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Sandra Mackey
Middle East expert and author Sandra Mackey memorialized with chair and professorships
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Seen here in the middle of an Iraqi war zone, Sandra Mackey both advised top generals and educated the general public about Middle East culture and politics.

Adventurer, analyst, teacher and journalist. All these titles and more encompass the vivid life of Sandra Mackey, whose contributions to understanding the Middle East will be memorialized with a $2 million gift to the University of Oklahoma Foundation.

Mackey, an Oklahoma City native who died in 2015, was a leading Middle East expert and author of six acclaimed books. Mackey’s family has honored her legacy by creating a chair and two professorships in OU’s College of International Studies.

“Sandra believed OU had the potential of becoming the best Middle East center in the country,” said her husband, Dr. Dan Mackey, a 1963 OU College of Medicine graduate. “We thought that this is what she would have wanted.”

“Sandra Mackey’s knowledge of the Middle East and its complexities was rivaled by only the most seasoned hands,” said colleague and friend Joshua Landis, director of OU’s Center for Middle East Studies. “Most of all, however, Sandra was an educator. She was the best kind of public intellectual, always keenly aware that to reach people she had to entertain as well as to instruct.”

That awareness came from Sandra’s initial career as a high school history teacher. During her first date with Dan, Sandra shared that she was fascinated with the Middle East. “I came home and told my roommates, ‘I have met the most amazing woman.’ ”

Their early married life took them to Borneo for a medical fellowship and the University of Virginia, where Sandra was among the first class of women admitted to UVA’s graduate program. She used her Borneo experience to publish a thesis foretelling events in the new Federation of Malaysia.

Dan got an inkling of his wife’s future when he was offered a monthlong appointment in Saudi Arabia. Sandra toured the Middle East and rendezvoused with Dan in Damascus, Syria. “She met me at the airport and said, ‘We’re going to Beirut.’ I told her, ‘Sandra, there’s a civil war going on in Beirut,’ and she said, ‘Of course, that’s why we’re going.’ ”

When Dan was hired to return to Riyadh on a permanent basis, a friend who worked for CNN encouraged Sandra to surreptitiously report about what she saw in Saudi Arabia. Censorship had made it nearly impossible to get information out of the country.

“She started writing analysis pieces under the pseudonym of Michael Collins,” Dan said, adding that her articles were smuggled out of the country and mailed for publication in The Christian Science Monitor, the Washington Post and many other national newspapers.

The Mackeys worked in Riyadh for four years. Upon returning stateside, Sandra began writing The Saudis: Inside the Desert Kingdom, published in 1987 and used in college courses today. She continued traveling the Middle East and wrote five other books, including 2002’s The Reckoning: Iraq and the Legacy of Saddam Hussein, noted for predicting outcomes of U.S. involvement.

“She chose to write books for the general reader, not for the specialist, because she was a teacher and she used her books as a way of trying to teach Americans about what was happening in the Middle East and why they should care,” Dan said.

Sandra became a popular and familiar commentator on national news programs. She also was invited by the U.S. Army to help prepare officers before serving in Iraq. Landis believes Sandra’s self-deprecating manner, wit and charm were her secret weapons for gaining the confidence of experts and laypeople alike.

“I am literally a little old lady in tennis shoes,” she once said. “What’s the harm in talking to me?”