When Norman artist Tim Kenney afforded me the option of choosing an iconic image for his Cleveland County painting a few years back, many themes were floated. He could have painted an early-Norman railroad scene, something depicting the University of Oklahoma or the town's settlers next to their red-dirt dugouts.
My choice was a rendering of the now-gone Mount Williams, the tall, earthen mound that U.S. Navy contractors built out of dirt scraped to enlarge Max Westheimer Field 77 springs ago. The painting is quite the office conversation piece. Few visitors are unfamiliar with the view.
It adjoined the interstate but was there long before I-35 was completed through Norman in 1959. Thousands of sailors who trained here from 1942 to 1946 used Mount Willams as a backstop for target practice. It was named, likely in jest, for Lt. Commander J.W. Williams, base commander when the Navy officially opened in July 1942.
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The mountain of dirt came down in 2006 as part of the University North Park development. At the time, developers promised a fitting monument noting the hill's history during World War II and the thousands who trained here as pilots, mechanics, machinists and nurses.
To date, there is no monument. Only a street named Mount Williams Drive. Slowly, other parts of the Navy's massive bases are being erased from Norman's landscape. The stately drill hall, now used for Optimist basketball by generations of Norman youth, will come down soon as part of the Norman Forward initiative. An effort to preserve the building fizzled a few years back.
A handful of Navy buildings remain near the airport, and even fewer are left on the South Base. They were put up in a hurry to support the war effort and are slow to come down.
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Norman kids remember learning to swim in the outdoor and indoor base swimming pools. Old Building 92, on Constitution Avenue, was home to many city parks and recreation activities. They hosted basketball, tumbling, wrestling and a variety of other offerings. That's also where the city stored its recreation gear.
OU students, faculty and staff made use of many buildings as labs. Some were used as student housing and homes for start-up companies.
The university still uses a few of the buildings for maintenance shops, although they have been rehabbed extensively.
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The dirt mountain had many names over the years. Some called it "Bullet Hill" because of its role as a firing range backstop. Others called it "Mount Norman." Kids often referred to it as "King Kong's grave."
It was the site of first dates, marriage proposals, fraternity and sorority chalk and banner markings and kid war games. Officially, it was off limits and university police were quick to push kids away for fear of disturbing the nearby airstrip. Local kids spent Saturdays digging lead bullets out of the hill.
It was an important landmark for weary travelers. Kids too young to read road signs knew they were getting close to home when they saw that big hill of dirt.