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
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 party
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.


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‘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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