BILLINGS — It was no secret that while Henry Bellmon was governor of Oklahoma, he and first lady Shirley Bellmon went back to the farm in Oklahoma as often as they could on weekends. Even living in Washington as a U.S. senator couldn't keep Bellmon away from the farm east of Billings. Bellmon, 86, recently talked to The Oklahoman about his love of the land and what it taught him. "His desire when he was in the Senate was to go back to Oklahoma every weekend and spend part of that time at the farm. Most of the time that desire was realized,” said Andrew Tevington, an assistant district attorney in Oklahoma County and Bellmon's press secretary in Washington and chief of staff and legal counsel while Bellmon was governor a second time. Bellmon liked to be on the farm, getting his hands dirty and doing all the things farmers do, Tevington said. "We always knew when he had been on the farm and had been working. It gave him time to think, and he would come back with more ideas than we could handle,” Tevington said. "This was home,” Bellmon said of the farm. "You get your head cleared pretty quick.”
Bellmon's familyHis father, George Bellmon, was a native of Kansas who had come to No Man's Land with his parents and lived in a dugout beside the Beaver River. Bellmon's father's first wife died on Armistice Day at the end of World War I. Bellmon's mother, who was the second wife of Bellmon's father, George, taught school and looked after her parents until they died. Edith Caskey Bellmon was about 34, and Bellmon's father, was about 10 years older when they met and married. Henry Bellmon was the oldest of the four boys of his mother, Edith, and his father, George. His father was a staunch Republican who worked as a teamster, but he always kept land. He was kind of a philosopher who had many sayings, Bellmon said. One of the more important sayings was: "You ain't learnin' nothing when you're talkin',” Bellmon said. Bellmon took that philosophy into public life many years later. "My mother managed to keep what I think of as a happy house, a happy home for four boys who were pretty competitive. I think she's probably the greatest woman I ever knew, with the exception of my wives. She was determined that we get good educations,” Bellmon said. The last time he saw his mother was when he left to go into the Marine Corps. She worked as a school teacher during the war until she got leukemia, and died while he was overseas. Bellmon, a Marine tank commander, was part of a Marine group at Tinian Island getting ready to go to Iwo Jima for what would become a hellish battle. "They called me on the tank radio and told me that my mother died,” Bellmon said.
Back homeWhen the war ended, Bellmon was given leave and took the USS Baltimore from Pearl Harbor to San Francisco. Nobody was there to meet him, so he got a ride on a bus to a nearby air base, took a train to San Diego and was put on an airplane for Oklahoma City. "When I landed in Oklahoma City, there was nobody there to meet me, so I hitchhiked home,” he said. "I was a surprise to my dad.” When he returned to the farm, he met Shirley Osborn. Their families had been friends and the Osborns lived six miles from the Bellmon farm. They married in January 1947. Bellmon says she was the reason for his success in politics. She organized the Bellmon Belles, a group of women who helped support him in his campaign for governor, which he won in 1962, becoming the first Republican elected governor. She was part of his campaigns for the U.S. Senate and for a second term as governor. Shirley died unexpectedly in 2000 while the family was on vacation in Massachusetts. In 2002, Bellmon married Eloise Bollenbach. Eloise and her late husband, Kingfisher rancher Irvin K. Bollenbach, were longtime friends of the Bellmons.
Political startBellmon turned 21 in the Marine Corps. His father registered him as a Republican. "I didn't have any interest in which party I belonged to. I was overseas in the Marines when I turned 21 and had other things to think about better than politics. I would have to say, if I had to do it again, I'd register the same way,” Bellmon said. The war made him decide to get into politics. "This sounds like a made-up story, but it's all true,” he said. The 4th Marine Division, of which he was a member, was at Maui, Hawaii, waiting for the next island to invade. There's a story about Maui that Congregationalists came to Maui to do good and stayed and did well because they turned the land into pineapple plantations and sugar cane fields, he said. They found that the best workers were Japanese, Bellmon said. When Marines got to Maui, they associated with Japanese people. "It was real strange to go to the homes of a Japanese doctor or schoolteacher, which we did frequently, and then get on a ship and travel for a couple of weeks and land on another island and try to kill all the Japanese,” Bellmon said. "It seemed to me the problem wasn't between people. It was between governments. If I had a chance to get into government when I got back home I would see if I could improve the situation some, a little bit,” he said.
Former Oklahoma Gov. Henry Bellmon poses outside his family's home near Billings. John Clanton, The OKlahoman