The body of former Gov. and U.S. Sen. Henry Bellmon reposed most of Friday at the state Capitol in Oklahoma City. Bellmon’s political career spanned the latter half of the Twentieth Century. His influence will continue for generations.
Bellmon’s remains, resting in a wooden casket, lay in state for most of the day Friday, before the historic Charles Banks Wilson painting of Oklahoma’s favorite son, Will Rogers. The casket was flanked by U.S. and Oklahoma flags.
Early in the morning the rotunda was quiet, shortly before hundreds of Oklahomans came to pay their respects and spend a few moments in quiet reflection. A rotating honor guard from the Oklahoma Highway Patrol stood at attention as members of the Bellmon family greeted visitors and well-wishers. Many who came wore the tiny red, white and blue “B” lapel pins from his campaigns in 1962, 1968, 1974 and 1986.
Late in the afternoon, before Bellmon’s body and his family traveled to Edmond and eventually to Perry for Saturday funerals, a stream of distinguished visitors came to the rotunda. U.S. Appeals Court Judge Robert Henry and his wife Jan, former U.S. Sen. Don Nickles, former Assistant U.S. Attorney John Green, State Rep. Joe Dorman and DHS Secretary Howard Hendrick were present. Just before 4 p.m., Gov. Brad Henry and his wife Kim stood quietly before Bellmon’s mortal remains, beneath the splendor of the state Capitol dome.
Bellmon, a decorated hero in World War II, never ceased being a farmer from Billings in north central Oklahoma, and it seems appropriate that is where his body will lie at rest.
Along the way he was the first Republican governor in state history, winning a stunning upset in the 1962 election. Later, he was the first Republican to serve a second term as chief executive, the 1986 contest with David Walters. In between, Bellmon rocked Oklahoma’s political world with a 1968 U.S. Senate victory over Mike Monroney, and a 1974 win over Ed Edmondson. The latter was a race so close that it had to be resolved on the floor of the U.S. Senate.
In response to questions from The City Sentinel, or in statements sent to this reporter, most who commented on Bellmon’s life focused as often on personal integrity as they did on politics. Republicans and Democrats alike hailed him as a role model and innovator. Bellmon was an important figure in my life, nudging me away from Democratic roots with his 1968 Senate campaign, before I served as a volunteer in his 1974 reelection.
A representative sampling of comments from MidTown and state leaders follows.
Former Oklahoma County District Attorney Robert H. Macy, a Democrat, remembered Bellmon as “a good executive” who “had the audacity in 1962 to put Oklahoma’s two-party system to the test. He was absolutely honest, truthful, always a gentleman. He could be hard-headed, but I never questioned his integrity.” Macy said Bellmon, despite his unflappable demeanor and generosity toward critics, was “an in-charge guy as governor.”
Former state Commissioner of Labor Brenda Reneau, a Republican, said Bellmon was “a tremendous man who had a heart of gold. His accomplishments were impressive, but what really stands out is his dignity and character in the midst of the rough and tumble of politics. I found him not only intelligent but also funny. He was easy to be with, more engaging in person than one might have thought from seeing him on television. I am fortunate I never got in a fight with him, because I probably couldn’t have won it if I did. Years from now, when people speak of Henry Bellmon, they will remain in awe of his character, his independence and his moral example.”
Bi-partisan praise continued in the comments of two incumbent local officials. County Commissioner Brian Maughan said, “Gov. Bellmon officially established Oklahoma as a two party state with his election as Governor in 1962. I appreciate how he always did what he thought was right, even if it wasn’t the most popular thing to do. We could certainly use more conviction like that in Congress today.”
State Rep. Al McAffrey said, “Oklahoma has lost a great leader. Gov. Bellmon was a true statesman who sought to create compromise, not divisions. He led an extraordinary journey and touched many lives along his way. I can say with confidence that Oklahoma is better off because of Henry Bellmon’s leadership.”
Oklahoma City Disabilities Committee chairman Pam Henry remembered she volunteered for Henry Bellmon’s campaign for US Senate in 1968 and interacted with him “a good deal of the rest of my life.” She said he was “always a gentleman and a proud promoter of Oklahoma. Although I moved to Washington, D.C. as a spouse of a Democratic Senator’s staff member, the Republican Bellmons welcomed me to the big city and tried to make me feel at home.”
In a statement, State Sen. Ken Corn remembered Bellmon as “the first statewide elected official I ever met when I was 10 years old at Carl Albert State College. Meeting this great leader had a tremendous impact on me then, and still does to this day.” Corn said, “We should all remember the statesmanlike leadership Bellmon displayed throughout his life, especially during this current polarized political environment in which we now so often find ourselves.”
A well-known political consultant and businessman based in Ada, Mike Cantrell, had equally fond memories of Bellmon, whom he characterized as “unflappable.” Cantrell told The City Sentinel, “When I was in my 20s I remember Senator Bellmon coming to our town and conducting what would be called now a town meeting. … A guy at the back interrupted, saying ‘I want to know why we don’t stop welfare.’ Senator Bellmon said ‘First of all that is a state matter. Second, most of welfare goes to Aid for Dependent Children. A mother with a child gets a $168 per month. How would you like to live on that?’”
Bellmon went on with his speech, but the fellow interrupted again to ask “What are we going to do about all that foreign aid?” Bellmon paused and said “Eighty percent of our foreign aid goes to Israel, our only secure ally in the Middle East.”
Not long after that, Cantrell remembered, “he cast two unpopular votes. One was to give up the Panama Canal. The other was in favor of school busing to hasten integration. He probably lost 10 or more points in the polls. My intuition is that he never he considered how others would view his stands.”
Larry Stein, now a top aide to Oklahoma County Assessor Leonard Sullivan, covered Henry Bellmon as a reporter, then worked at the State Party when Bellmon ran for his second term as governor and later in the governor’s office “He was always patient with reporters and would take extra time to explain the nuance of haying and grazing legislation or any other question you might have,” Stein said.
When Bellmon was named Director of the Department of Human Services, Stein asked: “Governor, Senator, you’ve been both, what do you want us to call you?” Bellmon leaned into the microphones and said, “Call me Henry.”
Bellmon was careful with the news media, yet responsive to questions. And, Stein marveled, “He never won a statewide poll, but never lost a statewide election.” He reflected, “Henry Bellmon was an Oklahoma original, never any pretense or boasting, because if you’ve done it, it ain’t braggin’.”
Stein raised something else that was special about Henry Bellmon: “He made friends in both parties and it’s hard for many involved in politics to understand. How can you like your competitor, but hate the thought of him winning? How can you fight against your opponents and still socialize with them after the work day? Bellmon did, and he taught hundreds of people involved in politics the same thing.”