Bruce and JudyLee Oliva embody purpose of USAO’ Echo Society

A photo of the "Flight" sculpture (an abstract rendering of a scissortail flycatcher) in front of Nash Library in the early morning
Planned giving organization celebrated its 20th anniversary in May

Last month, the University of Science & Arts of Oklahoma celebrated its 115th Founders’ Day, the anniversary of the establishment of the institution. During a luncheon, the college also recognized the 20th birthday of the Echo Society, a group of people who have included the university in their estate planning.

Playwright, director and theatre professor JudyLee Oliva, along with her husband Bruce, are a couple who truly embody the purpose of the Echo Society, and they have decided to leave a significant portion of their estate to help future USAO students.

“We didn’t have children, so we have really been having conversations about what would be the most useful way to leave something behind, and to whom,” said Oliva. “In the larger picture, we knew we could help more people by leaving our estate to an educational institution. My mother was born in Chickasha, and I have lots of family buried at Rose Hill [Cemetery]. It all kind of came together, and it felt right for us to leave it to USAO.”

A member of the Chickasaw Nation, JudyLee Oliva has a particularly close association with USAO, having written the musical “Te Ata” about one of the university’s most illustrious alumni, Te Ata Fisher. After graduating from the institution, then known as the Oklahoma College for Women, Fisher developed a stage show based on Chickasaw traditions and traveled the world sharing her culture with heads of state, dignitaries and other key figures of her time.

Though she is Chickasaw, Oliva had never heard of Fisher growing up. While a professor at the University of Tennessee, she received a grant to study native performance in Oklahoma and stumbled upon a cache of files about Fisher in the Western History Museum at the University of Oklahoma. She spent the next 13 years researching and developing “Te Ata.” Determined to do it “the way it should be done,” Oliva met with many of Fisher’s family, friends and even her former OCW professors. In 2012, Oliva revived the play at Oklahoma City University with Native American flute and drum music, instead of the more traditional musical style of its initial incarnation.

“I met Roger Drummond, the former theatre professor, in the early 2000s and he did one of the first readings of ‘Te Ata’,” said Oliva. “He extended an invitation for me to come to USAO to develop the play. We did the world premier there in 2006. In that time, I established a strong rapport with Dr. Feaver and the rest of the campus community. It was a wonderful place to develop a new play, and I am very thankful for it. The university extended so much kindness and support for the play at a time when many other places did not. It really meant a lot.”

As a former professor herself, Oliva has always found that the relationship between students and faculty at USAO is something that truly stands out from other universities. The campus’ small size ensures a great deal of communication between the two, and lots of Oliva’s own students have “really found a home” in Chickasha. The university’s interdisciplinary curriculum is also a major factor in giving students an extra element for their future success.

“You almost have to be a jack of all trades these days to do anything,” said Oliva. “The more students are exposed to different ways of learning, the more beneficial it will be to them in the long run, even if they do not realize it at the moment. Sometimes students don’t exactly know what their niche is until they try things, and they have opportunities to try different things at USAO and explore more than in other universities. This is really so important.”

In 2003, a group of 27 alumni and friends of USAO established the Echo Society to recognize those who include the university in their will or in a planned gift, with funds supporting student scholarships as well as academic programs. The society’s name speaks to how people can extend the influence of their lives in the same way an echo continues to resound long after the speaker is silent.

“The Echo Society is an extraordinary group of people,” said JP Audas, vice president for advancement and executive director of the USAO Foundation. “Since its founding, 20 years ago, this group has grown considerably. Initially, there was $1.2 million dedicated to the university through people’s estates, that has now grown to $25 million. I am extremely grateful for your vision, your generosity and for the amazing things that you have done and continue to do.”