Oklahoma Governors 1955-1959: Raymond Gary (1908-1993)
Born two months after statehood in rural Marshall County, Gary proved a strong contrast with both his gubernatorial predecessor and successor. He possessed extensive legislative experience, including in leadership, while they had none. He enjoyed a good and productive working relationship with the solons as governor, whereas Johnston Murray and Howard Edmondson did not. And while they strove, with more success on Edmondson’s part than Murray’s, to reform a range of serious governance problems in the state, Gary seems to have chosen his battles more carefully.
In doing so, he received vigorous legislative support for numerous key, in some cases historic, initiatives explored in this chapter. There was an apparent price for this success: allowing the Senate and House to continue overseeing numerous operations that proved damaging to the state and were eventually taken control of by other state or even federal officials.
His towering achievement of peacefully integrating public schools and many other public as well as private enterprises in the state grows more luminous as the years pass.
The one significant scandal of Gary’s political career occurred at the height of his gubernatorial career in 1957. It involved accusations against some of his associates who were involved in an incumbent state senator’s campaign. A couple of them drew convictions and one accused Gary of complicity. The latter charge was almost certainly a lie, but the entire affair proved a bracing embarrassment for Gary.
One veteran state political operative told this author of his enduring contempt for Gary for supposedly sacrificing one of his colleagues, lifelong friend Frank Easley, head of the Emergency Relief Fund, to salvage his own political career and reputation.
Other respected Gary associates hotly disputed that accusation, but a close look at his political record reveals a curious phenomenon. Prior to the state Senate campaign mess, Gary had won a long string of political races covering nearly 20 years, since his first attempt, when he was only 24 years old. After it, he never won another, despite later attempts.
“Servant of God”
Still, Raymond Dancel Gary’s stature has grown with the passage of years. It suggests the possibility that a prominent public figure can set the highest bar of honor and responsibility for themselves, and to a great degree meet it. The Stetson-wearing rancher sometimes mixed up his “weres” and “wases,” but he refused ever to be alone with a woman other than his wife. He publicly urged the teaching to children of the dangers of alcohol, which had destroyed the lives of so many people he knew.
The day he was inaugurated as governor, he challenged his fellow Oklahomans to measure up to being the “Christian state” that they were. He declared himself and the state government “servant(s) of God…and with the help of God, we will run this government in such a way that the Christian principles we believe in will become more and more evident in its operation.”
H. E. Bailey, of turnpike fame, was one of Gary’s most bitter political foes, and a man of rough, questionable character and ethics. Yet he privately wrote Gary decades later that, “I now feel that you had one of the better administrations as Governor of Oklahoma and I wanted to tell you so while I am still around.”
Near the end of his own life, eloquent but cynical journalist and political operative Martin Hauan could think of hardly an Oklahoma politician he had known during his long career, other than Raymond Gary, whom he would wish to serve. Hauan recalled: “He wouldn’t back up for lawyers, the courts or old friendships, if he thought something was dead wrong and ought to be righted. I loved him for it.”
While federal troops with rifles were integrating Arkansas public schools, Gary was cannily, and prayerfully, spearheading Oklahoma legislation that would gently lead whites to support long overdue educational justice for the children of their black neighbors. Meanwhile, no matter the enormous amounts of money that he and his wife Emma gave and continued to give, they always gave more.
Emma was the one and only love of Gary’s life. They both grew up picking cotton in Marshall County. He fell in love with her forever the day she wore a pretty blue dress to their 75-student country school.
More than half a century later, they decided to build an orphanage on the same spot they had planned to build themselves a new home. They spent hundreds of thousands of dollars of their own money on the orphanage. They never built their new home.
Perhaps this good and modestly great man pronounced a suitable epitaph for himself while wearing his trusty Stetson, as he challenged still-segregated Oklahoma to man up and treat its black children to the same educational opportunities it did its whites:
“I’m sure there are no special outside (separate but equal) rooms in heaven...God is no respecter of persons. Prejudices, and we all have them, are contrary to the will of God…Other nations laugh at us because the Constitution guarantees equal rights to all men…We preach one ideology, but appear to practice another…I believe in the law of the land, and it says to integrate. This should be done.”
The above article is a bonus to the fascinating historical content found within our book
Oklahomans Vol 2 :
Statehood - 2020s
which can be purchased HERE.
View the inspiring 2-minute preview video HERE.