Oklahoma Governors 1967-1971: Dewey Bartlett (1919-1979)

Ohio-born, Bartlett was president of his senior class at Princeton University. As chronicled by Bartlett biographer Bob Burke, he grew familiar with Oklahoma while working as a roughneck on Washington County drilling rigs during summers. Soon after graduating in 1942 with a degree in geological engineering, with World War II raging and America and its allies on the defensive, Bartlett enlisted in the Navy. He flew a Marine Corps dive bomber in anti-submarine patrols and close air support for ground troops against the Japanese in the Pacific Theater. He won the Air Medal for his bravery.


Dewey and his wife of one year, Ann, moved to Tulsa, where he joined the family oil and gas business. He won election to the State Senate as a Republican in 1962. Despite the Democrats’ lopsided majority there, Bartlett was a whirlwind of energy and action. He filed 25 bills, 23 of which passed the senate, and seventeen of which became law. Despite his party affiliation, he also chaired the Municipal Committee.


Bartlett parlayed this political resume, his skill set as a successful and charismatic businessman, and a burgeoning civil war within the Democratic Party over whether to support its burgeoning, Great Society philosophy, to a runaway victory in the 1966 governor’s race.


If the Tulsan was a whirlwind in the state senate, he seemed like a tornado as governor. While spearheading the state’s landmark judicial reforms, he traveled over 100,000 miles—at his own expense—recruiting new industry for Oklahoma. He devoted one full work day per week to the endeavor, plus additional phone calls on other days.


Out-of-state industrial investments in Oklahoma set a new record during his term. He placed particular emphasis on job opportunities and training for minorities through the Governor’s Full Employment Commission and other programs. He also appointed the first African American member of the Oklahoma State University Board of Regents, and OKC’s Charles Owens as the first black district court judge.


In fact, a strong economy fueled large increases in tax appropriations, despite Bartlett’s dogged faithfulness to his no new taxes campaign pledge. This, coupled with Bartlett’s remarkable acumen at flushing out and disposing of $20,000,000 worth of annual wasteful state expenditures propelled a massive increase in appropriations, nearly double to public schools.


Despite this, the Oklahoma Education Association, the state teachers union, warred with Bartlett throughout his administration. They wanted Oklahomans’ taxes raised to fund higher salaries and a host of other items. They also opposed Bartlett’s economic efficiency efforts to streamline and consolidate schools.


This and other conflicts between Bartlett and Democratic office holders, along with that party’s 1970 gubernatorial candidate David Hall’s charm, eloquence, and campaigning energy, contributed to Hall winning the closest governor’s race in Oklahoma history. Bartlett was the first governor eligible to run for successive terms.


He bounced back, however, defeating Democrat Ed Edmondson for a U.S. Senate seat two years later. There, according to biographer Burke, “he led the fight in the Senate for supplementary military assistance to South Vietnam and medical and food aid to Cambodia (and) vigorously promoted the virtues of the free-market system.”


Bartlett learned he had lung cancer in 1977 and entered treatment. Full of years, honor, and accomplishment, he was favored to retain his senate seat in 1978. With the strong treatment sapping his strength, however, he decided against running again. It proved a moot point as he died on March 1, 1979, still weeks shy of his 60th birthday.


He did all that as Hall cooled his heels in a federal prison following convictions for bribery and extortion while in office. “If Bartlett had won reelection,” biographer Danny F. Kee wrote, “he likely would have brought more reform to the state without higher taxes, and probably would have given the state four more years free of scandal.”


“His name is synonymous with the growth of our state, and we all have a better life because of him,” Governor George Nigh told a large crowd gathered to pay tribute to Bartlett as his body lay in state at the State Capitol. When governors opened new plants and factories in Oklahoma, Nigh said, they were “picking the blooms from the seeds sown by Dewey Bartlett.”

 

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Statehood - 2020s

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