Ken Yazel, longtime Tulsa County assessor, dies at age 76

Ken Yazel, longtime Tulsa County assessor, dies at age 76

Ken Yazel, a retired longtime Tulsa County assessor, died Monday at age 76.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include memorial service information.

Ken Yazel marched through life on his own terms, and that meant sometimes knocking over established norms and rubbing people the wrong way, to put it kindly.

The former longtime Tulsa County assessor, who died Monday at the age of 76, never backed down from a fight and was known to pick one from time to time.

There was another side to the Marine Corps veteran, though, as former colleagues and co-workers recalled Tuesday.

“Ken had a very generous heart,” said County Assessor John Wright, who worked for Yazel for almost a decade before being elected to succeed him in 2018. “He had a very tough persona, but those of us who got to know him through working with him on an ongoing basis saw a much more generous, softer, big-hearted individual than perhaps the public saw.”

Yazel was first elected in 2002 and went on to win reelection in 2006, 2010 and 2014 before retiring in 2018. Along the way, he could be a thorn in the side of businesses seeking property tax exemptions, and he was never shy about taking to task his fellow public officials if he believed they were not playing by the rules.

He once issued a news release claiming the county had misrepresented the size of its budget and failed to take cash funds into account when budgeting general fund revenues.

“The public deserves an accurate, open and transparent look at county operational expenditures,” Yazel said.

Jerry Rock was working in the Assessor’s Office at the time.

“He was a good assessor,” Rock said. “I worked for five assessors, and … he wanted to make sure everything was done properly, that we followed all of the statutes and the law, and he insisted on that.

“And if other people didn’t do it, that is when he would call them out.”

Tulsa County Court Clerk Don Newberry credits Yazel with helping him get to where he is today. Before running for court clerk, Newberry worked nearly seven years in the Assessor’s Office.

“Because of Ken I ended up getting my MBA and my master’s in Indian law — because of his encouragement,” Newberry said. “It was also because of his encouragement that I stayed at the county and stayed in government service.”

Beyond all the bluster and bravado, Newberry said, was a man who genuinely cared about people.

“Whether or not they were best friends or arch enemies, he still cared about their well-being,” Newberry said. “He was a public servant. He felt like that people mattered, and he wanted to make sure as a government representative that he was doing the best things he could do in the best interests of the people that he represented.”

Yazel had already lived a long, colorful life before he was elected to county office. As a kid, he worked in his family’s circus, Famous Cole Circus, near Hugo. He left high school before graduating and entered the military, where he served as a radio operator, parachutist and other positions during the Vietnam War, according to his resume.

Yazel would go on to earn a bachelor’s of science degree in math from the University of Oklahoma and studied accounting at the Wharton School of Finance. He also studied at George Washington University, American University and the University of Tulsa, according to his resume.

“He always encouraged people to get an education, to better themselves. … He was an encouraging force in my life,” Newberry said.

A memorial service is planned for 1-3 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 9, at Wasson Funeral Home in Siloam Springs, Arkansas.

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