see somebody playing some sport, whatever it was, I’d go and try to help them out. I just love trying to help people do better with whatever they’re doing.”

Growing up in the artistic Greenwich Village, New York, during the 1940s, Youritzin was surrounded by creative influence.

His family possessed various talents in the realm of fine arts. Youritzin’s father was a gifted photographer and worked as an aeronautical engineer, and his mother was a pianist, writer and gifted ballerina. At only 12 years old, she danced at Radio City Music Hall and toured with famous Russian dancer and choreographer Michel Fokine.

“I wanted to show you this,” he says as he rummages through his brown leather bag, revealing an orange envelope. He pulls out a printed copy of the program from Fokine’s 1928 performance in Cleveland. He points to the top, which reads “Le Reve De La Marquise: Michel Fokine, Vera Fokine, Tania Koshkina.” Koshkina would later become Youritzin.

 

Despite his artistic neighborhood and family, he didn’t always know he wanted to pursue art.

An extremely bright student, Youritzin attended Trinity School, a top college preparatory school on the Upper West Side of New York City where he graduated as valedictorian.

He spent his years as an undergraduate studying architecture at Williams College, which produced highly trained students in the arts and museum field. He refers to the “Williams Art Mafia,” a term used to describe a group of well-trained alumni who run many of the top modern art museums and galleries in America, to exemplify the skilled individuals who were products of the institution.

He went on to Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, however he didn’t like the Ivy League school at the time.

“It was a very great school, but the critics would disagree with each other all the time,” Youritzin said.

It was then that he began to consider transitioning his studies to art, having always had an affinity for identifying quality artistic skill.

He traces his criticism of art back to his childhood when he, his mother and younger brother stayed up late at night, listening to music with the help of his mother’s infallible musical taste. They would analyze it thoroughly, asking, ‘Is this the right pianist touch? Is this the right phrasing? Tempo? Etc.’

 

“I was always interested in quality,” Youritzin said. “Music, choreography, all of the arts, what constitutes the best? I think all the principles of art and what constitutes good art are the same, whether literature, music or whatever it is.”

To those who don’t share the same interest in the world of fine arts, it may seem as if artistic studies have lost their luster amid the growth of our digital world. With many students studying medicine, law and business, the empirical studies of art seem lost in the world of more practical majors. Art history may be seen to some as, well, history.

Youritzin is one who possesses an appreciation of art and has the desire to bring awareness to it. Appreciative of its influence and all that surrounds it, he decided to dedicate his life to sharing that with his students.

During his time at Columbia, he received an invitation from a friend to attend a lecture by a famous German art historian who introduced him to the New York University Institute of Fine Arts. It was there, in a beautiful mansion on Fifth Avenue in New York City, that he decided to leave his architecture studies behind and study art history.

“I thought, ‘This is very nice. I think I’ll transfer here and get out of Columbia,’” Youritzin said with a chuckle, having been accustomed to walking home from his classes in a more dangerous part of the city.

He spoke with the dean of admissions and, given his stellar record at Williams and Columbia, was accepted on the spot.

The thought of teaching didn’t occur to him, however, until he went to a party at the Metropolitan Museum of Art with some friends from NYU. It was there he was informed of an open position at Vanderbilt University from someone who had left on sabbatical.

A New York native, he was hesitant about moving out of the Northeast, having never been south of Staten Island. He jokingly refers to the “View of the World from 9th Avenue” map, featured on the cover of the New Yorker in 1967, as a visual representation of his reservations. It illustrates the rest of the United States as far, barren and irrelevant in comparison to the Empire State.

Youritzin doubted not only the new location, but also his own ability. He recalls having nightmares the whole summer before.

“I thought, ‘Can I do it? Am I going to be up for the job?’ The minute I walked into class to my desk I felt totally comfortable, and I knew right there. Teaching is my life,” Youritzin said.

 

“And I never looked back.”

After a year at Vanderbilt, Youritzin taught at Tulane where he met his first wife, Glenda Green. He finally made it to Oklahoma when Green wanted to be closer to her family in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. He came to Norman as an assistant professor at OU in 1972, and stayed ever since. Ten years following his divorce from Green, Youritzin married Cynthia Kerfoot to whom he was married for a year and a half. They divorced but remain a couple, having been “companions” for 33 years, and have no children.

Youritzin has received many awards and recognitions throughout his career. In 1997 he was a recipient of OU’s highest teaching honor, the David Ross Boyd Professorship, as well as the 2001-02 Most Inspiring Faculty Award from OU’s scholar-athletes.

“He knows so much about art and art history. He’s highly educated and has been an international expert for the better part of three decades,” said Chris Elliott, director of the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at the university, who works in the Forum building where Youritzin currently teaches. The institute is dedicated to providing lifelong learning and personal growth to adults over 50.

“He does such a good job of explaining what you’re looking at and why it’s important. How to actually look at a painting, even down to the minute points of how your brain – how your eyes actually scan a painting. Nobody else can do it like him,” Elliott said.

