Henry Bellmon, the Oklahoma farmer who became the state's first Republican governor and turned his party into a political contender, has died. He was 88.
Bellmon's former chief of staff said the former Oklahoma governor and U.S. Senator has died after a long battle with Parkinson's disease. Andrew Tevington said Bellmon died shortly before 11 a.m. Tuesday at St. Mary's Medical Regional Center in Enid.
Bellmon, who sometimes displayed a political independence that angered supporters and enemies alike, twice served as governor.
He also served 12 years in the United States Senate as well as one two-year term in the state House of Representatives after World War II.
In 2004, Bellmon had heart bypass surgery.
In September 2007 he suffered a minor stroke but quickly recovered.
Bellmon stunned Oklahoma with a victory in the 1962 governor’s race. No Republican had held that post since statehood. His victory paved the way for the growth of the Republican Party in Oklahoma.
Most people in Oklahoma’s political world considered Bellmon the father of the Republican Party in Oklahoma.
Although a conservative, Bellmon supported some tax increases and successfully pushed for others in his second term as Oklahoma governor.
In a tribute to Bellmon in 1995, Gov. Frank Keating reminded the crowd of Bellmon’s farming heritage, noting that Bellmon followed a lifetime practice of farmers by getting up early in the morning. He said he once called Bellmon at 7 a.m., only to be told by Shirley Bellmon that her husband had been up and at work since 5:30 a.m.
“Seven o’clock to Henry is noon,” Keating quipped.
He said Bellmon was the anchor of the Republican Party, the person “who has kept us facing the wind and doing the right thing.”
Among his friends from his political years was former Oklahoma Gov. George Nigh, a Democrat.
After Bellmon left the U.S. Senate, Nigh pulled off a political coup by talking Bellmon into becoming the new director of the state Welfare Department, replacing longtime Welfare Director Lloyd Rader, who was retiring. This put a dent in Republican plans to criticize the Welfare Department under Nigh’s administration.
Oklahomans began learning very early in Bellmon’s first term as governor how independent he could be. First he refused to wear a tuxedo at the inaugural ball.
“I’m not going to wear any cockeyed tux,” he said.
Years later, he would wear one.
During his first term, Bellmon showed Oklahomans his penchant for saying what he thinks, regardless of the political flak it could generate.
Oklahoma was suffering from a drought. But Bellmon opposed federal drought aid to Oklahoma farmers, saying it would destroy their self-reliance.
In his first term, he got the state’s turnpike system refinanced, making it possible for the Muskogee Turnpike, a second leg of the Indian Nation Turnpike and the turnpike authority administrative offices to be built.
An Oklahoma governor could not succeed himself during Bellmon’s first term. When he left office, he didn’t run for the U.S. Senate.
He said his burden was to prove that the two-party government could work in Oklahoma.
“I felt very strongly that for the first Republican governor to use his office to promote another job would give the Republican Party a black eye in Oklahoma,” Bellmon said.
But he ran for the U.S. Senate two years later, defeating longtime Democratic Sen. Mike Monroney.
Bellmon had been serving as the national chairman of the Nixon for President Committee when he resigned to run for the Senate.
The outspoken Bellmon ruffled feathers in his own party in 1972 when he criticized the state Republican Party for not fielding more candidates that year.
He angered many Oklahomans, particularly those in Oklahoma City, when he refused to back legislation to outlaw busing to achieve racial equality in schools.
In 1976, he endorsed President Gerald Ford for the Republican nomination. Only trouble was, the Oklahoma Republican Party’s state delegation was committed to former California Gov. Ronald Reagan at the Republican National Convention.
In 1978, he endorsed the Panama Canal Treaty, causing an uproar in Oklahoma.
A year before the 1980 election, Bellmon announced he would not run again. He left the Senate in 1981, saying 12 years in Washington and the Senate was enough for “Shirley and me.”
He and Shirley returned to their farm in Billings, the place they always called home.
He was the interim welfare department director for Nigh in 1982.
In 1986, he announced he would run for governor, saying the state will be facing tough times but he would have felt “like a real shirker to sit it out.” He won by a narrow margin.
Bellmon pushed through bills to raise gasoline, diesel, sales, cigarette, beer and liquor taxes. Bellmon also pushed through House Bill 1017, a controversial school reform and tax act.
His biggest opponents in the Legislature were the legislators in his own party.
Bellmon also used his veto power more times than any other governor up to that time.
He also pushed and won voter approval for a constitutional amendment to shorten legislative sessions. Not every Bellmon plan was accepted.
In his second term as governor, Bellmon recommended phasing out the state Veterans Department. Between 2,000 and 2,500 veterans marched on the capitol, carrying flowers. As many as could crowded into the state House of Representatives Chamber where they were met by Bellmon, a Marine and Silver Star winner who fought at Saipan and at Iwo Jima, one of the bloodiest battles in Marine Corps history.
Bellmon explained his program, thanked the veterans for coming and then later abandoned that plan.
When he left the governor’s office the second time, he and Shirley returned to Billings, the family home. Bellmon didn’t quit working.
The former governor stayed active at Oklahoma State University, his alma mater, in a myriad of research projects and in directing the activities of the Oklahoma Alliance for Public Policy Research.
In 2000, Shirley Bellmon died unexpectedly in Cape Cod, Mass., where she was vacationing with Bellmon and other members of their family. Close friends said she was in good health as far as anyone knew. She had been an integral part of Bellmon’s successful campaigns for governor and U.S. Senate.
In 2002, Bellmon remarried. He and Eloise Bollenbach married in a private ceremony in Perry. Eloise Bollenbach and her late husband, Kingfisher rancher Irvin K. Bollenbach, were longtime friends of the Bellmons.
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