Former Missouri Gov. Warren Hearnes celebrates 80th birthday

Friday, July 25, 2003

ST. LOUIS -- Warren Hearnes, the first man to serve eight consecutive years as governor after an upstart challenge to Missouri's Democratic political establishment, reached another milestone Thursday, celebrating his 80th birthday.

The retired lawyer was honored with a surprise birthday party Thursday evening at a suburban St. Louis country club, organized by his wife, former state Rep. Betty Hearnes, now 76, who shares her husband's birthday.

He entered to applause from about three dozen friends and family members who sang "Happy Birthday." Betty Hearnes recalled a wonderful journey with her husband, "a dream that he would be the governor."

She said her husband always charted his course and followed it through and "if there was trouble along the way, he always took the blame," something she attributed to his West Point training.

"We had some hard times but he just knuckled up to the job," she said.

Hearnes served back-to-back, four-year terms as governor, from 1965 to 1973. His tenure included raising millions in new funding for education and construction programs for schools and mental health facilities, including several that bear his name in tribute. Perhaps the most familiar structure named for the former governor is the Hearnes Center at the University of Missouri-Columbia, where the Tigers play basketball.

Hearnes, who grew up the youngest of five children in Depression-era Southeast Missouri, saw a movie about West Point as a boy and decided he would someday attend the Army's service academy. He received an appointment and graduated in 1946 as an artillery officer. But his planned military career ended in December 1949 after he broke his ankle in a softball game and Army doctors botched its repair.

After leaving the Army, Hearnes enrolled in law school at the University of Missouri-Columbia and he filed for and won a Missouri House seat from Mississippi County, taking office in January 1951. He served 10 years in the House and became majority floor leader before his election to a single term as secretary of state in 1960.

He wanted to run for governor in 1964 but was rebuffed by leaders of the Democratic Party establishment, who said it was Lt. Gov. Hilary Bush's turn. Hearnes ran anyway and defeated Bush -- and the party machine -- in the Democratic primary, going on to the Governor's Mansion and dominance of the state party.

'This underdog'

Gracia Backer, director of the state Division of Employment Security and a friend of the Hearnes family since she was a teenager, recalled that in 1960, "the powers that be told you who you were going to vote for, and you were going to vote for Hilary Bush -- but my parents were for this underdog Warren Hearnes and I was for him, too."

"He still has wisdom and his love for the Democratic Party and the people is just as strong as ever," Backer said.

The year Hearnes was sworn in as governor, a constitutional amendment was approved allowing a governor to succeed himself.

Hearnes had almost unbroken first-term success in the Democratic-dominated legislature. But his second term was rockier. At its start, Hearnes proposed an income tax increase, at that time the largest tax hike in Missouri history.

The governor acknowledged at his birthday party that he had to make some difficult decisions.

"I made a lot of promises when I ran," he said. "I kept them, but I had to raise a little money to keep them. That can lower your poll numbers a little bit."

The increase was approved by lawmakers, but opponents led by then-Sen. Earl Blackwell, D-Hillsboro, pushed an initiative petition drive to repeal the taxes. Voters approved the repeal in 1970, but Hearnes then got the legislature to re-impose the tax later that year.

Hearnes said Thursday at his party that one of the most difficult times in office was during the riots in Kansas City in 1968. He said he worked hard to prepare for possible rioting, planning ahead and sending observers to places that already had them. He said the rioting combined with raising income taxes were the two most difficult challenges of his tenure.

"I caught a lot of you-know-what," he said.

Hearnes was occasionally mentioned as a prospective candidate for higher office, but his reputation was tarnished by a long-running federal grand jury investigation. Hearnes always maintained it was a Republican-inspired "witch hunt" to damage him politically.

The former governor said he testified voluntarily in Kansas City for three days. He was never charged with any crime, and in fact, the investigation led to a $51 federal income tax refund.

In 1977, a Democratic U.S. attorney formally cleared Hearnes. But the damage was done: Hearnes lost a 1976 race for U.S. Senate and a 1978 bid for state auditor.

After leaving Jefferson City, he spent 16 years directing a legal services office for low-income residents of Southeast Missouri, work he called satisfying. Hearnes retired in 1997.

Associated Press Writer Scott Charton contributed to this report.

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