Oklahoma Governors 1939-1943: Leon Phillips (1890-1958)
The Sooner State’s eleventh governor, Leon “Red” Phillips, remains one of the most significant state leaders Oklahomans have never heard of. At one year of age, he and his Missouri parents pioneered western Oklahoma, purchasing land west of Clinton during the opening of the Cheyenne-Arapaho country to U.S. settlement.
Growing up smart and tough on the Southern Great Plains, Phillips taught school at 17, studied for the ministry at Epworth Methodist Seminary (present-day Oklahoma City University) from ages 18 to 20, prepared for the law and played varsity football at the University of Oklahoma during his early-mid-20s, worked as an attorney until age 26, then served in the U.S. Army artillery corps during World War I.
The OU football team on which Phillips played and lettered went 10-0, featured the Sooners’ first All-American, and stands as the greatest of legendary coach Bennie Owens’ 22-year tenure.
Following the war, Phillips returned to the law in Okemah, birthplace of Woody Guthrie, until winning a series of elections as a State Representative, Speaker of the House, and Governor. In all those roles, he battled E. W. Marland and other Oklahoma agents of Franklin Roosevelt’s government-bloating New Deal agenda.
Without Phillips’ leadership, Marland would likely have sunk the state into far greater debt than he did. “Red” feared for the state’s well being if it did not practice sound fiscal principles. He crusaded for these in season and out, year after year, with his unique blend of courage, personal integrity, and abrasiveness, whatever the cost to himself, which eventually proved much.
Phillips threw down the gauntlet against wasteful and corrupt government practices in a scorching early-1939 inaugural address as governor. For the next four years, his administration strove for reform of these. He wrote his name high in the annals of Oklahoma history by doggedly championing passage of the state’s Balanced Budget Amendment. It stopped New Dealers and other fiscal spendthrifts from appropriating more of working Oklahomans’ money for state spending than the legislature was willing to require of them in taxes.
In 1940, Red Phillips publicly broke with Roosevelt and his liberal wing of the Democratic Party. A couple of years later, he temporarily switched his party allegiance to the Republicans. His long friendship with powerful oilman and politician Robert S. Kerr, over Kerr’s pragmatic embracing of Roosevelt’s big government agenda, also fractured. All of these factors left Phillips stranded in political wilderness. He never again held office after leaving the Governor’s Mansion, and died in 1958 in Okemah.
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Oklahomans Vol 2 :
Statehood - 2020s
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