December 12, 1996
Perry’s Courthouse Park was filled with well wishers who turned out to greet Henry S. Johnston in 1929 when returned here from Oklahoma City after having been impeached from the governor’s office. Mr. Johnston called this show of support by his neighbors one of the high moments of his life, coming at a time when he needed it the most.
Noble county has had the unique distinction of furnishing two Oklahoma governors since statehood in 1907. Henry S. Johnston, a Democrat, was elected to that office in 1926; and in 1962 Henry Bellmon became the first Republican to win the office. Mr. Bellmon also served two six-year terms as a U.S. senator from Oklahoma and in 1986 he was again elected governor, thus becoming the first ex-governor to be reelected. Mr. Johnston was less fortunate.
So, many of us have been privileged to know two of this state's most distinguished leaders. The thought that brings this subject to mind today is the arrival of December, the month in which Henry S. Johnston celebrated his birthday. He was born December 30, 1870, in Evansville, Ind. When I was a reporter for The Perry Daily Journal years ago, December always provided an opportunity to spend some time with Mr. Johnston, interviewing him on the eve of another birthday. His anniversary fell at a good time, news-wise. It was between Christmas and New Year's Eve when not much was occurring to grab the interest of readers.
Mr. Johnston lived to the ripe old age of 97, so I had the privilege of meeting with him for many of those birthday interviews. They were always interesting. The Oklahoma City and Tulsa newspapers, the Associated Press and United Press International all considered his birthdays significant and never failed to call with requests for his thoughts on a variety of subjects. Henry S. willingly obliged by issuing salty, sometimes unexpected, statements that made good copy.
Mr. Johnston spoke openly and somewhat bitterly of his impeachment from the state's highest office midway through his four-year term, in 1929. I found him eager to tell his side of the story. And it now seems to me that in recent years state a historians have come to agree with him that he was forced from the governor's chair not for malfeasance, but solely for political reasons by bitter enemies from within his own party, so perhaps his account of the drama has been found to be meritorious after all.
The bill of particulars against him contained 11 specific charges. The Oklahoma State Senate found him not guilty on all charges except one, incompetency. Their judgment on that issue now is widely held to have been subjective, a lever to pry from office a man they could not control. The saga is covered in detail in Oklahoma history books at Perry Carnegie Library, and you will find them interesting.
The support of his hometown friends during that traumatic time made a deep impression on Gov. Johnston. After he was ousted from office, Mr. Johnston, his wife and children returned to Perry from Oklahoma City by private automobile. To their great surprise, they found a caravan of vehicles awaiting them on U.S. 77 at the south edge of Perry, and they were escorted to the courthouse park where hundreds of cheering townfolk greeted them. It was a signal that his neighbors still held him in high esteem despite the bloody political battle he had just lost. Mr. Johnston never forgot that moment and the tribute of his hometown neighbors.
My interviews with Mr. Johnston were usually held in his musty office on the second floor of the building on the south side of the square where the Famous Department Store was located. (It is now the home of Leroy Rolling's LJR Enterprises.) At that stage of his life, some 40 years after his term as governor had ended, Mr. Johnston's law practice was inconsequential and he had no secretary, no associates. For the most part it also seemed he had no janitorial service. Everything was in disarray and a fine layer of dust covered law books, furniture, shelves, the floor. None of this seemed to bother him.
His time was spent in reading, thinking and speaking on things that had interested him for years, which is not to say that he lived totally in the past. Most of these topics were pretty heavy theories of reincarnation, vegetarianism, astronomy, Christianity, the Bible, and many others. He could easily discuss all of them eloquently, intelligently and ad infinitum, and his conversation segued easily from one subject to another.
He believed firmly in reincarnation and spoke in some detail about his own previous existence in at least three other lives. I'm not sure how he squared that with Christianity, but he was a respected Biblical scholar and taught a very large class of adult men for years.
Mr. Johnston availed himself of any opportunity to address a group, large or small. Often he would invite himself to speak at such functions as the dedication of a public building, cornerstone laying, memorial ceremonies for any purpose, and so forth. His lectures sometimes rambled but they were usually meaningful and learned. Using dramatic gestures and vocal inflections to hold his audience's attention, he was an orator from the old school.
Oklahoma history holds a permanent place for Henry S. Johnston. As an impeached governor, that is assured, but there was much more of his life and certainly to his contributions to the growth and development of this state. He was one of the principal architects of our Oklahoma constitution in 1907. After his removal from the state's highest office, voters of this area sent him back to Oklahoma City as a state senator. He was a major power in Democratic party circles for a great many years.
One day before his death on January 7, 1965, the Oklahoma Legislature voted to take steps to soften the stigma of his impeachment. That news undoubtedly was received by him with gratification, though it came too late to erase the unpleasant memory of his trial. Perhaps he also had the satisfaction of knowing that he had outlived virtually all of his old political antagonists. Undoubtedly he would have had a succinct comment to make on the subject for his next birthday interview.