Even those who know Mike Cawley well have never heard the bulldozer story.
In Spring 2005, Noble Research Institute (known then as The Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation) was near completion of a historic campus expansion that would double the organization’s footprint to more than 500,000 square feet.
Noble’s Ardmore campus was abuzz with construction. A massive tunnel system had been installed under the new campus. Three new buildings had been erected. A backup power station was built to ensure a constant flow of energy to the campus even during poor weather. Still, there was dirt work to be done, so heavy machinery remained a mainstay of campus life.
Cawley, Noble’s president at the time, was one of the architects of this immense project, and he was not content to be a spectator. His staff knew Cawley as the stalwart captain of Noble’s ship. To better Noble, to empower farmers and ranchers, Cawley would move heaven and earth. On this day, he was going to do the latter.
With nothing but blue skies as his witness (and one sneaky photographer), Cawley emerged from his office looking like anything but the dapper president. His trademark blue suit, white shirt and silk tie had been ditched for work clothes. In chinos (which few had ever seen him wear), a hat and sneakers, he looked like any dad headed to Lowe’s. A handful of looky-loos assembled. This was a surprising moment. It was like watching Superman in overalls.
Cawley climbed aboard a bulldozer and — after a short tutorial — began moving dirt. Cawley would be the first to point out that his intentions were not purely altruistic. Childhood dreams need to be fulfilled after all. This was no joyride though. He was working, focus etched on his face. He approached moving that soil like he did everything – with intention and excellence.
“Oh, I remember that day,” Cawley says. “That was the first time I ever drove a bulldozer, and it was on our project. It was a fun and special moment.”
Six years after he climbed out of the bulldozer’s cab, Cawley retired from Noble. He is the longest tenured president in the organization’s history, serving 20 years (or nearly 30 percent of Noble’s 75 years).
A decade after he gave his farewell speech, the man who wrote volumes in Noble’s annals is adding one more chapter. Through his career, he’s held many titles with Noble — general counsel, board member, president, and now finally donor.
This is Mike Cawley’s Noble legacy — extended.
A Noble Journey
To know Cawley is to know his wife, Betty Jane, a modern Audrey Hepburn if there ever was one — classic, elegant and gracious. They moved to north Oklahoma City to be closer to family a few years after Cawley retired. Their new home is a magazine-ready showpiece that reflects the woman who decorated every inch of it.
An impressionist painting of a field of red flowers — picked up on one of their post-retirement vacations — greets visitors in the foyer. Broad, open windows allow a cascade of light to fill the spacious living room. The baby grand piano is positioned just so in the corner. (She plays. Cawley’s baritone voice is a soothing, booming marvel.)
Betty Jane is away on a quick trip to Dallas, so Cawley is a bachelor for the day. He settles into an armchair and begins talking about his grandchildren when his cell phone dings. The text says: “Hey big guy, you up for some golf later?” He smiles and dismisses the text without answer. Golf will have to wait. He has to take a stroll down memory lane first.
A native of Hooker, in the Oklahoma panhandle, Cawley and Betty Jane came to Ardmore in 1972 just months after he graduated from the University of Oklahoma College of Law. His first law office sat one floor below that of Jim Thompson, a seasoned attorney with an excellent legal library he was willing to share. The two became acquainted and eventually shared office space.
Thompson himself had served as Noble Foundation president from 1953 to 1966, remaining as Noble’s general counsel even after he left the corner office. By 1977, Thompson was ready to retire, so he introduced Cawley to Sam Noble (founder Lloyd Noble’s son), chairman of the board of Noble Affiliates, as his recommended replacement. Cawley served as Noble general counsel for the next decade before Sam Noble asked him to join the board of trustees. Four years later, Sam Noble asked him to succeed John Snodgrass and become president.
Under Cawley’s guidance, Noble experienced an unparalleled era of growth. Net assets increased more than 500 percent; the board of trustees invested more than $100 million to expand physical infrastructure; programming blossomed; and the employee base doubled. After all he had accomplished, Cawley concluded it was time to step aside. He said at the time that one of the most important decisions a leader can make is determining when it is time to leave, and this was his moment.
At an all-employee meeting in late 2011, he literally passed the baton to his successor Bill Buckner, stepped aside and let Buckner address his new staff — a magnanimous gesture that surprised no one. His retirement officially took effect on April 30, 2012.
A few weeks later, Cawley entered his office with cardboard boxes. He pulled one item off a shelf at a time and packed it away. When he came to a photo of his grandchildren, he said: “Grandparents play such an important part in the lives of their grandchildren. I want to be there for them. They’re the reason I’m going.”
Life After Noble
True to his word, grandchildren have been the focal point of Cawley’s retired life.
