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.
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