Hearnes remembered as 'outstanding' governor

Tuesday, August 18, 2009
Former governor Warren Hearnes of Charleston, Mo., is shown July 19, 2008, at Rose Bed Inn in Cape Girardeau with his wife, Betty, left, and her sister, Jane Cooper Stacy, right. (Fred Lynch ~ flynch@semissourian.com)

CHARLESTON, Mo. -- Warren E. Hearnes, the first Missouri governor to serve two consecutive terms, was remembered Monday as "maybe the outstanding governor of the 20th century in Missouri" by Southeast Missouri State University historian Dr. Frank Nickell.

Hearnes, 86, died at his home late Sunday night with his family nearby, including wife Betty Cooper Hearnes and daughters Lynn Hearnes, Leigh Hammond and Julia Hearnes-Sindelar. Governor from 1965 to 1973, Hearnes will lie in state in the State Capitol rotunda before a memorial service Wednesday, with funeral services to be held Friday in Charleston. Hearnes reportedly had been in grave condition since last week.

"He left us peacefully and without pain and is now in God's care," a statement from the family said in part. "We take consolation in the fact that we were with him until the end, that he was blessed with such a long, rich life, and that he was able to accomplish so much during his years of public service for all Missourians."

Hearnes's legacy, Nickell said, included a stronger and better funded highway system as well as a commitment to public schools and state colleges and universities, mental health programs, the environment, civil rights and the arts.

'Reform and change'

Hearnes was a young man of 41 when he was elected governor. Widely traveled because of a military career that included an education at West Point, "he was more in touch with new directions and new methods of solving social and economic difficulties than we had previously had in the governor's office," said Nickell, director of the Center for Regional History at the university.

During his eight years in office, state spending for mental health services increased 230 percent, from $26 million to $86 million. The budget for state colleges increased 204 percent to $145 million annually and public school funding increased by 167 percent to $389 million a year.

"I believe he was aware that Missouri was in need of reform and change, and he tried to bring that about," Nickell said. "He did so with a very great rate of success. I think he stands above virtually all 20th-century governors in terms of


Hearnes' death was announced by Rob Crouse, who published a memoir of the Hearneses in 2007 and who is serving as a family spokesman. Crouse said the death, while expected, was painful.

"To know that it has now come to a conclusion is just a very deep sadness," he said.

Hearnes loomed large on the Missouri political scene for decades. He won a state House seat from Mississippi County in 1950. He was undefeated in contests that included the 1968 gubernatorial race. Following that victory, however, Hearnes never won another election as he fought a federal investigation initiated from the White House of President Richard Nixon.

Natural leader

He was born July 24, 1923, in Moline, Ill., the fifth child of Earle and Edna Hearnes of Charleston, Mo. He enlisted in the National Guard at 16 and was sent to Camp Robinson, Ark. He was sent home because of his age. After a little more than a year at the University of Missouri, Hearnes was drafted.

He later won appointment to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., graduating in 1946. Hearnes married Betty Sue Cooper on July 2, 1947, while home on leave.

Hearnes quickly established himself as a leader, using a natural ability to remember people and a strong work ethic focused on legislation, said Gene Walsh, a St. Louis County lawyer who served with Hearnes in the House. Walsh helped run the St. Louis County effort for Hearnes' successful campaign in 1964 and was also Hearnes' legal assistant in his first term as governor.

Hearnes survived the rough world of Bootheel politics and grew to such dominance in the Missouri Democratic Party that his supporters controlled the party apparatus for more than a decade after he left office.

He was elected majority floor leader of the Missouri House by his Democratic colleagues in 1957 and 1959, a prelude to pursuing higher office. In 1960, Hearnes was elected secretary of state.

In 1964, he bucked the Democratic Party leadership, defeating Lt. Gov. Hilary Bush in a primary and cruising to a general election victory to replace John M. Dalton of Kennett, Mo. The campaign set a tone that would show itself again and again as he aggressively pushed his progressive agenda.


In the memoir, Crouse credits Hearnes with legislation establishing a retirement system for public school employees, revising the formula for distributing school aid, making mental health programs for both mental disorders and disabilities a priority, among other achievements. Six state buildings, including the Hearnes Multipurpose Center on the University of Missouri campus and the Hearnes Psychiatric Center at Fulton State Hospital, bear his name.

Crouse, a former communications director for the Missouri House, became friends with Betty Hearnes while she served as a state representative from 1979 to 1989. In 1988, when Betty Hearnes ran for governor against John Ashcroft, who was seeking a second term, Crouse worked hard for the losing effort. But one moment from that campaign, he said, is a cherished memory.

The Hearneses were equal political partners, Crouse


"One night the phone rang and my wife said, 'It's Gov. Hearnes for you,'" Crouse said. "It just hit me that night how amazing that was, that someone who when I was in college and I had begun to watch politics and have a great deal of respect for was actually calling me on the phone and talking to me about politics and asking my advice. I was like wow. Sometimes it just hits you and you are overwhelmed."

Political battle

In his first year in office, Walsh said, Hearnes won passage of 19 of 20 of his priority bills. The list included a proposed state constitutional amendment to allow Hearnes to seek a second consecutive term. "I went about that methodically and consistently and plugged at it. There was a reluctance, even among his friends. That was the big win as far as I was concerned."

Perhaps the most controversial issue for Hearnes was his decision in 1969 to seek an increase in the state income tax to cover the state's

rising expenses.

When the dust settled and Hearnes had won, his erstwhile party allies who turned against the tax increase received a dose of revenge -- the Senate President Pro Tem Earl Blackwell lost his post, another lawmaker lost a state license office contract and a third was redistricted into an unwinnable Senate district.

"If I had it to do over again, I would not get into any debates with Senators," Crouse quoted Hearnes as saying of the tax fight. "They have everything to gain, and you have everything to lose. It is like fighting coat hangers in the closet."

Presidential target

Hearnes, widely mentioned as a possible vice presidential candidate in 1972, became the target of Nixon's White House. The IRS and other federal agencies launched an investigation that included regular leaks to the media. Hearnes' personal finances were investigated, the awarding of state banking contracts was probed, as was the way other state contracts were


He was officially cleared in 1977 and settled a libel lawsuit against the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, but he was never to win elective office again.

"They accomplished their purpose," Hearnes told The Associated Press in 1993. "It ended my political career. You just can't stand years of that."

Defeated in the 1976 primary for U.S. Senate, he nevertheless was the party's standard-bearer that fall. His influence with the Democratic State Committee was decisive when U.S. Rep. Jerry Litton, the primary winner, was killed in a plane crash on primary election night.

He lost that Senate race to Jack Danforth.

Hearnes was defeated again in 1978 as he sought the state auditor's office. His final attempt to regain office took place in 1980, when he was appointed circuit judge for Mississippi and Scott counties. He lost the Democratic primary in August 1980 as he tried to retain the seat.

"No matter what happened they never lost faith in the process or how wonderful public service was," Crouse said of the Hearneses. "Their beloved Charleston, Southeast Missouri or the state, they just gave everything they could."

Hearnes was appointed executive director of Southeast Missouri Legal Services in 1981, a job he held until 1997.



Pertinent address: Charleston, MO

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