This McAlester native and high school history teacher became Oklahoma’s youngest state legislator at age 23, is the only person to serve as governor four times, and remains one of the most liked chief executives in state history.
While teaching high school history, Nigh served in the state house from 1952-1958, whereupon he won election as lieutenant governor. Here began his rise to rare, enduring statewide popularity. Nigh chewed up the scenery across Oklahoma, regaling audiences to humorous and lively talks.
Biographer Bob Burke called him “one of the nation’s most popular after-dinner speakers.” Oklahoma Hall of Fame Journalist Dick Pryor assessed Nigh’s defining impact on the place of the Oklahoma lieutenant governor:
“He probably invented the modern lieutenant governor’s office, making it about being a good guy traveling the state glad handing, pursuing economic development, and being a great spokesperson for the state of Oklahoma, in addition to his occasional gubernatorial duties as a lieutenant governor.”
Two of Nigh’s four “terms” as governor were brief flukes. Upon the death of Robert S. Kerr in 1963, Gov. J. Howard Edmondson orchestrated a controversial scheme wherein he resigned as governor nine days before Henry Bellmon took office. Nigh, as lieutenant governor, acceded to governor for those nine days, and—no doubt in a quid pro quo—appointed Edmondson to serve out Kerr’s term.
Nigh lost in that 1962 Democratic primary to succeed Edmondson as governor for the full four years, and Edmondson never again held elective office. But Nigh bounced back and held the lieutenant governor’s office from 1966-1978. Then he served as governor for the five days that David Boren had resigned from office in order to assume his U.S. Senate seat, thus gaining seniority over other freshman senators.
Nigh was sworn into the governor’s office for the third time at the end of that five days by virtue of one of the toughest wins of his long political career. Already an Oklahoma political heavyweight, he had led respected young Republican state senator and former OU football star Ron Shotts in polls by a whopping 37 points three weeks before election day, and still by 15 points a week before. On election night, however, Shotts actually led early and lost by only four points.
“Good Guy” or “White Hat” George, as the charismatic Nigh was often called, reentered office as the late-20th-century Oklahoma oil boom (OKLAHOMANS 2, Chapter 13) neared, then reached its zenith. “The state of the state is good!” he declared upon entering office. State coffers were overflowing, and Nigh enjoyed championing both tax cuts and visionary state government reorganization.
He also launched the celebrated “Northwest Passage.” He had dreamed of this widening and modernizing of State Highway 3 from Oklahoma City through the Panhandle to Colorado since his first traveling days as lieutenant governor in 1959.
Among Nigh’s most notable achievements were his appointment of the first two women to the state supreme court, Alma Wilson of Pauls Valley in 1980 and Yvonne Kauger of Oklahoma City in 1984. Wilson ascended to Chief Justice in the 1990s. He also shepherded a significant increase of minorities on state boards, commissions, and agency management positions.
Nigh swept to a historic reelection and “fourth term” in 1982, winning all 77 counties for the first time ever in an Oklahoma gubernatorial election. But the bellwether failure of OKC’s Penn Square Bank that summer led to a modern-day near-Great Depression for Oklahoma. Though state historians have often maintained that the governor holds little real power, strong leaders like Democrats Raymond Gary and David Boren and Republican Frank Keating have overturned that notion. But the great ‘80s bust was beyond Nigh’s ability to fix, though some historians assert that his seasoned hand and sure voice lessened the potential calamity for the state.
Nigh guided the University of Central Oklahoma to a strong era of building and expansion as its president in the 1990s and served as Interim Director of the Oklahoma Department of Tourism and Recreation in the mid-2000s. Perhaps Burke’s title for his biography of Nigh provides the most appropriate summation of this greathearted Oklahoman’s life: Good Guys Wear White Hats.
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.