Oklahoma Policy Institute honors Henry Bellmon (Tulsa World)

By Randy Krehbiel

Few political figures had a broader or longer-lasting influence on Oklahoma during the second half of the 20th century than Henry Bellmon.

“He thought big,” former state Sen. Penny Williams, a Democrat, said during a Monday panel discussion of Oklahoma’s first Republican governor. “He thought reform and progress should go hand in hand.”

The panel discussion followed the presentation of the Oklahoma Policy Institute’s “Good Sense/Good Cents” award to Bellmon’s daughters, Patricia Hoerth and Ann Denny.

Bellmon died in 2009 at the age of 88.

Tulsa Mayor Dewey Bartlett Jr., whose late father Dewey Bartlett Sr. succeeded Bellmon as governor in 1962, said Bellmon was physically and mentally tough but also kind and focused on the business of government.

“The first thing you noticed about Henry Bellmon was how large he was,” Bartlett said. “He was a big man.

And when you would shake hands with him, you’d wonder where your hand went.”

“I never saw a man who could take criticism and let it roll off his back like he could,” Bartlett added. “He had alligator skin.”

Bellmon served twice as Oklahoma governor, 1963-1967 and 1987-1991, and two terms, 1969-1981, as U.S. senator. He was also interim director of the state Department of Human Services during a particularly tumultuous time in 1982.

As chairman from 1960 to 1962, he turned the state Republican Party from little more than a social club into a functioning statewide political organization. Over the course of his public career, he played important roles in education reform, civil rights, transportation and U.S. foreign policy.

Tulsa attorney Lee Paden, a longtime Bellmon aide, said that when he got to Washington, D.C., after the 1968 U.S. Senate election, Bellmon gave him a pair of cowboy boots with the note, “Don’t forget where you came from.”

When Paden complained about a Democrat getting credit for an amendment Bellmon proposed, Bellmon told him, “It’s not important who gets their name on it; it’s that you get something done.”

Bellmon was frequently at odds with the GOP hierarchy, both at home and nationally. He opposed the presidential nominations of Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan, was slow to abandon Richard Nixon, and as governor named several Democrats to his Cabinet.

One of them was Sandy Garrett, who became secretary of education during Bellmon’s second term and was later elected state superintendent.

Bellmon told Garrett he wanted to do something significant for education. Working with the Democrat-controlled Legislature, he oversaw the landmark education-reform package known as House Bill 1017 in 1990.

“Henry Bellmon was going to do what was right no matter what,” Garrett said.

Another longtime aide, Andrew Tevington, said Bellmon believed that personal relationships were the most important aspect of politics.

“Just because people didn’t agree on everything didn’t mean they couldn’t agree on something,” Tevington said.

“He understood there is the politics that are required to get elected and there is the politics that are required to get things done, and the two are not the same.”


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