Former Governors Share Experience, Wisdom During Fireside Chat
Story and photo by Van Mitchell, Staff Writer
Former Oklahoma Gov. George Nigh, age 96, recalled listening to President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s famous fireside chats as a child.
Nigh and former Gov. Brad Henry both got to participate in their own “fireside chat” before an audience recently at the Masonic Temple in Guthrie. The event was a fundraiser for the Oklahoma Territorial Museum which is celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2023.
Nigh served as the 17th and the 22nd governor of Oklahoma and as the eighth and tenth lieutenant governor of Oklahoma. He was the first Oklahoma governor to be re-elected and the first to win all 77 counties in the state. Additionally, short term vacancies in the governor’s office twice resulted in Nigh assuming gubernatorial duties while serving as lieutenant governor.
In 1950, at age 23 Nigh became the youngest member of the state legislature when elected to the House of Representatives from Pittsburg County. In 1953 he introduced the bill that made “Oklahoma!” the official state song.
“As a kid in school, I listened every week to Franklin Roosevelt’s fireside chat before hardly anybody in this room was born,” Nigh told audience members which included students from Guthrie Junior High, and hardly ever did he attack somebody personally, hardly ever did he call (someone) a dirty word or anything, but he talked about how things were. He basically brought the country through the Depression. Then he brought the country through World War II, and he died shortly before Japan surrendered in 1945. He was not the dictator, he was not the emperor, he was not the king. He was the president. He was an executive. And he led personally and motivated this country.”
Henry, who was the last Democratic governor of Oklahoma, said Nigh was a mentor to him.
“I want to say that he is literally and figuratively my mentor,” Henry said. “When I was a sophomore in college, he allowed me to intern in his office. But it was not your typical intern experience. One of my jobs was every morning to get there a little early, go through the main newspapers and cut out any article that related to the governor or the Legislature, legislation pending legislation, things of interest to the governor’s office. I would copy them all and make it packageable. George would come in and sit down with me while I was reading the paper, and would just visit with me about the day’s news or whatever was on his mind. As you can imagine. It was just absolutely fascinating.”
Henry said Nigh served as a role model for him deciding to run for public office.
“I just had to recognize my friend and mentor George, because he’s a big part of my quest and my decision making and my drive to serve people,” Henry said. “I love the way he puts it. I absolutely agree with him. It’s not about politics, it’s not about being a politician, in my view, it’s about public service.”
Henry said he comes from a public service family.
“I grew up in a family of public servants and I wanted to serve the public,” he said. “My mother was a school teacher. My aunt and grandparents were school teachers. My father was a state representative and a county judge. My uncle was a county judge. My cousin Robert Henry, who you all probably know was state representative then later Attorney General and on and on. I just always wanted to serve.”
Henry initially tried to recruit other Democrats to run for governor, but was persuaded to give it a try.
“The bottom line is I looked back to the service of George Nigh and Henry Bellmon,” he said. “It wasn’t just a Democrat or Republican thing; it was a servant thing. I met Henry Bellmon when I was working for George and became very close and good friends with Henry. I think George and I and Henry are two of the greatest governors that this state has seen. Those two individuals really inspired me to take that risk, take that step.”
Henry told the audience that you sometimes have to take risks for something you believe in.
“I think it’s important to be willing to take a risk to put yourself out there, to be willing to fail,” he said. “Because if you’re not willing to fail, if you’re not willing to make a mistake, you’re never going to make it be successful. And that’s what it boils down to me.”
Nigh said he knew at an early age he wanted to become governor.
“When I was in the ninth grade, I took a vocations class at McAlester,” he said. “You wrote down what you wanted to be when you grew up, this was before Pearl Harbor in 1941. I wrote down that I wanted to be governor, and then you discussed that for the semester.”
Nigh has given commencement speeches across the state and around the country hoping to motivate young people to go into public service during their lifetime.
“I’ve made hundreds of commencement speeches, and what I want to tell these students is you cannot be drafted to be a legislator or governor or President,” he said. “You have to offer yourself. Be involved in serving the people. Yeah, be a politician. Take out an ad, shake hands, kiss a few babies, make a speech, but then be a public servant. And that’s why all 77 counties are important to Oklahoma, not just the one you come from. I want to encourage everyone to get involved.”