McALESTER — Former state Sen. Gene Stipe, one of the most powerful and colorful politicians in Oklahoma history died at 6:15 p.m. Saturday after a lengthy illness. He was 85.
Stipe's state legislative career, the longest in Oklahoma history, was tarnished in the end when he pleaded guilty in 2003 to federal campaign violations. He was later indicted again in 2007, but was found incompetent for legal proceedings.
Three previous times he had been indicted by the federal government, but he had managed to defeat the government each of those times.
Services, under the direction of Brumley-Mills Funeral Home, will be 2 p.m. Tuesday at First Baptist Church of McAlester, 100 W Washington.
When he heard about the longtime legislator's death Saturday, former Gov. George Nigh, a McAlester native, said this about Stipe:
“In 1948 a coal miner's son, while living in the Norman fire station and attending law school at the University of Oklahoma, was elected as the youngest member of the Oklahoma House of Representatives. He went on to become the longest serving state legislator in U.S. history. He truly believed in public service. He always encouraged me to also be involved. Thanks, Gene.”
Stipe was the youngest Oklahoman to be elected to the state House of Representatives when he was first joined the Legislature in 1948. The record was later broken.
He was elected to the Senate in 1956.
By the time Stipe left his Senate office in 2003, the Democrat from McAlester had served 53 years in the state Legislature — a record that still stands.
Senior federal Judge Lee R. West of the Western District of Oklahoma issued a statement through Stipe's family and friends.
He said, “I am deeply saddened to hear of Gene Stipe's passing. He was an Oklahoma original. In his more than half century of public service, he helpedensure that each generation of Oklahomans was healthier, better educated, and more secure than the generation that preceded it. It is unlikely that anyone will ever exceed his contributions.”
Former Senate President Pro Tempore Robert V. Cullison said, “Gene was my mentor, my friend and someone I deeply admired and respected. I always valued his wisdom and his deep love for the state Senate. I will miss him.”
Revered by some and politically feared by others, Stipe was known as much for his use of political power to obtain state jobs for constituents as he was for the guile he displayed in Oklahoma courtrooms and on the floor of the Oklahoma Senate.
Constituents would line up at Stipe's McAlester law office on Saturdays to seek help, Nigh recalled. Stipe would stay until the last person went home.
University of Oklahoma president and former Oklahoma Gov. David Boren also remembered Stipe for his concerns about the downtrodden.
“Gene Stipe never forgot his own struggles with poverty in his younger years, and he constantly sought to help those in need in our society,” Boren said. “While we sometimes differed on political issues, I never doubted his heart-felt concern for others.”
Stipe was preceded in death by his wife, Agnes, in 2002.
He later married Mary Bea Thetford in Arkansas in December 2003.
Stipe was born in Blanco south of McAlester on Oct. 21, 1926.
Considered one of the brightest members of the Senate and one of Oklahoma's best trial lawyers, Stipe grew up on Peaceable Mountain near McAlester in an impoverished coal-mining family during the Great Depression.
Stipe could hold an audience spellbound with his oratory and he often did just that during a legislative career that spanned seven decades.
He had just one two-year break in service during his legislative career that began in 1948.
In 1954, he ran against then-incumbent Sen. Kirksey Nix and lost.
But Nix later went to the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals, and Stipe ran again in a special election and won the Senate seat in 1956.
As a legislator, Stipe could debate endlessly to give leaders time to get one more vote for an important bill or to give opponents of legislation enough time to kill a bill. Stipe also could debate for hours to force legislative leaders to cave in on something such as more money for prison guards.
With the state penitentiary located in Stipe's hometown of McAlester, he was always ready to battle for more pay for prison guards.
As a legislator, he could be crafty, employing his vast knowledge of Senate rules to keep something from happening or make it happen.
He once took over a House workers compensation reform bill he opposed by attaching his name as the Senate author after discovering the senator who had helped draft the bill had inadvertently left his name off the bill.
The bill languished in the Senate that year.
During his career, Stipe's name often was mentioned as a possible candidate for a higher office.
In 1978, he ran for the Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate, but finished third in a seven-candidate race. Boren won the nomination and was elected to the U.S. Senate.
