Bill W. Burgess, Jr., a lawyer, businessman and University of Oklahoma Board of Regents member, died Friday. He was 62-years-old. Details of his death were unavailable.
In the wake of his passing, state and congressional leaders expressed their condolences for the man honored in the state for his business, education, and philanthropic work, and a member of the Oklahoma and Education halls of fame. Burgess also had a portion of Interstate 44 near Lawton named after him.
“I learned of Bill Burgess’s passing last night as I was driving through Lawton on the highway named for him," wrote Sen. James Lankford, R-Oklahoma, in a post on Twitter. "Like that highway, Bill was such a foundational part of the Lawton community. He was a fierce defender of Lawton, a visionary for growing the community, and an endless advocate for Fort Still. I will miss his leadership and his friendship. I pray for his family during this difficult time. May they find peace, joy, and comfort in their memories of Bill."
Governor Mary Fallin appointed Burgess to a seven-year term on the board of regent in 2014. Burgess was the chairman of investment group Vortex, former owner and publisher of The Lawton Constitution, and senior partner at his Lawton lawfirm Burgess and Hightower. Burgess sold the Lawton Constitution in 2018. He was also chairman and owner of Techrizon, a software engineering company contracted by the U.S. Department of Defense.
“I was shocked and saddened to learn of the sudden and untimely death of my dear friend Bill Burgess of Lawton," said Rep. Tom Cole. "Without question, Bill lived an incredible life in service to his community, state and nation."
Governor Kevin Stitt, who is now tasked with filling Burgess' seat on the board of regents, called Burgess a "selfless servant" to the Fort Sill community.
"While the people in Lawton were his first priority, Burgess was a generous giver of his time and resources to move our entire state forward. Burgess’ legacy will live on through the vital projects he supported and advocated for to advance Oklahoma’s military installations, to mentor young Oklahoma entrepreneurs, and to promote higher education. Our thoughts and prayers are with the Burgess family during this difficult time,” said Governor Kevin Stitt.
With Burgess' passing, it means there are not just one, but two open seats on the board of regents for the University of Oklahoma. Stitt said this past week he wants to see more diversity on the board in the wake of, yet again, two recent incidents involving people in blackface. Businessman and Oklahoma City Thunder chairman Clay Bennett resigned from the board late last month because of health issues. Stitt has said he's aware the seven-member board lacks African-Americans and wants the board to better reflect OU's diverse campus.
"I'm not from Oklahoma and not familiar with Oklahoma politics, but I do hope the governor does choose wise person, and a bi-partisan person as well," said Jamelia Reed, an OU sophomore studying industrial systems engineering, who has also been involved in organizing campus protests following the recent racist events.
Reed said she's saddened by Burgess' death, and aware of the challenges ahead, considering Bennett's decision to step down. However, Reed is optimistic about Stitt's awareness of board of regents lacking diversity, hopes he reaches out to students, faculty and staff when making his decisions, and that he ensures the future regents carry on educational excellence at all campuses.
"It puts a lot of us in a sticky situation. We already knew we were going to have to replace one regent. Now replacing two," said Reed, who is African-American. "And it doesn't need to be a political decision. It needs to be an education decision. Because that's what the university of Oklahoma is here to do. To give students and families the opportunities to change their lives with education."
Former Oklahoma governor and OU regent Frank Keating said he was shocked to hear of Burgess' death, having traveled to Miami for the Orange Bowl in Miami for the college football playoff between Oklahoma and the University of Alabama.
"He's going to be hard to replace. He was very knowledgeable, as well as very bright. Losing Clay Bennett was calamitous to the board, as well," said Keating, who suspects Stitt will find two first-rate Oklahomans who care deeply about the university, reform and excellence.
"I'm hopeful there will be a diversity statement. We have two women on the board. we have no African-Americans and I think that's important to fill that space," said Keating, who said he has already given Stitt a list of four people who he thinks would be a good fit. "But I think, in the case of OU, a diversity statement is hugely important because it is a diverse campus."