BILLINGS — They’ve never taken the country out of Henry Louis Bellmon. Don Todd rolled the steering wheel clockwise as he guided the 2005 Dodge Caravan off State Highway 74 onto State Highway 15, also known as Henry Bellmon Highway, and headed east toward Billings. From the passenger seat the former Oklahoma governor looked through the windshield at the February breeze pushing the thick winter hair of black calves grazing on green wheat pasture. Bellmon, 87, was headed home, "to the farm.” He has Parkinson’s disease and about five years ago he underwent open heart surgery. These days he’ll drive a little, but not much. He leaves that up to Todd and others of Cherokee Strip Transit, who take him from the home he and his second wife, Eloise, have at Kingfisher, to therapy at Enid, and "to the farm” east of Billings. What I realized while riding with him from Enid to the farm was they’ve never taken the country out of Henry Bellmon. Why? "I grew up knowing about crops, animals, machinery, land and rural people,” he said. "I would have been a complete misfit in a law office in Oklahoma City or a real estate office in Tulsa. And I’d probably been equally as much of a misfit as a roughneck in the oil field or an 18-wheeler driver. The options I had weren’t too many. It was to do something that I liked to do and knew how to do.” The same hands that signed legislation into laws also picked cotton, shocked wheat and gathered hen eggs. Those hands have vaccinated cattle, guided a John Deere tractor and chopped ice with an ax. The farm in northern Oklahoma is where he was raised, where he and wife Shirley raised three daughters and where he raised wheat and cattle. The closer Todd drove us toward the farm, the more Bellmon seemed at home and the more that one line played through my head.
He took the country with himThey’ve never taken the country out of Henry Bellmon. Iwo Jima didn’t do it when he was a Marine in World War II. "The experience I had with machinery on the farm helped me learn what I needed to know about tanks and artillery, mechanized warfare,” he said. "And working as I had done on thrashing crews, you learn to work as part of a team and that’s what we had to do in the military.” Two terms as governor of Oklahoma couldn’t do it, either. "When I ran for governor the first time there’d never been a Republican governor of this state and I thought I had a big handicap being a rural person,” Bellmon said. "But I found that being a farmer was a big asset to me.” He found that cities tended to be Republican. Plus, he could go to communities such as Hugo, Valliant or Idabel in southern counties and talk about, with knowledge, the rural issues that were important to people. "Even though we didn’t carry some of those counties, we got enough votes to give us a victory statewide,” he said. "That was true both times.” Serving two terms as a U.S. senator couldn’t get the country out of him. "Every senator is pretty much a self-contained unit, he’s got his own state, his own constituents to think about,” Bellmon said. "But you do have people you look to for information and like to talk things over with.” Those people for Bellmon included Sen. Cliff Hansen, a cattle rancher from Wyoming, and other senators who came from farming and ranching backgrounds. "There was a camaraderie among those people who had similar rural interests,” he said. Todd drove us by the tattered brick, one-room schoolhouse Bellmon attended as a child. We went south to the old home place, built more than 100 years ago, and then traveled a short distance back up the road to the home Bellmon built in the early 1960s.
‘Proud of rural culture’I asked how much he thought being from rural Oklahoma helped him lead this state. "Well, I’m not sure I ever felt like I was leading anybody,” Bellmon said, "but I’ve always been proud of the rural culture of Oklahoma.” And he’s not talking about the past. "Even though the rural population is down, the effect of agriculture is still fairly predominant, even in the cities,” Bellmon said. "Most people there have some connection with farming and agriculture within one or two generations.” His connection to agriculture isn’t a generation or two removed, because they’ve never taken the country out of Henry Louis Bellmon.
• Born: Sept. 3, 1921
• Education: Graduated from Billings High School and from Oklahoma A&M (now Oklahoma State University) with a bachelor of science in agriculture.
• Military service: U.S. Marine Corps, 1942 to 1946; awarded the Silver Star for bravery during the battle of Iwo Jima in 1945. Political service:
• Elected to the state House of Representatives from Noble County in 1946; served one term and was defeated in a re-election bid.
• Elected as Oklahoma’s first Republican governor in 1962, serving from 1963 to 1967; elected a second time in 1986; serving from 1987 to 1991.
• Elected to the U.S. Senate in 1968 and again in 1974; did not run for re-election in 1980.
AT A GLANCEWhat is Cherokee Strip Transit? Cherokee Strip Transit, a division of the Northern Oklahoma Development Authority, has 40 vehicles and 42 employees. The main office is in Garber with seven satellite offices. Director Rita Kroll has been with the program since March 1993 with two directors preceding her. Service areas Cherokee, Blackwell, Garber, Kingfisher, Medford, Perry, Tonkawa and Watonga and nearby surrounding communities with trips into Oklahoma City and Tulsa.