Brook Tarbel (1924-2011)

by Shawna Lewis


Brook Tarbel was born in the heart of Hollywood, where his mother made her dough as a talent agent for big movie stars like Gloria Swanson. His father died when he was two, forcing his working mother to send him to boarding schools like Phillips-Exeter Academy and Black Fox Military School. For such an unconventional up-bringing, daughter Anne Tarbel says he didn’t talk about it much.

“He didn’t spend a lot of his time in Hollywood, because of being away for school,” she said, “but he would be back in California for holidays and special occasions. His aunt and uncle had an avocado farm that he would spend some time on. And then he would go back to school, where he learned alongside Charlie Chaplin’s son, and other interesting people.

“It wasn’t bad. And it wasn’t something he ever had much to say about.”

Tarbel was drafted into the army in 1943, where he landed in Normandy, fought in the Battle of the Bulge and the European Theatre, and earned a Bronze Star and several Purple Hearts in the process. But he wasn’t chatty about this time period of his life, either.

“There were a few things he would tell us,” Anne said. “One of the awards he got was for good conduct, and he used to say, ‘That’s only because I never got caught.’ And he would swap stories with another vet if he found himself in conversation with them, but other than that, he was tight-lipped about it.”

After the war, with petroleum engineer- ing degree and family and in tow, Tarbel landed in the oilfields of Tulsa, where he ran a drilling company. When he and some colleagues took a private company plane to Pittsburgh for a meeting, a bad landing left Tarbel permanently disabled.

“The plane hit the tops of some trees, and ended up hitting the ground hard. The other passengers on board—the pilot and two others—had some broken bones and trauma, but my dad was the only one who wouldn’t walk again. He suffered spinal damage. I was a senior in high school at the time and remember wondering what he would look like when he came home.”

Tarbel spent the next year in New York City at a rehabilitation hospital. When he came back, Anne was off at college, but remembers visiting her dad at home and thinking “He looked about the same, actually. But a lot had to change.”

Tarbel had come home to a two-story house he couldn’t navigate, a car he couldn’t drive, hobbies he couldn’t enjoy, and a business that had evolved without him. But Anne says her dad didn’t back down. He had found something worth his time and energy.

“They built a new house, got him a hand-operated car he could drive, and he kept going down to the office to make things happen. He was still himself, and he was going to stay passionate about his community—which is what led him to get so involved with the organization Ability Resources.” The non-profit’s aim is to help disabled people maintain their independence. Tarbel took on their mission with vigor, advocating the Americans with Disabilities Act until it was pushed through.

“He worked hard to make that happen,” Anne said. “And once he did, he became the go-to person in town for teaching companies to comply with the new codes. The BOK Center actually called him to come in and help them figure out what kind of ramps and railings they needed in their building. He kept everybody up to date.”

Ability Resources is still hard at work in Tulsa, continuing to build on Tarbel’s legacy. Anne says her dad would be proud of their steadfastness, never being one for giving up.

“Even though he couldn’t surf like he did when he was young, he still managed to find some risks, like playing poker. And even though he couldn’t rev an engine with his foot, he still managed to drive like a bat out of hell. … He had fun, he told jokes, and he spoke out for the disabled. He never complained.”