Teaching is what he does, but also learning from others as well. When some football players were struggling in his class, he recalls inviting them to his home to help and giving them an exam, which they passed. The roles then reversed, and he asked them for their help with a certain request.

“‘Well, now I’ve taught you something, maybe you can teach me something,’” Youritzin said. “I can kick a 35-yard drop kick field goal, but I never learned how to kick a spiral because I was a running back, not a kicker. They were so happy to teach me how to kick a spiral. It was a big deal for them.”

He said he feels privileged to have taught numerous art courses at the university, and to have helped contribute to the success of his students through art appreciation.

“There’s an art to teaching,” Youritzin said. “It’s an art form. A way of sharing good things with other people.”

When asked where his favorite place on campus is, his answer is simple.

“Wherever students are.”

 

Q&A: Amanda Johnson, becoming a leader

By Haley Harvey

Many students discover who they are through what they do in college. There are numerous ways to get involved, with hundreds of organizations to join and positions to hold.

But it’s not easy for everyone to assume the role of a leader. Once a timid student, Amanda Johnson underestimated her ability to take charge in high school.

Now a junior at the University of Oklahoma, Johnson has immersed herself in several organizations on campus, even holding executive positions. Her fear of leadership is one of the past, and she is leaving her mark in the OU community.

HH: Tell me about your childhood and where you grew up.

AJ: I grew up in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. We live in the northwest part of the city and I’ve lived in the same house since I was little. I grew up with one sister, my mom and my dad. We were all super close growing up, and I’m still really close with my family. I went to a really small private school close to my house called Crossings Christian School. I went there from first grade and stayed through 12th grade. It was really small, so everyone knew each other. I knew all of the people in my graduating class because there were only like 50 students, and I had known them since I was in sixth grade.

HH: What kind of things were you involved in growing up?

AJ: I was really involved in sports. I did cross country, basketball, tennis and track while I was there. Since my school was really small, you had the opportunity to do a lot of stuff that you may not have if you went to a bigger school.

HH: Did you always know you wanted to go to OU?

AJ: Yes. My dad went to OU, so everyone in my family has been big OU fans. I’ve watched all the football games for as long as I can remember, and my dad and I always watched them together. I’m a hardcore OU fan. Oklahoma City isn’t that far from Norman, so I would always go to the games when I was little. I just always knew I wanted to go here.

HH: What kinds of clubs or organizations do you participate in at OU?

AJ: On campus I’ve gotten a lot of opportunities to be a part of great organizations. As a freshman I really didn’t know anyone coming to OU, so I thought getting involved would be a great way to connect with people. Since I’ve come here I’ve gotten to be involved with Soonerthon (executive committee), OU Homecoming, I got to be a Rho Gamma this summer for sorority recruitment, a campus ministry called Crossover, the OU Daily, and Camp Crimson. I’ve gotten to be a small group leader these past few summers and being an SGL for Camp Crimson was really fun.

HH: Which one is your favorite to be a part of?

AJ: Probably Camp Crimson just because of the relationships I formed and to see how big of an impact it makes on campus. I think it’s super important to be a part of because it can really shape the lives of these incoming freshman, and just give them a great chance to get connected on campus.

HH: What have you gained from these organizations, or what have they taught you?

AJ: It has taught me a lot about myself and my leadership skills. In high school I was really shy, so I never wanted to take charge or lead in anything because I was scared and didn’t want to make anyone mad. But I realized you don’t have to be super outgoing to be a leader. You can use whatever skills and gifts you have to lead in your own way. It’s given me a great community at OU and I feel like I’ve been able to impact a lot of people as well as help myself grow as a person.

HH: Have you met any people that have made a lasting impact on you?

AJ: I’ve met a lot of people through these various organizations. I made great friends from camp through my connections with my campers and co-counselors, as well as through Soonerthon and homecoming. Being on the executive committee has been a lot of fun, and I’ve gotten to meet a ton of people. At Alpha Phi I’ve met some of my best friends. Working at the Daily has been a lot of fun too because I get to work with awesome people.

HH: Do you hope to stay involved in any of these organizations for the rest of your time at OU?

AJ: Yes. Hopefully I’ll get to continue being involved in such great organizations to be able to impact OU, make great friends and make the most of my time in college.

HH: Have these groups inspired what you want to do after college?

AJ: I think so. I think it’s given me more confidence in myself as a person and has allowed me to form relationships that have shaped me. It has helped me grow so I can be more confident and believe in myself, so that I can do anything I want to do.

HH: What would you say to incoming freshmen who want to get involved, but might be afraid to?

AJ: I would say don’t be afraid to put yourself out there even if it means getting rejected from an interview or an organization. Eventually you’ll find your place at OU and there’s so many great ways to get involved. It really helps you to connect with the community and helps your leadership skills grow. Even though it may seem scary at first, it’s worth it in the end to put yourself out there.