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Friends remember Henry Bellmon's 'heart of gold,' fierce independence

FROM STAFF REPORTS Modified: September 30, 2009 at 5:58 pm •  Published: September 30, 2009
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.” has disabled the comments for this article.

‘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


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