Voices of Oklahoma: Henry Bellmon – Déjà vu all over again

Henry Bellmon

Voices of Oklahoma is a nonprofit organization dedicated to “preserving Oklahoma’s legacy, one voice at a time.” Click here to hear Henry Bellmon’s story, in his own words, interviewed by John Erling.

George Santayana (1863 – 1952) wrote “…Those who cannot remember the past, are condemned to repeat it.”  Apparently, Santayana did not know much about Oklahoma politics where a more appropriate observation might be, “The more things change, the more they stay the same” (Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr (1808-1890).

In this “reddest of red states,” it took Oklahoma more than 50 years to elect our first Republican gover­nor (1963).  During Henry Bellmon’s military and political careers – as a Tank Commander, State Representative, Governor, U.S. Senator and as a political appointee – he wrestled with many issues that are still on our political plate today. U.S. foreign policy, funding our public schools, state and interstate energy policies, divisive national politics, political term limits, and running our Department of Human Services were all issues for Mr. Bellmon.

Born in Tonkawa, Bellmon received a degree in Agriculture from Oklahoma A&M (now Oklahoma State) and received the Legion of Merit and Silver Star for his WWII service as a Marine Tank Platoon Leader in the Pacific Theater. In chapter five of his oral history interview for Voices of Oklahoma,  Bellmon talks about a near death experience while sitting in the commander’s seat of a tank. “The gunner sits between the tank commander and the cannon, and a shell came through and cut him in two and I didn’t get a scratch”.  Bellmon said “it was a matter of being a foot back” or he would have been killed.

Bellmon’s military service took him to Hawaii, where the military “rubbed shoulders” with thousands of U. S. citizens of Japanese descent. He recalls thinking “… it was kind of strange to … sail off … for two weeks and get off on another island and try to kill all the Japanese. It was pretty plain to me that there wasn’t a big problem with the Japa­nese people, it was between the governments. I decided if I ever had a chance to do it, I would get into government when I got back and see if I could make a difference.”

After the war, as a Noble County farmer and newlywed, he was recruited to run and was elected to the Oklahoma House of Representatives in 1946. He lost his bid for reelection because “… I didn’t cam­paign.” Chapter 6 of his VoOK oral history explains why he chose that particular campaign approach.

As a local Republican County Chairman, Bellmon was asked to run for Governor in 1962 and regarded himself as something of a “sacrificial lamb.” Convinced that someone had to run, however, he agreed and won. During his first term in office his challenges included overseeing the peaceful implementation  of new federal civil rights legislation in Oklahoma (Chapter 9).

In 1968, while serving as the national chair for Richard Nixon’s presidential campaign, he ran for the U.S. Senate and defeated incumbent Mike Monroney.

One of the most interesting of his stories concerned the night Richard Nixon resigned the Presidency. Bellmon was at a White House dinner because he was an early supporter.  President Nixon spoke to the group about his accomplishments and then Nixon said, “… so I hope I haven’t let you down”.  Bellmon went on to say “… and then Nixon started to cry. He jumped up from his chair and went down the hall.  He made the announcement that he would be resigning the Presidency at 11 o’clock the next day.”  In chapter 11 of his story, Bellmon says of Nixon that his mind was on the Cold War. “I don’t know that there were any domestic issues that he ever focused on really, and I think that was his undoing”.

In 1974, Bellmon was re-elected to the Senate. He did not seek reelection in 1980 and was appointed interim director of the Oklahoma Department of Human Services by Democratic Governor George Nigh in 1982. Oklahoma voters returned Bellmon to the Governor’s Mansion in 1987.

After his political career, Bellmon returned to his cattle and wheat farm in Billings. Oklahoma college students were treated to his insights and foresights, since his political career dealt with so many issues that still face us today. He taught a variety of classes at Oklahoma City University, Central State Univer­sity, OSU and OU. Bellmon died on September 29, 2009, after a long battle with Parkinson’s Disease. His Voices of Oklahoma interview was recorded on April 14 of that year.

Voices of Oklahoma has conducted interviews with over 50 of the state’s most influential political, civic and business leaders. You can hear all the interviews at http://www.voicesofoklahoma.com.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Former Executive Director David Blatt joined OK Policy in 2008 and served as its Executive Director from 2010 to 2019. He previously served as Director of Public Policy for Community Action Project of Tulsa County and as a budget analyst for the Oklahoma State Senate. He has a Ph.D. in political science from Cornell University and a B.A. from the University of Alberta. David has been selected as Political Scientist of the Year by the Oklahoma Political Science Association, Local Social Justice Champion by the Dan Allen Center for Social Justice, and Public Citizen of the Year by the National Association of Social Workers.

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