The Cawleys’ two adult children, Kristen and Kevin, have increased the grandchildren total from six to eight in the last decade.
Cawley positively glows as he muses about watching his family grow. “We enjoy being a part of their lives as much as possible. The grandparent-grandchild relationship is special.”
Of course, there’s been the required post-retirement travel. He promised Betty Jane time away, and he’s made good on that, as they’ve ventured abroad a few times. However, Cawley is a leader, and that doesn’t just stop because he retired from a job. Cawley has always served on community and corporate boards throughout his 40+ year career. That only intensified in recent years.
“Oh, I’ve been busy with board work. Lots of board work,” he says. “I’ve been asked to serve, and I’ve enjoyed doing so. I think my past experiences at Noble and with other community and corporate boards offers me a unique perspective in addressing problems. So, I’m happy to help out.”
And help he does.
Omitting the dozens of past board appointments and focusing just on his current activities, Cawley supports the following civic and community organizations: The Merrick Foundation, the Dean McGee Eye Institute, the Dean McGee Eye Institute Foundation, the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation, the State Fair of Oklahoma and the Oklahoma Arts Institute’s investment committee.
All of which keeps this “retiree” more than busy. Cawley says he was satisfied with his balance of grandchildren, travel and volunteer work in 2019, but then Gov. Kevin Stitt came calling. He asked Cawley to serve on the University of Oklahoma Board of Regents, filling the unexpired term of a departing board member. Cawley said yes, as he did again in March 2021, when he was appointed to serve as chairman of the board.
These requests to serve the alma mater that shaped his life were personal, and his response a testament to his dedication as an alumnus. Cawley continues to give time and energy to OU whenever he is called upon. During his time as Noble president, Cawley served OU as chair of the fundraising efforts associated with the completion of the Jimmie Austin Golf Club course at OU and the Charlie Coe Golf Learning Center. He also served on the search committee that resulted in the hiring of Joe Castiglione as the University’s athletic director in 1998. He received the University of Oklahoma Regents’ Alumni Award (1996/1997).
His service to his school continued the deep connection between OU and Noble as well. Founder Lloyd Noble; his son, Sam Noble; and daughter-in-law, Mary Jane Noble; all served as OU regents. “There are a great number of parallels, and I’m honored by it,” Cawley says. “I really do feel like some of these invitations come because of my associations with Noble and my friendship with the Noble family.”
As chairman, Cawley represented the OU board of regents at the 50th anniversary of the Game of the Century, when nationally ranked Oklahoma (No. 2) and Nebraska (No. 1) played for the Big Eight title on Thanksgiving Day, 1971. On a clear day in fall 2021, he stood on Owen Field as the Sooners prepared to play the Cornhuskers once again. Life had come full circle, as he had watched the original game from the stands as a senior in law school. A lifetime later, there he was again.
“I’ll say this: The good Lord has done a remarkably good job in stewarding me, in moving me and keeping me engaged,” Cawley said. “There has been a focus and appropriateness. I can honestly say that I’ve not done all the engineering. I’m thankful for the life I’ve lived.”
It’s this gratitude that keeps Cawley and Betty Jane in a continual state of giving, not just of their time, but also of their financial resources.
Giving to Noble
Slip up the back stairs of Cawley’s new bungalow, and there is a loft just big enough for a home office and a couple of twin beds for grandchildren sleepovers. A mounted television swivels away from the wall and perches in front of a simple desk. It was here in the spring of 2021 that Cawley sat down and wrote a check to the organization he faithfully served for the majority of his life; an organization whose founding mission and vision — perpetuation of agriculture — and the land and the people who are its stewards — he wholeheartedly embraced.
“The more time I spent at Noble, the more I came to understand the incredible vision of Lloyd Noble and what he was trying to do for agriculture and our country,”
Cawley says. “Supporting agriculture and the people who conduct such work is as important today as it was in 1945 when Mr. Noble founded the organization — probably more so.”
As Cawley speaks, the muscle memory takes over. The new donor gives way to the man whose legacy is forever intertwined. The passion for Noble’s mission returns as the former president once again becomes a Noble herald. He speaks with conviction about the founder’s vision for the land and agriculture. He connects the deep moral and spiritual values conveyed through working the land — values like accountability and hard work — to the broader impact Noble has on society at large.
“Times and people will change, but the bedrock principles — goodness and quality — transcend changes in culture,” Cawley says. “Noble perpetuates these things forward. Its mission is focused on agriculture. It’s carried out through agriculture, but its impact is so much greater than any one sector or industry.”
He pauses, smiles then becomes the donor again:
“So there aren’t a whole lot of better things someone can give to.”