Former Oklahoma governor Nigh says Republican / Democrat union begins at state-level

by Jordan Green

In former Oklahoma Gov. George Nigh’s opinion, bringing the nation’s two main political parties together begins at the state level.

“I think we need to concentrate on pulling all 77 counties together,” he said.

“We need to pull Oklahoma together.”

Nigh, a Democrat who served more terms as governor than anyone in state history, spoke to a crowd of more than 50 students, faculty, staff and community members in the Student Center Ranger Room at Northwestern Oklahoma State University in Alva on Monday night.

The event was sponsored by the Northwestern Social Sciences Department and Institute for Citizenship Studies.

At 95, Nigh still tells with laughter and smiles the stories of his political career that have gone down in Oklahoma history. He spoke for roughly an hour, though he made clear that ther, he said he just wanted to talk.

“I want to tell northwest Oklahoma, I didn’t write one, so you can’t read it, so you’ve got to ask me a question,” he said, eliciting laughter from the crowd.


Much of Nigh’s discussion centered around political unity and cooperation – especially among rural Oklahomans, whom he sought to give voice to during his time as governor from 1979 to 1987.

He traversed the state frequently, making friends in cities and towns all over the Sooner State and addressing the needs of people outside metropolitan areas.

“I’m from McAlester in southeastern Oklahoma, but I was the governor of all 77 counties,” he said. “One of the things of which I’m most proud is that I loved all 77 counties, and every year, for 16 years as lieutenant governor and eight years as governor, I visited every single county at least once every year. Some days, I’d be at three or four different counties in the same day, flying in a state airplane or with security driving me. So, I’d take a nap, make a speech, take a nap, make a speech.”

He recognized former Ponca City News reporter Louise Abercrombie, who reported on Nigh during his time as governor and attended the event Monday.

“I covered George many a time,” Abercrombie said. “Sometimes I had to correct him.”

He also recognized Woodward natives Denny and Marion Hopkins, who are longtime friends of Nigh’s and were present Monday.

Denny Hopkins campaigned for Nigh during his gubernatorial candidacies.

“They’re a classic example of how much fun I had in office,” Nigh said of Abercrombie and the Hopkins family.

Nigh served as the president of the University of Central Oklahoma in Edmond in the 1990s and praised the work of the state’s regional universities and vocational schools, which have allowed people from all corners of the state to obtain higher education while staying near their families.

“Here we are, at one of the six regional universities, and it shows what our forefathers thought about bringing everybody together, making sure everybody had equal opportunities,” he said. “You want everybody to be able to be close to education if they can’t travel. They may still need to be on the farm. They may still need to be able run the grocery store.

But all 77 counties – in education, in highways, in Vo Tech – now Career Tech – united.”


Nigh served four terms as governor, two of which were stints of fewer than 10 days. While he was lieutenant governor, he completed the terms of governors J. Howard Edmondson and David Boren. Both left office early to become U.S. senators for the state.

Nigh also was the first Oklahoma governor to be reelected. However, that was partly because governors previously were barred from serving two terms.

Although the state constitution was amended years before his tenure to allow governors to serve two terms, his predecessors didn’t get to take advantage of it. “[Gov. Dewey Bartlett] ran for reelection and lost to David Hall,” Nigh said.

“[Hall] ran for reelection and lost to David Boren, and David Boren didn’t run for reelection. He ran for the U.S. Senate. So, I ran for governor and got reelected,” he said as the audience laughed. “But I don’t point that out too much.” Nigh carried all 77 counties during his reelection bid.


When Nigh was first elected governor, he learned quickly that the most common requests he’d ever hear were from people wanting road repairs, he said.

He even found himself among those who pushed for road reconstruction when he learned the state still had a gravel highway in southeast Oklahoma.

“I said, ‘We got a gravel state highway?’ I said to the highway director, ‘Here’s your choice. Either hard surface it or give it to the county and make it a county road, but I do not want, while I’m in the governor’s office, a state highway that’s gravel,” he said.

