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Oklahoma Memories

Bellmon Sworn in as Governor

2010-01-08

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"Our long-range solution to our problems is very simple. We must begin to develop a climate in Oklahoma that's favorable for the growth of the companies that now operate here, and it makes our state favorable as a location for new companies that are trying to come to the southwest and locate their plants in this area."

That's the voice of Henry Bellmon campaigning for Governor on June 8, 1962.

From the Oklahoma History Center, this is Oklahoma Memories. I'm Michael Dean.

Henry Bellmon was born in Tonkawa in 1921. He grew up in rural north central Oklahoma, graduating from Billings High School. He attended Oklahoma A&M College, majoring in agriculture. He started his freshman year with a twenty dollar bill in his pocket, money he thought would last a long time. It didn't, and he was forced to sell some prize-winning hogs and take campus jobs to pay for his education. He graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in agriculture in just seven semesters and made the dean's honor roll every semester. Upon his graduation in 1942 he was commissioned a Second Lt. in the Marine Corps, ultimately commanding a tank platoon in battles in Saipan, Tinian, and at Iwo Jima. For his actions at Saipan, he was awarded the Legion of Merit; for his actions at Iwo Jima, he was awarded the Silver Star. After the war, Henry returned to Billings, met a neighbor, Shirley, and married her. In 1946 he elected to the Oklahoma House then lost reelection two years later. He and Shirley were active for years in Republican politics culminating with Henry being selected state chairman of the Republican Party in 1960. At that point in his life, he was virtually unknown in Oklahoma. But that changed in 1962 when he was urged to run for governor.

It was a long and interesting campaign for governor. In the primary 12 Democrats ran for governor while one other Republican was running against Bellmon. William P. Atkinson of Midwest City won the Democratic nomination and Bellmon cruised to victory on the Republican side. That set up the campaign in the summer of 1962. Bellmon spoke often about the relationship between the governor and the legislature. In this speech on June 8, 1962, he talked about how outgoing governor J. Howard Edmondson had dealt with the legislature.

"Let me point out that Governor Edmondson tried to cooperate with the legislature. As you all realize, in 1961, the legislature organized without the cooperation or the advice of the governor, and Governor Edmondson reciprocated by saying to these men, 'If you thought you've organized without my counsel, so I will not bring in a program to the legislature. You go ahead and write the program for this day, and if I like it, I'll sign it.'"

Then he contrasted that with what he would do if he were elected governor.

"My belief is that we have enough fair-minded legislators of both parties who want to see the State of Oklahoma make the progress it should, that they will go along and pass a program which is plainly aimed at doing the best possible job for the State of Oklahoma. I believe that these men are more interested in progress than they are in partisan politics, and I feel certain that the fair-minded Democrats who serve up there will have no hesitancy to vote for bills which they recognize to be good for the State of Oklahoma, regardless of the political party which the governor happens to belong to."

Over the next four months Bellmon gave more than 400 campaign speeches. On Election Day, Bellmon swept Atkinson by more than 75,000 votes. On January 14, 1963, Henry Bellmon, wheat farmer from Billings, was sworn into office, the first Republican in Oklahoma history to be elected governor.

Last fall, the Oklahoma Gazette magazine put together a panel of political pundits who chose, in their opinion, the top 10 governors of Oklahoma. Henry Bellmon was ranked number one on that list. The panel cited Bellmon's ability to work with both parties in the state legislature in a bi-partisan manner for their selection as the number one governor in the state.

You can learn more about Bellmon and our other governors by visiting the political exhibit at the Oklahoma History Center, NE 23rd Street, just east of the state capitol in Oklahoma City. The grounds of the Oklahoma History Center are named for Henry and Shirley Bellmon.

Oklahoma Memories is a production of the Oklahoma History Center, dedicated to collecting, preserving, and sharing our state's past. I'm Michael Dean.