The Johnson-Hightower family’s story is an archetypal one in Oklahoma City. There were many stories like it – ones in which people from humble beginnings made the most of the fresh start a young Oklahoma City offered – but few of those contained the highs and lows, triumphs and tragedies of this beloved family.
Frank Pearson Johnson grew up fatherless in Reconstruction Mississippi. Along with brother Hugh he built a prosperous printing business in his hometown of Kosciusko, but in 1894 he sold out to Hugh and came first to Texas and then Oklahoma City to start a newspaper with hopes of getting in on the ground floor and building a substantial business in the still wide open town. On arrival, though, Johnson found Oklahoma City already saturated with established newspapers and his Daily Clarion folded soon after. Following a teaching stint at Irving High School, he began an insurance and mortgage business serving farmers in the region and within a couple of years he had done well enough to convince his brother that Oklahoma was the place a guy could make a fortune for himself if he was willing to work hard at it and seize opportunities when he found them.
In 1898, Hugh M. Johnson joined his brother in Oklahoma City for a few months then relocated to Chandler where he had an interest in the Lincoln County State Bank. By 1916, he either owned or controlled all the banks in Chandler. Meanwhile, Frank Johnson had expanded his mortgage and insurance business into a savings bank which he then merged with the American National Bank; he was named president in 1906. Both brothers were marked by their capacity for hard work and their continuous drive to move ever forward and upward.
They were destined to work together again. By 1919, Frank had become a well-respected banker known for his emphasis on economic development and expansion in Oklahoma City. Meanwhile, Hugh relocated to the city after purchasing Edward Cooke’s interest in the State National Bank where he showed a keen sense for venture capital opportunities. Hugh soon changed the name to the First National Bank in Oklahoma City (he had to use “in” instead of “of” because a charter had been issued decades earlier for a bank with the latter name). Thus, at the dawn of the Roaring Twenties the Johnson brothers operated banks in classy buildings on opposite corners of Robinson and Main (Frank’s American National on the southeast and Hugh’s First National on the northwest). They were pioneers in oil exploration finance and had few rivals in the state when it came to these ventures. The inevitable happened in 1927 when the Johnson brothers merged their operations in to a bank they called the American-First National Bank. Two years later they purchased the State Exchange Bank and renamed the new mega-bank First National Bank and Trust Company. They also announced their plans for a skyscraping edifice befitting the stature of the new bank. Their 32-story replica of New York’s Empire State Building was built at the corner of Park and Robinson.
The Johnson family was completely invested in Oklahoma City society and distinguished themselves by patronizing and developing the emerging arts culture of the city, especially the Oklahoma City Symphony. Much of this work was done by the brothers’ wives. Frank P. Johnson married Aida Allen just before leaving Mississippi and they had two children – daughter Ethelyn in 1895 and son Hugh Allen born in 1896 but died in infancy. Frank and Aida built a stately home at 439 NW 15. Hugh M. Johnson married Mary Margaret Mills in 1905 and made their home at 420 NW 14; they had no children.
After World War I, a new member joined the Johnson family. Wilbur E. Hightower was a Homeric figure who excelled in virtually every facet of his life. Although his birthplace was Greer County, he would say he was born in Texas, as that county was added to Oklahoma after he was born. His father, C. C. Hightower, was a high profile rancher in the region who was a founder of Altus and had diversified into many enterprises, including retail stores and the town’s bank. Young Wilbur grew up working in all of his father’s ventures, often behind a broom, but he showed early talent for finance. He also possessed great natural athletic ability and captained every team at Altus High School. At Northwestern University from 1912-1915 he was the lone bright spot on a dismal football squad, named All-American Quarterback for 1914 and scored the team’s only touchdown for the entire 1915 season. He is still much-revered in Northwestern athletic circles. Upon graduation, Hightower spent a year working as a football coach and a touring Chautauqua manager before enrolling in law school at Oklahoma University. Soon after, he sailed for France to serve in the Ambulance Corps during World War I, eventually transferring to the Navy when the United States entered the war.
