By Jim Whitt
We lost a rare person last week with the passing of Henry Bellmon, an Oklahoma farmer and rancher who, as a Marine during World War II, fought in the battles of Saipan and Iwo Jima and was awarded the Silver Star. He also served two terms in the state legislature as well as two terms in the U.S. Senate which were sandwiched in between a couple of terms as Governor.
What made him unique though, in my opinion, was that after he served his state and country in these capacities he always returned to his farm where he raised wheat and cattle. I think you could say that Henry Bellmon had quite a career in politics but was not a career politician. He was a throwback to what our country’s founders intended public servants to be — citizen legislators who took care of the country’s business then saddled their horses and headed home to take care of their own.
Mr. Bellmon, a Republican, had the ability to get the opposing side to side with him. That included my uncle, Jim Gassaway, who like most members of my family, was a Yellow Dog Democrat (a Democrat who’d vote for a yellow dog before he’d vote for a Republican). Jim was not only the son of a U.S. Congressman who was a Democrat during the Roosevelt administration but he had served on the staff of a U.S. Congressman who was a Democrat. Yet, he had enough regard for Bellmon to actively campaign for him against Mike Monroney, a longtime Democratic senator. To get a Yellow Dog Democrat to campaign for a Republican, let alone vote for one, tells you a lot about Henry Bellmon.
I met Mr. Bellmon many years ago at a football game in Stillwater. This was after his second term as governor and he had once again returned to the farm. I’ll never forget how he was dressed. He wore boots, jeans, a cowboy hat and underneath his sport coat he sported an orange T-shirt with Oklahoma State University splashed across the chest. It was obvious he wasn’t trying to make a fashion statement. This was a man who had to be pretty comfortable in his own skin.
Not long after that game I interviewed him for a magazine column I was writing and found him to be just as down-home real as the way he dressed. His answers to my questions offered an amazing degree of depth, insight and just plain old common sense to issues that were critical to my readers.
I saw him on several more occasions at OSU basketball games. Being season ticketholders we always sit in the same place and our seats were a few rows below his. I thought it was telling that he didn’t sit in the glassed-in suites at the top of the arena or on the front row at courtside, even though I’m sure that would have been arranged for a former governor and senator, if that’s where he wanted to sit. No, he sat with the rest of us commoners and he fit right in. During halftime I’d stop by his seat on the way to the concession stand and visit with him about the weather, wheat and cattle — the kind of conversations you’d have with any other Oklahoma farmer or rancher.
There are many politicians today who are what you might call uncommon people — they are uncommonly talented, uncommonly educated and uncommonly charismatic. But all you have to do is read the daily news to learn that many of these uncommon people exhibit an amazing lack of common sense. Common sense tends to be an attribute of common people — people like Henry Bellmon.