Courtroom battle splits star's Oklahoma hometown

A water tower proudly proclaims that this is the hometown of country music star Garth Brooks. The main road through town? Garth Brooks Boulevard. So when the singer was awarded $1 million this week after suing the local hospital — whose logo is on a slightly larger water tower across town — residents felt torn.

A jury in the Oklahoma county where Brooks now lives agreed that the hospital, which sits along Brooks' namesake street, reneged on a pledge to use his $500,000 donation to build a women's health center in honor of his late mother. Jurors chipped in another $500,000 in punitive damages.

Now, residents in Yukon are stuck in the middle of a spat between their native son and one of the city's largest employers that sponsors dozens of programs, from local school events to the Yukon Senior Olympics. The hospital had argued that Brooks put no restrictions on the 2005 anonymous donation.

“My oldest kids grew up in this town with no medical facility,” said Jeannie Benson, a local real estate agent and longtime resident. “If they got hurt, it was a 30-minute drive to the nearest place to get help. The hospital, to me, is a very, very big deal.

“I don't know Garth. I've never met the man. I do know the hospital and the people that work there,” Benson said.

Brooks left Yukon as a teenager for Oklahoma State University and eventually a country music career in the 1980s, well before Integris Canadian Valley Hospital opened in 2001. Since then, Integris has become a vital part of this Oklahoma City suburb, which was among the state's fastest growing communities over the last decade.

The hospital employs 350 people and donates to dozens of local events and youth groups, including the high school choir, band and basketball teams and the annual Christmas in the Park. Integris also is Oklahoma's largest health care company and employs about 9,000 people at its 16 hospitals and nearly 100 affiliated clinics across the state.

Yukon and its roughly 24,000 residents are about 140 miles from where the two-week trial was held in Claremore. Brooks and his country music star wife, Trisha Yearwood, live in nearby Owasso, and locals there described the couple as generous philanthropists.

“He's a silent but engaged Owassoan,” said Chelsea Harkins, the city's economic development director. “He oftentimes likes to remain anonymous, and we respect that. They're great community citizens and great community partners.”

Brooks also has performed concerts to help victims of flooding in Nashville, Tenn., and for people who lost their homes from wildfires in California. In 1999, he founded the Teammates for Kids Foundation that raises money for children's charities by partnering with celebrity athletes.

After the jury announced its verdict Tuesday night, Brooks indicated he wouldn't abandon the idea of honoring his mother in his hometown but made clear he was done with Integris.

“This is how I feel: One day, mom's name is going to go on the women's center right there where the hospital is, but that hospital won't be owned by Integris when it happens, I can tell you that. That's my dream,” he said after jurors — many of whom said they were fans of his music but could be impartial — awarded him double his original donation.

Hospital officials are looking forward to putting the matter behind them and hope it won't affect future donations, Integris spokesman Hardy Watkins said. During the trial, hospital attorneys noted that Brooks, while questioned during a deposition about conversations he had with the hospital's president, said he couldn't remember what promises had been made.

“I hope that people will come away with an understanding that this is one isolated, granted a high-profile, donor encounter,” Watkins said. “There are numerous other examples of successful donations being received and those projects being completed and now serving the public.

“While it is uncomfortable to consider right now, I think and hope people will certainly look at the entire spectrum of our donor history and commitment to the communities we serve.”

For now, though, the courtroom drama has been the topic around town, said Tamara Gray, a 19-year-old waitress at a diner near the hospital.

“My thought is, if you donate money, it should go where you expect it to go,” Gray said Wednesday.

“I think they both have an important impact on the community,” 31-year-old J.T. Chronister said as he sat in a coffee shop across from the hospital. “It seems like there was just a communication failure in there somewhere. That's my guess.”

Catrina Steury, who works in a hair shop along Garth Brooks Boulevard, said “it's cool to have a big star from the community” but that the singer isn't usually a topic of conversation.

But most said there were clearly no winners in the case and wished the entire situation could have been avoided.

“It's given everybody a black eye: the city, Garth, the hospital, everybody,” said Benson, the local relator. “I think it's very unfortunate.”

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