John Greiner, former Capitol Reporter for The Oklahoman for 37 years, shares some of his favorite memories of former Gov. Henry Bellmon. Bellmon died Tuesday morning from complications from Parkinson’s disease. Bellmon, Oklahoma’s first Republican governor, was 88.
While at the Capitol, Greiner covered seven governors. Greiner retired last October.
I learned the first time I ever met Henry Bellmon that he never left anything to chance when he was campaigning.
It was early in one morning at a diner outside Altus where men, many of them farmers, had gathered to gulp down a cup of coffee or eat some scrambled eggs before heading toward a day of hard work.
I wandered into the diner with two high school boys who were helping me and The Oklahoman poll southwestern Oklahoma in the U.S. Senate race between Republican Bellmon, the incumbent, and former Democratic Congressman Ed Edmondson of Muskogee.
It was 1974 and nearby Altus was preparing for a big event–the Jackson County Democratic Party rally, which was advertised by banners hanging across the streets in downtown Altus.
Always an early riser, Bellmon went into the diner to shake hands and ask those eating there for their vote.
I was surprised he was spending time in that county when Democrats were out in force that day.
But that was Henry Bellmon.
He never forgot that every vote counted.
Bellmon won that election.
I sometimes would cover a Bellmon appearance in Oklahoma in the following years, but my next vivid memory of Bellmon was after his Senate career when he was appointed by Gov. George Nigh to head the Oklahoma Department of Human Services, also known as the welfare department.
Bellmon came up with a plan to reorganize that department.
In those days the agency’s governing board met in a small room in the agency.
Bellmon would not disclose his plan until he’d presented it to the board, despite the objections of many reporters including me who were standing shoulder-to-shoulder along the walls of that small room.
At a break, I went to Bellmon and continued my argument for having a copy of the report, saying it would make it easier to get things right.
“Do you want to run this agency?” Bellmon barked.
He would not release it until the meeting was over.
When that meeting ended, Bellmon came to me and the others and explained that had he released the report early, Harry Culver of the United Press International and Jim Young of the Oklahoma City Times would have gone back to the press room and filed their stories.
“I would have spent the rest of the afternoon answering phone calls (of other reporters),” a less belligerent Bellmon said, with a twinkle in his eye.
The governor’s race between him and David Walters was a rough campaign all around and close, with Bellmon winning.
During the campaign, he met with supporters and recalled that the Bellmon Belles, a group of women organized by his wife, Shirley, had helped in his 1962 campaign.
He then said Shirley couldn’t get into the Bellmon Belle dress anymore.
The crowd, still friendly, politely booed, but before it could finish, Bellmon said; “The dress had shrunk” in the wash over the years.
One day, I think after he was governor, Bellmon, an aide, and three reporters got into the same elevator and headed to the second floor.
One reporter, who was very animated when he spoke, talked seemingly nonstop to Bellmon about government events from the time we got onto the elevator until it stopped to let the animated reporter off.
When the elevator door closed, Bellmon turned to his aide, and said:
“Who was that citizen?”
When he became governor the second time, Bellmon proposed closing some state veterans’ centers.
That set off a political firestorm that led to hundreds, maybe a few thousand Oklahoma veterans, marching on the capitol. As many as could came into the state House of Representatives Chamber where they were going to talk about this problem with Bellmon.
As they entered the Chamber, they saw Bellmon, standing at the podium and smiling.
Veterans are pretty courteous and they were that day.
They made their speeches and then politely left the capitol.
Bellmon dropped that plan.
I was fortunate to cover state government during seven gubernatorial administrations.
I liked every one of the governors.
But Henry Bellmon was my favorite, and he always will be.
– John Greiner