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A Career of Thinking Bigger - Spring 2021

by April Marciszewski

Man in glasses smiling and family with three children and two dogs
Photos provided by Clinton Purtell

Clinton Purtell has always been ambitious. He tackled the challenge of a broken back in high school and carved out a new path in business, graduating early from Oklahoma City University in 1997. His mind and his stories haven’t stopped since.

He learned back in 1991 when he became perhaps Oklahoma’s first high school student concurrently enrolled in college that “when you think you’re thinking big, think bigger.”

A preacher’s kid, always on the move, Purtell was bored as a high school freshman. But his parents — the Rev. Vaughn Clinton Purtell (BA Sociology ’50) and the Rev. Marsha Nan Purtell — were connected to OCU through the United Methodist Church. His mother spoke with then-President Jerald Walker and School of Business Dean David Charmichael, and within a few weeks, Purtell was signed up for English composition. It was just the challenge he was looking for. Next came a class in business law, and by the time he finished high school, he had dozens of credit hours.

Despite his ambitions, Purtell suffered a catastrophic setback during the last football game of his senior year, breaking his back. He had dreamed of playing football and flying for the Navy, following his father’s and maternal grandfather’s examples of military service.

“I didn’t get a chance to serve,” he said, so “now I serve my country by serving those who serve me, working with a number of military nonprofits, with a focus on helping veterans become entrepreneurs.”

He landed at OCU, earning a bachelor’s degree in international finance and a minor in Asian studies in 1997. Looking back, he appreciates the “Christian balance” that OCU offers.

“It allows you to be an individual in your own beliefs,” he said. “That was part of my spiritual journey — figuring out who I was and who I wanted to be.”

One idea from a class discussion that stuck with him was defining courage: “the willingness and ability to stand up and do the right thing.”

After graduation, Purtell pursued a whirlwind of academic and business opportunities. He earned a master’s and later a doctorate at his mom’s urging. He managed the retail managers at Cracker Barrel, finding success in introducing the world to a fish on a plaque that sang “Don’t Worry, Be Happy”; helping spread rocking chairs to more locations; and contributing to a loyalty program of books on cassette that could be returned to the next Cracker Barrel on a customer’s journey.

He has worked in the aerospace, medical, and transportation sectors, with a focus on corporate entrepreneurship. At Cadbury Schweppes Americas Beverages (now Keurig Dr Pepper), he was a director for North and South America at age 29.

“My career was a fun ride, and I couldn’t have done it without OCU,” Purtell said. “The thing I enjoyed best about business and industry was helping other people. It’s what got me up in the morning.”

As his fast-track career developed, he wanted to make a positive impact on society beyond economic value. As a Christian, father, husband, and servant-leader, he wanted to instill in others the positive qualities that had been instilled in him, challenging himself in a new way, he said.

Now he teaches entrepreneurship and develops external partnerships in Frisco, Texas, for the University of North Texas. He loves to educate, mentor, and inspire future leaders, he said.

An academic career also gives him time with his wife, Amber, and their three children: Clinton (“Chip”), 11; Jacquelyn, a high school freshman; and Brooklyn, a high school senior. In business, he spent 90% of his time traveling globally, but now he can be home for games, concerts, and homework.

“I realized that you only get to be ‘Dad’ once,” he said. “This is the closest I’ve ever been able to be to them.”

Purtell’s parents both died in November from COVID-19. “It was a shock,” he said. He had initially chalked the virus up to being an “overblown flu,” but his mother, known in the Methodist conference for her loud and jovial laugh, caught it while conducting a funeral for a close friend. She had double pneumonia within days and died just a couple of days after that at age 69.

His dad, age 96, suffered a fall the day after his mom died, then tested positive for COVID-19, and died two weeks later. Just before his dad died, he started having a “conversation” with his wife. His father suffered from dementia, but it was abundantly clear from his dad’s side of the conversation that he was understanding and confirming that it was “OK to come home,” although he was worried about leaving family and churches behind. He ended the conversation saying, “She is here. It is time for me to go,” and he passed away peacefully, Purtell said.

“I tell you what,” Purtell said, “we did not hold funerals. We held celebrations of life. After Dad passed, I immediately knew they were dancing together in heaven. It’s very likely they are working just as hard in heaven to do good.”

After Vaughn Purtell retired from ministry, Marsha Purtell went to Phillips Seminary in Tulsa and went on to lead a number of churches. She had previously served as a teacher and social worker.

In memory of their passion for serving the underprivileged and the military, Purtell established the Purtell Family Endowed Memorial Scholarship at OCU to benefit first-generation, low-income students and dependents of deceased military veterans.

In walking campus recently, Purtell was enthusiastic about OCU and its bright opportunities.

“I’m super-excited about what OCU is doing. I was just blown away at how much it has grown.”

He looks forward to continuing to support his alma mater, he said, and ensuring future students have the same educational opportunity he had to accomplish their goals and “think bigger.”

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