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 died after a long battle with Parkinson’s disease. Andrew Tevington said Bellmon died shortly before 11 a.m. Tuesday at St. Mary’s Regional Medical 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 U.S. Senate, as well as one two-year term in the state House of Representatives after World War II. Gov. Brad Henry on Tuesday ordered all flags on state property be flown at half-staff in honor of Bellmon. Tevington, of Oklahoma City, was not only Bellmon’s chief of staff but also his general counsel in Bellmon’s second term as governor. He also served as press secretary when Bellmon was in the U.S. Senate. "We won’t find the humility in a public servant that he had,” Tevington said. "We won’t find the perseverance that he had. On Thursday some of us had lunch and he was talking about what we need to do to follow up on House Bill 1017, the education act. "He said it’s been 20 years and we need to do something so that we don’t fall behind,” he said. "We’re also going to miss the kind of politician everybody says they want, the kind that doesn’t pay attention to the next election but does what’s right.” 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 before. His victory paved the way for the growth of the Republican Party in the state. Most people in Oklahoma’s political world considered Bellmon the father of the Republican Party in Oklahoma. Don Ferrell of Chandler recalls going to a "neighborhood coffee” one night in the early 1960s where he met a guy named Henry Bellmon. "I went home that night and told my wife, Sally, he’s going to run for governor as a Republican,” Ferrell said. "I told her ‘He doesn’t have much of a chance, but we’ve got to support him.’ "He was my kind of guy.” Ferrell ended up working with Bellmon the governor and the U.S. senator. "There was nobody in public or private life that I had more respect for than Henry Bellmon,” he said. "He was the hardest working guy. When he was in the Senate, he was home about every weekend and was around the state talking and listening to the people.” Bellmon and Ferrell were friends for 48 years. In January, Bellmon was at Ferrell’s 80th birthday party. Bellmon told his friend, "Don, a guy goes through three stages in life, youth, middle age, and you’re sure looking good.” 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 Gov. George Nigh, a Democrat. After Bellmon left the U.S. Senate, Nigh pulled off a political coup by talking Bellmon into becoming the director of the state Department of Human Services, replacing longtime director Lloyd Rader, who was retiring. This put a dent in Republican plans to criticize DHS 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.
Helped out partyDuring 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. A 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 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 near 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 members of 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. But 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. Many of them crowded into the state House of Representatives Chamber, where they were met by Bellmon, who was 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.
‘Quiet dignity’When he left the governor’s office the second time, he and Shirley returned to Billings. Bellmon didn’t quit working. The former governor stayed active at Oklahoma State University, his alma mater, in myriad research projects and in directing the activities of the Oklahoma Alliance for Public Policy Research. "OSU has lost one of its most distinguished alums and Oklahoma has lost one of its greatest leaders,” close friend and OSU President Burns Hargis said. "Henry Bellmon was a quiet giant in Oklahoma’s young history. From a humble farm to the U.S. Senate, he served his state and his country with distinction and honor. He had principles of steel and a heart of gold. "The entire OSU community is proud to claim him as one of our own. Our hearts go out to his family. I have lost one my best friends. He had a tremendous impact on my life and I will be forever grateful for his support, guidance and example.” 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. "The world lost a great man who set a great example as an elected official, family man and as a human being,” said Claudia Scribner, who worked with Bellmon in the U.S. Senate and in his second term as Governor. "To him family was his first priority.” 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. "Henry Bellmon was not only a proud Oklahoman, but in many ways embodied Oklahoma, tough-minded, hardworking, honest, patriotic and a true son of the land,” Gov. Henry said. "He was a man who preferred deeds to words. Most important, Henry Bellmon was a superb leader and public servant who always sought to better this state he so dearly loved. "From the state Capitol to the chamber of the United States Senate, Henry Bellmon served his constituents with quiet dignity and an even hand.”
‘Henry Bellmon was the most decent and honorable public servant I ever knew. I admire his service to this state and country and know like others this is a great loss for Oklahoma.’
Former Gov. George Nigh