“I got the highway commission to agree – I didn’t tell them they had to, but I asked them to – they would work together, and they would make sure there was highway construction in every county in the state every year.”

The road was paved, emblemizing Nigh’s efforts to improve roadways across the state. With Hopkins’ help, Nigh devised a plan to improve State Highway 3 from Oklahoma City to the Colorado state line, a route he dubbed the Northwest Passage. The road is among the longest in the state and remains a major thoroughfare. It was later named in his honor thanks to a Republican state legislator, with signs bearing Nigh’s name along the roadway.

“About four years ago, I was sitting in church, and the minister said, ‘Hey, we have some out-of-town guests visiting with us,’” Nigh said.

“Two seats in front of me, this guy stood up. … I leaned over and said, ‘I’m George Nigh.’ He said, ‘I know who you are. Your road needs some work done.’”


Nigh told the audience that working across the aisle with members of an opposing political party is essential to the nation’s values. While he was governor, he appointed Republican Henry Bellmon, a former governor and state senator, to oversee the state welfare agency in an attempt to make it less political, he said. “The Republicans had a hard time attacking me because I just appointed their first former Republican governor to the head of a state agency,” Nigh said.

He also said he was proud that many of his most ardent political supporters were Republicans. He spoke to the state’s Republican caucuses multiple times at the invitation of party leaders. “We were working together,” he said. “We need to try to be united.

Now, I’m not saying we need to give up. I’m not saying we need to make deals. But I think we need to reach agreements. We need to try to work together, see if we can work it out. Sometimes, it’s tough to get things worked out. But sometimes, you have to take a step.” To that end, Nigh also said he believes there’s a difference between a “professional politician” and someone who vies for elected office for the right reasons.

“A professional politician is someone who is always cuttin’ deals,” he said. “We don’t want professional politicians. We want politicians who become, and when they’re in office, are public servants. “I believe in united,” he said. “I believe in bringing us all together.”


As the state’s lieutenant governor, Nigh was in charge of the state’s tourism opera- tions. But his time champion- ing all things Oklahoma began while he was in the state House of Representatives, to which he was elected shortly after he fin- ished college. In 1953, Nigh authored the bill that made the Broadway musical hit song “Oklahoma!” the state song. Although it is a favorite tune among Oklahomans today, Nigh faced opposition from a state legislator who believed the state’s longtime anthem – “Oklahoma, A Toast” – was a tradition worthy of keeping. The legislator sang the song with tears in his eyes as he walked around the floor of the state House, drumming up support from fellow legislators. Nigh thought his bill didn’t have a chance.

So, he moved to have it reconsidered the next day. In the meantime, he came up with a plan. When the House brought the bill up the next day, the choir from the Oklahoma College for Women was on hand to sing songs from the musical, accompanied by a piano Nigh asked a local music store to deliver. So was Oklahoma native Ridge Bond, who played Curly in the musical.

“Ridge kicked open the door, and he had his cowboy hat on, and he said, ‘Oklahoma! Where the wind comes sweeping down the plains!’ And he started singing, and there were 300 people on the fifth floor looking down over the Legislature. They were sitting in the gallery. … They all stood and clapped and hollered. Of course, I put them all up there. And the legislators got up. “I said, Mr. Speaker, I move for passage of Oklahoma House Bill 1014. It passed.”


Nigh gave college students several bits of wisdom during his discussion, which also served as his 73rd annual commencement address, he said. Nigh has spoken at public schools and universities since the beginning of his political career, and after taking questions from the audience Monday, he gave a short talk to the university’s political science majors. “You’re graduating, but you’re having a commencement, and commencement means ‘begin,’” he said.

“You prepare in your education to begin a different stage, phase of your life. … Hopefully, you went there to begin a totally different life. So, learn education, learn how to get along with your fellow students, so when you get out, you get along with your fellow citizens. “While you’re in school and you’re looking toward your com- mencement – your beginning – have in mind, ‘What do I want to be when I get out of here?’ … Be thinking of that now. Don’t just be thinking of getting a grade in a class. But as you prepare for your commencement which is an ending, prepare for your commencement which is a beginning of a new life.”