Although Wilbur Hightower was only in law school for a semester, it was enough time for him to court and become engaged to Ethelyn Johnson. They were married after his discharge from the Navy in 1919. That same year Hightower and Charles Vose, scion of the Vose cotton dynasty, came under the tutelage of Frank Johnson at the American National Bank where both proved to be valuable assets to the rapidly expanding financial empire. The Hightowers made their home first at 409 NW 21, later upgrading to 810 NW 15. In 1923, Wilbur and Ethelyn were joined by a son, Frank Johnson Hightower, and in 1925 by daughter Phyllis Jane. Tragedy struck in 1931 when Ethelyn died of a sudden illness, leaving Frank and Phyllis Hightower motherless and Frank and Aida Johnson with no surviving children. Unfortunately, the loss of Ethelyn was only the beginning of a difficult decade for the family. Still, Frank and Phyllis Hightower grew up in loving embrace of their Johnson grandparents and Uncle Hugh and Aunt Mary though both attended boarding schools on the East Coast, Frank at Exeter and Phyllis at Miss Spence.
The Hightower Building
During the prosperous 1920s, Frank Johnson and Wilbur Hightower began several profitable real estate ventures, most notably the Hightower Building at Main and Hudson. Johnson had purchased the lots when they were part of what was considered a suburban farm. He had studied Downtown business patterns and had reasoned correctly that the corner would become the most heavily trafficked retail intersection and could sustain long-term higher rents. The building was originally only three stories, but was later expanded to ten in 1928 and named the Hightower Building for Johnson’s grandson, Frank.
Frank Pearson Johnson died in 1935, leaving the banking empire to his brother and his immense personal fortune to his grandchildren in a trust. Wilbur Hightower then moved into a more active role at First National and exhibited the same prowess for development as his father-in-law mentor. He was instrumental in the clearance of the railroad right-of-way and subsequent construction of the Civic Center, and securing Tinker Air Force Base and the Douglas Aircraft Plant. He also moved his family to 1500 Drury Lane in Nichols Hills; the developer, G. A. Nichols, had a long running finance relationship with both Johnson and Hightower.
In the early 1940s, Frank Hightower graduated from Yale and Phyllis from Miss Spence. Frank was unable to follow his father into war service because of a medical disqualification, so he joined the Foreign Service of the State Department. At 19 in 1942, Phyllis married Lieutenant John Roby Penn III, scion of a Texas oil family. In early 1944, however, Frank Hightower’s world fell apart.
Mid-January saw the sudden death of his uncle Hugh M. Johnson from influenza. Though Johnson had been president and chairman of the board of First National, the board named Wilbur Hightower as president and R. A. Vose as chairman. Then on February 4, Frank Hightower’s doting grandmother Aida Johnson visited him in Washington, DC a few days before he was to depart on an overseas assignment for the Foreign Service. While there she became ill with influenza and died suddenly. Hours later, Wilbur Hightower borrowed an airplane from his friend, oilman Leslie Fain, and hired pioneering aviator Roy Hunt to fly him and his daughter Phyllis to Washington. Two other pilots were on board so the flight could continue with only refueling stops, but outside Elkins, West Virginia, amid sleet and fog, the plane slammed into the side of Rich Mountain, killing all aboard. Leslie Fain died of a heart attack upon hearing the news. In a span of an afternoon, Frank Hightower lost his grandmother, father, and sister. He found himself in possession of the accumulated fortunes of Frank P. Johnson, Hugh M. Johnson, and Wilbur E. Hightower, but alone in the world.
Though Frank Hightower was offered a position of rank at First National, he chose to work from the building which bore his name; he majored in history at Yale, not finance. His departure from the bank (though not divestiture) made way for the Vose era at First National. Hightower spent the remainder of his long life making Oklahoma City a better place. He had been educated to appreciate fine culture and was possessed of extraordinary taste but, rather than relocating to either coast, he sought to elevate Oklahoma City through the arts and other venues of high culture. In addition to supporting the arts, Frank Hightower, along with his wife, Dannie Bea, were active in many beautification projects in the city. Amid the destruction of the Urban Renewal era Downtown, Hightower renovated his building and opened the city’s only four-star restaurant, The Cellar, in the basement and an upscale department store on the first floor. In contrast to his father’s high profile life, Dannie Bea Hightower remembered, “Frank Hightower wasn’t one for the spotlight; he liked to watch things from his eighth-floor office.”
The documents and photographs presented here provide a rare glimpse into the personal lives and homes of the people in this story as well as remarkable views of the buildings associated with their careers. The Hightower Collection at Retro Metro OKC was generously shared with the people of Oklahoma City by Frank J. Hightower’s son, Johnson Hightower, to whom we express our sincere gratitude.
— Buddy Johnson
Scanning by the RetroMetro OKC Resources Committee