Hunter Howe Cates: Oklahoma’s Atticus

Imagine, it’s 1953. Dwight D. Eisenhower is inaugurated as the President of the United States, the first polio vaccine was developed, and Moscow announces explosion of the hydrogen bomb.

In Tulsa, Oklahoma, an impoverished Cherokee husband and father confesses to raping and murdering an 11-year old girl. He immediately recants his confession, saying he was coerced and threatened by the authorities. Nobody believes him, except for one man — Tulsa County public defender and Creek tribal member Elliott Howe.

The murder, investigation and trial made national news back in the 1950s. Now it has largely been forgotten. “I’m lucky. I only know this story because Elliott Howe was my grandfather,” said Howe Cates

TU alumnus, Hunter Howe Cates (BA ’10) is a journalist, author, filmmaker and creative marketing professional. He is principal and writer for Cates Creates, LLC, a copy and content marketing firm. He lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and is a member of the Muscogee (Creek) NationOklahoma’s Atticus is his first book.

What inspired you to write Oklahoma’s Atticus?

This story has been in my family for decades and I wanted to share it. I don’t think it’s fair to keep a great family story to yourself if it can inspire others. I wrote a condensed version for This Land Press. I knew there was enough story for a book-length version but wanted to wait for some reason. I ran into my friend, mentor and former teacher Professor  Joli Jensen at a local event and she encouraged me to not only write the book but offered to coach me as well. After a few months of working on it, TU hosted an Agent’s Fair, which I was not able to attend. Professor Jensen did and mentioned my book to a New York agent. The agent expressed interest and gave her info to Professor Jensen to give to me. I worked with my agent to develop a book proposal, which was eventually picked up by Bison Books. So it would be no exaggeration to say that without a teacher, in this case, Professor. Jensen, Oklahoma’s Atticus would not have happened.

While writing the book, did you learn anything you didn’t know before about your heritage?

I learned a lot about my heritage, but even more about the lives of the people in this story and about the city of Tulsa. Our city and state are a treasure trove of eclectic stories and fascinating people, and I was excited to bring some of them to life.

What is your most memorable experience at TU?

There’s quite a few, but I’ll highlight a couple.
My senior year I was the producer and co-host of TU-TV, where I learned a lot from a friend and mentor, Professor David Moncrief, who ran the program. During TU-TV I got to interview Academy Award-winning screenwriter John Patrick Shanley, as well as former TU President Steadman Upham. Both were busy people who took the time to come hang out with us for an hour. That meant a lot.
Another wonderful memory was leading the TU team in the National Student Advertising Competition during my senior year. Every year a national client “hired” students to pitch them a campaign. That year was State Farm. Our idea was “The Cool Old Guy”, a red-sweater-wearing spokesperson who would appear anytime you had a problem, help you out, teach a life lesson and tie it in, however arbitrarily, into purchasing car insurance (“Catching a fish is a lot like making a claim.”) Preparing the campaign was a lot of fun (and work), and led to my present career as principal and writer for Cates Creates, my local copywriting business. While we didn’t win the competition, State Farm started having a red-sweater-wearing character show up in their commercials. So that was cool.
What advice would you give to prospective or current students?
Your classmates are your collaborators not your competition. While I was at TU, I was obsessed with making myself marketable to future employers. Things were especially scary as the financial crisis struck in 2008, my junior year, so the pressure to be employable was great. But I discovered, it’s not what you know and not who you know either. It’s what people think of you. Reputation matters, and every job I’ve ever gotten (including writing the book) came about because of people I know and who believed in me. So my advice is to meet lots of people, try to be nice to everyone, and earn a good reputation. The job market is ever-changing and what makes you marketable today may be irrelevant in five years. Your reputation is your ultimate insurance policy.

How has TU helped you get to where you are today?

The relationships made and the friendships formed. Also, I had several opportunities to be a leader: the TU advertising program, producing TU-TV, and directing short films under the guidance of friend and mentor Professor Jeff Van Hanken. But to succeed in this world you can’t just be a leader of others. The most important thing you can do is learn how to take the lead in your own life.

What’s next for you?

This is my first rodeo, so I’m not sure. I’m looking forward to getting out, meeting folks and talking about the book. Hopefully, there will be a tour soon. As far as future creative projects, I’m considering what to do with an idea I’ve had since college. In fact, this idea was the basis of my senior project with Prof. Jensen. I wasn’t super confident in the idea back in college, but am know. It’s funny how that works sometimes. In the meantime, I encourage interested readers to check out hunterhowecates.com for updates.