Stipe could filibuster when he felt the need.
One night he began a filibuster because he felt the Corrections Department was getting a raw deal.
The filibuster ended some hours later when Senate leaders agreed to work with Stipe to provide more help for the prison system.
Political career ends
Stipe's political career came to an end in 2003 when he pleaded guilty to campaign violations and was forced to resign from the Oklahoma Senate and from the Oklahoma Bar Association. He served six-months home detention.
The campaign violations stemmed from his efforts to help a congressional candidate from McAlester who had little chance of winning.
The candidate Stipe helped was Walt Roberts, a former state legislator from McAlester, whom Stipe backed in the 1998 congressional campaign and had befriended often in the past.
The complaint revolved around money Roberts obtained from Stipe, but which he claimed came from the sale of cattle.
Roberts eventually pleaded guilty and agreed to cooperate with the investigation.
Stipe later pleaded guilty to charges that he funneled more than $245,000 into Walt Roberts' 1998 congressional campaign and then lied to federal investigators about the source of the money.
On Jan. 30, 2004, he was sentenced to six months home detention and fined $735,567.
Stipe, along with a brother, was indicted again in 2007 on allegations they used their positions to obtain $419,000 in state money for a McAlester dog food plant built on property owned by Stipe. He was found incompetent for legal proceedings.
Throughout his legal troubles, Stipe remained popular with many in his home district.
He was the honoree at a ceremony at McAlester in 2004 where close to 250 people came by to pay tribute to him. People in attendance praised Stipe for his contributions to his Senate district, the state and the nation.
Stipe remembered his heroes in book
BY John Greiner For The Oklahoman
In the later years of his lengthy career as a state senator, Gene Stipe got a former reporter to help him write a book about the people Stipe considered to be some of the great heroes of Oklahoma.
When a legislative session would end each week, Stipe often headed out for parts sometimes unknown by reporters, but he could be reached, be it Dallas, New York or McAlester, his hometown.
The writer, the late Ralph Marsh, spent three years following Stipe around or trying to catch up to him to interview Stipe as he was driving to some other place in southeastern Oklahoma for a meeting, trial or some other event.
The result was “A Gathering of Heroes,” written by Marsh in collaboration with Stipe.
Stipe grew up during the Great Depression of the 1930s.
Stipe's heroes in this book were at one time the well known names who headed important state agencies.
People who've been around Oklahoma will recall these heroes of Stipe's. Those heroes listed in that book are:
Lloyd E. Rader, who ran Oklahoma's welfare department and was a master at getting more federal dollars for programs for helping people.
Hayden Donahue, who headed Oklahoma's Mental Health Department for years.
Wade Watts, a civil rights leader in Oklahoma.
Luther Bohanon, a federal judge who presided over the desegregation of Oklahoma City public schools and the lawsuit designed to improve conditions in Oklahoma's prison system.
E.T. Dunlap, longtime chancellor of the regents for higher education.
Stipe was a formidable foe in courtroom
BY John Greiner For The Oklahoman
As a lawyer, Gene Stipe always was a formidable foe in a courtroom where he represented people from all walks of life including a Marine charged with killing civilians in Vietnam.
Stipe traveled thousands of miles to Da Nang, Vietnam, to represent Marine Lance Cpl. Randall D. Herrod, who was from Calvin in southeastern Oklahoma.
The case was detailed in “A Gathering of Heroes,” a book written by author Ralph Marsh in collaboration with Stipe.
Stipe had others helping him in this case.
Some were lawyers.
One was Hayden H. Donahue, who for years had headed Oklahoma's Mental Health Department.
Donahue had been in World War II. Later, he had done a study on battle fatigue, according to the book written by Marsh in collaboration with Stipe.
Donahue testified about battle fatigue and its effects on soldiers.
Another who came to try to help Herrod was a Marine lieutenant who later would become known by an entire nation.
Lt. Oliver North had been saved by Herrod during a firefight.
North later would be part of President Ronald Reagan's administration.
The book said Stipe spoke more than two hours in closing arguments before the Court Martial board.
The board found Herrod not guilty on all counts