In 1996, Kari Watkins became the Oklahoma City National Memorial’s first-ever staff member. Now, she’s the executive director of the memorial and the museum, as well as race director for the Memorial Marathon. Under Watkins’ leadership, the museum and memorial have received a slew of accolades and awards, including accreditation from the American Alliance of Museums, the Videographer Award of Excellence and multiple PRSA Awards. Watkins is a mother of two and lives in OKC with her husband, Hardy. We caught up with her and got her thoughts on … 

… how she became the
museum’s first employee.

A local attorney I was using for a business transaction recommended he pass along my resume to his partner Bob Johnson, who had been asked by Mayor Norick and Gov. and Mrs. Keating to chair the Memorial process. I said sure, never really thinking anything would come of it. I had a call from Bob that night, met with others from the Memorial Task Force, and quickly saw the community’s passion for creating something very unique and special. While I had witnessed the ‘Oklahoma standard’ first hand as a third generation Oklahoman, I had no idea what the magnitude of this job would become. But, I quickly realized that remembering the brutality of the attack and the tenderness of the response, and educating about the senselessness of violence, would be an important life calling.

… the process of building
the museum and memorial.

The mayor appointed a 350 member task force to look at what the memorial could become. It was a process that started in the summer of 1995 and lasted through the completion of the museum in February 2001. We met with families and survivors the last Monday of every month for five years.  All this was before the internet as we know it today, but it gave everyone a chance to participate if they so chose to do so. 

The first step was to create a mission statement, then a process for the design competition and story creation for the Museum. All this had to be done while raising funds to build it. 

We went to Congress to talk about the process (the days of President Bill Clinton and Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich) and knew the process had to stay at the local level. The design was discovered through an international competition of 624 designs from all 50 states and 23 countries. Ground was broken in October of 1998 and dedicated in April 2000. The Memorial Museum was dedicated in February 2001. People are still surprised to learn today that this was built with $5 million federal dollars, $7 million state dollars and more than $12 million in private donations. Today as a national memorial, it is owned and operated by the Oklahoma City National Memorial Foundation.

… what has kept her in the job. 

I have a passion for teaching this story, finding new stories and storytellers, and making sure this next generation learns the impact and senselessness of violence. 

… her favorite
sections of the museum.

Without a doubt, the Gallery of Honor, showing the 168 faces of those who were killed, and an artifact that honors their life. To step to the museum interactives and watch home video, understanding why they chose the symbol they did, is powerful. The handwritten recipe from a mother to her daughter impacts me the most. My hope is everyone can find some place or some story in the museum that is relatable. 

… the future.

Our goal is to keep adding to our online Virtual Hope Trunks with artifacts, stories and objects that help tell our story to people near and far. Our educational programming will continue to improve, and the Memorial Marathon is adding a new Senior Marathon, which allows those 65 and older to participate by running/walking/jogging one mile a week then running/walking/jogging the last 1.2 miles on race weekend. 

…unity. 

Oklahoma City has done so much in the last 27 years, it is hard to imagine all that we have done united together. I think we have to continue to work to show a community is united through the hard times, so we can celebrate the good that comes along the way. 

… any specific
distinctions or accolades
that mean a great deal to her.

I think the FBI award for recognizing our education programs and outreach helped others see this is a national story with a national perspective, impacting thousands. 

… her off-hours. 

I, like most people, love my job but also love giving back to a community that has given me so much. I am the vice-chair of the OKC Convention and Visitors Commission; served on the MAPS 3 Scissortail Park Subcommittee; am serving on the MAPS 4 Clara Luper Civil Rights Center; am part of the Board of Visitors of the Gaylord College of Journalism at OU; and an Elder at Crossings Community Church. My husband, Hardy, and I love times with our kids – Caroline, a freshman at OU and son, Ford, a junior at Davidson College in Davidson, N.C., where he plays football.