Henry Bellmon, who achieved national recognition as one of Oklahoma’s greatest statesmen, grew up on the family farm in north central Oklahoma. One of 13 children, Bellmon learned how to work hard, manage finances, and get along well with others at an early age.
He developed expertise in making beds, washing dishes, and cleaning poultry houses at Oklahoma A&M College—jobs he held to pay the bills while earning a degree in agronomy. He finished in seven semesters, graduating in January 1942—a month after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. For several months, he worked on the family farm but soon joined the Marines, serving as a tank platoon leader in the Pacific Theater in World War II. He later claimed boot camp was excellent preparation for politics.
Soon after returning to Oklahoma as a highly decorated war veteran, Bellmon was elected state representative and married Shirley Osborn, the daughter of a neighboring farmer. Unsuccessful in his re-election bid, he resumed farming but maintained his interest in politics. While serving as state chairman of the Republican Party, he was unable to find a suitable candidate to run for governor, so he decided to run himself. In 1962, he was elected Oklahoma’s first Republican governor and the first in the South since Reconstruction.
The crowning achievement of his first administration was the establishment of the vocational-technical education system. Under his leadership, the state constitution was changed so that area vo-tech schools could be established to serve regional educational districts. These schools, funded by accessing property taxes and governed by locally elected school boards, make up the CareerTech system as we know it today. They serve both high school and adult students, as well as provide training for business and industry, and are recognized as one of the best job-training programs in the nation.
Bellmon went on to serve two terms in the U.S. Senate but chose not to seek a third term. He returned to the farm and taught government and political science at four universities. He also worked two years as the appointed director of the state’s welfare system. In 1986, he was elected to a second term as governor—24 years after his first. In this term, he continued to be an advocate for the vo-tech system by securing passage of House Bill 1017, which brought about sweeping reforms in public education.
Shirley, his wife of 53 years, died in 2000. Bellmon died at age 88 in 2009. His second wife, Eloise, died in 2011. His three daughters—Patricia, Ann, and Gail—reside in Oklahoma.
Governor Bellmon was inducted into the CareerTech Hall of Fame in 2011.