Colleagues Reflect on Gov. Henry Bellmon’s Education Legacy (KGOU)

By Ben Fenwick and Brian Hardzinski

Oklahoma’s first Republican governor is considered an architect of the state’s hallmark education movement.

Both opponents and allies of Henry Bellmon described him as the moving force for the 1990 passage of House Bill 1017 that mandated better teacher pay, smaller class sizes and curriculum reform.

Bellmon’s two non-consecutive terms as Oklahoma’s chief executive bookended 12 years in the U.S. Senate and a short term as the campaign manager for Richard Nixon’s 1968 successful presidential run. In August the Oklahoma Policy Instiute recognized Bellmon’s tenure as a state political leader with its Good Sense/Good Cents Award.

Four colleagues reflected on Bellmon’s legacy during an August 4 panel discussion as part of the OPI’s Summer Policy Institute, including Bellmon’s former Chief of Staff Andrew Tevington, former State Sen. Penny Williams, former Secretary of Education Sandy Garrett, and longtime Bellmon staffer Lee Paden.

Tevington said Bellmon was remarkable for both competence and personal integrity, and quoted Bellmon’s own words from his autobiography about requirements for public office.

My own career has shown it is not necessary for an individual to be rich, handsome, eloquent, famous, brilliant, charismatic, or clairvoyant to be elected and serve in high public office. What seems to be necessary is a common touch, a closet free of skeletons, an abundance of energy, the ability to communicate clearly and directly, a supportive family, and a wealth of friends. A refusal of to be cowed by long odds also helps, as does a dose of humility and a thick skin.

Former Secretary of Education and State Superintendent of Public Instruction Sandy Garrett said Bellmon’s governing style reached across the aisle to his political opponents. 

“He was a compromiser,” Garrett said. “You can’t be a dictator and do that. You have to be a compromiser and listen to every point of view.”

When the education measure passed, Garrett said Bellmon insisted on signing the document at a school. She said he selected a south Tulsa elementary school for the moment, signing the measure under a big oak tree.

“In his book, he calls the signing of House Bill 1017 the highlight of his entire political career,” Garrett said. “So, I’m most honored to have known him.”

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.