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Kelli O'Hara receives honorary doctorate from Oklahoma City University

A version of this story appears in Tuesday's The Oklahoman.

For Kelli O'Hara, OCU honor is 'beautiful time’

After winning the top award given for Broadway achievement over the summer, Kelli O’Hara now has received the highest honor her alma mater can bestow.

Capping a year in which she won her first Tony Award, O’Hara, 39, was conferred an honorary doctorate of humane letters during a ceremony Monday at Oklahoma City University’s Petree Recital Hall, where she said she performed many times as an undergraduate, from her entrance audition to her senior recital.

“I just always wanted to do what I’m doing so badly. This is above and beyond what I would ever need, just like the other thing,” O’Hara said, drawing laughs as she referenced her Tony. “You don’t know what to dream for and hope for when you’re just wanting to do it. If you remember those times as you are right now, sitting out there as students, you just want to be given a chance to do it. When you are, if you hold onto that, and never forget that, that gratitude, then you will win — your heart will remain peaceful.”

Along with the honorary degree, the actress/singer received a key to the city from Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett, a piano tribute from her longtime collaborator Jan McDaniel, an OCU associate professor of music, and a standing ovation from the 500 students, faculty and members of the OCU community who attended along with her family.

“I’m speechless, and that’s not usually something I can say about myself. I’m emotional and heavy, and it’s beautiful. I was quite shocked by everything, really,” O’Hara told The Oklahoman after the ceremony. “I think so much of this has been a surprise, so I was pretty overwhelmed.”

Highest honor

OCU President Robert Henry and trustee Jane Jayroe Gamble nominated O’Hara for the honor, which he said is the highest the university can bestow. The Elk City native graduated with her bachelor of music in vocal performance and opera from OCU in 1998.

“I always want to earn something, so there was a part of me that wondered, ‘Well, gee, I didn’t get my master’s and certainly haven’t studied for my Ph.D.’ But then I started to feel like I have learned a lot. There’s a big education out there in the real world, and I think we all go to school,” said O’Hara, who will give a presentation at 11:30 a.m. Tuesday at St. Luke’s United Methodist Church.

Cornett praised O’Hara as “one of the great ambassadors that Oklahoma has” before giving her a key to her home state’s capital city. In a tribute video, Henry dubbed her “the Meryl Streep of Broadway,” noting she was nominated for five Tony Awards prior to winning in June for her current lead role in the revival of the classic musical “The King and I.”

Laughter and tears

Along with the video tribute, which featured well wishes from “The King and I” cast and crew, OCU Bass School of Music Dean Mark Parker read several congratulatory letters, including one from legendary performer Julie Andrews, who wrote “I’m a huge fan of your artistry, your beautiful voice, your discipline.” While the students laughed and cheered, O’Hara raised her fists in triumphant and took an impromptu bow after Parker read the letter from the “Mary Poppins” icon.

“No one needs to call me ‘doctor’; I prefer just Kelli. Miss O’Hara if you’re nasty,” she quipped during her acceptance speech, again drawing appreciative roars from the crowd. “That’s a Janet Jackson reference that I’m really surprised you youngsters even know.”

Although she often delighted the audience with her quick wit, O’Hara also often wiped away tears during the ceremony.

“It’s a beautiful, beautiful time. I’ll just hold on to it and feed on it for a long time,” she said backstage before spending a private moment with Florence Birdwell, her voice professor at OCU, and then attending a reception where she posed for photos with dozens of students.

“My memories are all here. All my career began here, and a lot of the emotional journey with my career. I think that’s what moved me the most was just walking into the room, because I have so many memories here in this room. … I can remember how much I wanted to do this work, and so to come back having known that I’ve done some, it’s overwhelming to me right now.”

By Brandy McDonnell (2015, December 1). Interview & video: Kelli O'Hara receives honorary doctorate from Oklahoma City University. Retrieved from



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