A governor of Oklahoma and U.S. Senator, Henry Louis Bellmon was born on a farm near Tonkawa, Oklahoma, on September 3, 1921. He was the son of Cherokee Strip pioneer and farmer George D. Bellmon and Edith Caskey Bellmon. George Bellmon had nine children from his first marriage; Henry was the first of four sons born to his second wife. Following graduation from Billings High School, Bellmon enrolled at Oklahoma A&M College (now Oklahoma State University) in 1938 and completed a bachelor of science degree in agronomy in seven semesters. In 1942 he entered the U.S. Marine Corps, serving during World War II as a first lieutenant in charge of a tank unit and seeing battle on Roi-Namur, Saipan, Tinian, and Iwo Jima. Awarded the Legion of Merit for his efforts on Saipan, he received the Silver Star for his valiant performance on Iwo Jima.
After the war Bellmon returned to the family farm. Interested in public service, he campaigned for the Oklahoma House of Representatives seat from Noble County. Although he won the election in 1946, he failed in his reelection bid in 1948. While in the legislature, he married Shirley Osborn in January 1947. The Bellmons had three daughters, Patricia, Ann, and Gail.
After his stint in the legislature, Bellmon returned to farming and operating his soil conservation business. Although unknown outside his own county, Bellmon was named state chairman of the Republican Party in 1960. Because Democrats outnumbered Republicans five to one, it was no surprise that the Oklahoma Republican Party had languished. He brought a different style of leadership, and the party began to change. In 1962 he left the post and announced his candidacy for governor.
Because Bellmon did not have a serious opponent in the primary, he concentrated on the general election. The Democrats lacked cohesiveness; twelve candidates vied for the party's nomination. After William P. Atkinson defeated former governor Raymond D. Gary in the runoff primary, many in the Gary campaign supported Bellmon.
The Republicans realized that Bellmon could win only if Democrats voted for him. To avoid alienating the Democrats, the Bellmon organization distanced itself from the Republican organization. The central issue of the general election concerned state finances. Atkinson called for a one-cent increase in state sales tax. Bellmon countered that this was unnecessary if government waste and corruption were removed. Aiding the Republican cause was the fact that all of Atkinson's Democratic foes had opposed a tax increase. In November 1962 Bellmon swept Atkinson by nearly seventy-seven thousand votes, thus becoming Oklahoma's first Republican governor. Although the Republicans savored their victory, they knew that the future would not be easy. Voters selected only Democrats for the state's other administrative and judicial offices, and the state legislature remained under Democratic control.
Budgetary accountability was the hallmark of the Bellmon administration. Because of his stance on sales taxes, he struggled to develop the state budget. The new chief executive especially faced problems in financing the state's education department. Bellmon believed that cuts and reorganization in education could save money. Teachers, however, clamored for a salary increase, and both the Oklahoma Education Association and the National Education Association voted sanctions against the state. In 1965 the legislature increased education funding through a one-cent increase in cigarette taxes and an increase in the valuation of anticipated state revenue.
One of the most pressing issues confronting Bellmon involved reapportionment of the legislature, which was dominated by sparsely populated rural areas. The U.S. Supreme Court resolved the issue by ruling that the state had to be reapportioned according to population. A fully reapportioned legislature convened in January 1965 with one-third of the solons coming from Oklahoma and Tulsa counties.
Bellmon also emphasized new road construction and improvement of existing roads. Total highway projects increased 46 percent over the previous administration. The Bellmon administration also supported the creation of the Human Rights Commission and the Oklahoma Aeronautics Commission. Furthermore, the governor worked with the legislature to develop and fund the first retirement system for state employees and to establish the district attorney system.
Although Bellmon left office in January 1967, his absence from politics was brief. In August 1967 he became national chairman of Richard M. Nixon's presidential campaign. By January 1968 Bellmon resigned this position and launched a successful campaign for Mike Monroney's U.S. Senate seat.
Senator Bellmon sat on several committees, including Interior and Insular Affairs, Labor and Public Welfare, Post Office and Civil Service, Agriculture and Forestry, Energy and Natural Resources, Appropriations, Budget, and the Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs. Because of his experience in the wheat and cattle business, Oklahoma's junior senator had actively pursued the agriculture seat. Bellmon understood farm programs and was instrumental in securing numerous pieces of agricultural legislation.
Perhaps the most controversial issue of his first term involved busing to accomplish school integration. The issue was especially heated in Oklahoma City, where a federal judge had ordered crosstown busing to achieve racial balance. Many Oklahoma newspapers criticized Bellmon for supporting the federal ruling.
The busing issue and the fallout from Watergate spilled over into Bellmon's 1974 reelection bid. In the general election he narrowly defeated former U.S. Representative Ed Edmondson. Rather than calling for a recount, Edmondson challenged the election in court. Failing to get a favorable ruling, he took the issue to the U.S. Senate, which unanimously seated Bellmon in March 1976.
During his second Senate term Bellmon made his most significant contributions as the ranking Republican on the Budget Committee. Affirming his commitment to fiscal responsibility, Bellmon worked closely with the committee chair, Edmund Muskie of Maine, to make the budget process work. The Panama Canal question plagued Bellmon's second term. In 1978 the Senate debated the Panama Canal treaties which mandated return of the canal to Panama in 2000. Despite pressure from his constituents and his party, he voted for ratification. Although some Oklahomans praised the senator for voting his conscience, others called for his removal. Interestingly, less than a year later, he announced that he would not seek reelection.
In 1981 Bellmon returned to his farm but did not relinquish his interest in public affairs. A member of various corporate boards, he taught at several state universities and was the court- appointed receiver of the National Cowboy Hall of Fame and Western Heritage Center (now the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum). He also served for several months as director of the Oklahoma Department of Human Services.
By 1986 he decided to reenter politics and announced his candidacy for governor. In the general election, he defeated Democratic candidate David Walters. During this second term he worked to end "pork" spending, endorsed legislation to make Oklahoma more "business friendly," supported the successful constitutional amendment creating the Ethics Commission, and labored for additional turnpikes. The governor also applauded when Oklahomans voted to set specific limits on the length of legislative sessions. The most noteworthy effort of Bellmon's second term was passage of the Education Reform and Funding Act of 1990, commonly known as House Bill 1017. This legislation called for a 27 percent increase in funding of common schools, as well as compulsory kindergarten, smaller classes, teacher incentive pay, and teacher tenure reform.
In January 1991 Bellmon retired from political life and returned to his cattle and wheat operation near Billings. Shirley Bellmon died in 2001, and Bellmon married Eloise Bollenbach in 2002. Henry L. Bellmon died September 29, 2009, after a long battle with Parkinsons's disease.
BIBLIOGRAPHY: Henry Bellmon Papers, Edmon Low Library, Oklahoma State University, Stillwater, Oklahoma. Henry Bellmon and Pat Bellmon, The Life and Times of Henry Bellmon (Tulsa, Okla.: Council Oak Books, 1992). Biographical Directory of the American Congress, 1774-1996 (Alexandria, Va.: CQ Staff Directories, 1997). Carolyn G. Hanneman, "Henry Louis Bellmon, Governor of Oklahoma, 1963-1967," in Oklahoma's Governors, 1955-1979: Growth and Reform, ed. LeRoy H. Fischer (Oklahoma City: Oklahoma Historical Society, 1985).
Carolyn G. Hanneman
© Oklahoma Historical Society