McALESTER (AP) — Former Sen. Gene Stipe, who dominated the state Capitol for more than 50 years, was remembered Tuesday as a man who loved his constituents and had a passion for public service.
His more colorful side was not forgotten.
The McAlester Democrat died Saturday at the age of 85.
He spent 53 years in the Legislature, a record that still stands. He resigned in 2003 while facing charges of making illegal campaign donations.
More than 700 people filled the First Baptist Church to pay their respects and swap stories Tuesday.
At times, it was more of an atmosphere of a family reunion than a memorial service. Politicians, lobbyists, legislative staffers, judges, family and former constituents greeted each other with warm handshakes and embraces.
“He believed that life is not a journey to the grave with the intention of driving safely in a pretty, well-preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside, thoroughly used up, totally worn out and loudly proclaiming, “That was one hell of a ride,’” said Senior U.S. District Judge Lee West of the Western District of Oklahoma.
Elected to the state House of Representatives in 1948 at age 21 and to the Senate in 1956, after two years out of office, Stipe became a champion of mental health treatment, education, corrections and the poor.
Wherever Stipe went, he was from there, said former Gov. George Nigh.
“He said, ‘Never forget the people,’ ” Nigh said. ” ‘You are here to represent them.’ “
Grandson Ty Anis remembered the trips with his grandfather to pow wows, prison rodeos and hospitals. At home, the phone was always ringing, Anis said.
Born in 1926 near McAlester and growing up in poverty, Stipe never forgot where he came from.
He had a soft spot for people who were struggling, Anis said.
Stipe graduated from Savanna High School at age 16. He then joined the Navy, serving in World War II. He paid his way through law school at the University of Oklahoma by working as a firefighter.
Throughout his legislative and business career, he was called many things. Supporters called him “Uncle Gene,” while critics called him the “Prince of Darkness.” His lengthy legislative career earned him the title “Dean of the Senate.”
“To the state of Oklahoma and all of the friends, do you realize a great prince has fallen in Oklahoma?” asked Rev. Steve Dennis of the First Baptist Church of Checotah. “We are poorer in the state of Oklahoma because of the loss of Gene Stipe.”
But Stipe was not a perfect person, Dennis said.
Through the years, Stipe was indicted at different times on federal charges of tax evasion, extortion and taking kickbacks. He was acquitted each time. But in 2003, he pleaded guilty to funneling illegal money into the 1998 failed congressional campaign of former state Rep. Walt Roberts of McAlester.
Stipe resigned from the Senate and gave up his law license. He was sentenced to six months of home detention and five years of probation and was fined and required to do community service.
On the eve of his resignation, with tears in his eyes, he told friends he was giving up the two things he loved the most, the Senate and the law, said former Sen. Kenneth Corn, D-Poteau.
“But let me give you a clue,” Dennis said. “There is no one in this room that is perfect.”
In 2007, Stipe again was indicted in a political corruption case, but he was found incompetent to stand trial.
Some of those attending the service wore buttons that encouraged others to shake hands with a friend of Stipe’s.
“Was he a rascal?” asked Frosty Troy, founding editor of the Oklahoma Observer. “You bet.”
But he also made a little money, Troy said.
“He stole from the rich and gave to the poor,” Troy said. “Now, the state Capitol crowd is doing just the opposite.”
Those in attendance ranged from former Gov. Brad Henry and current and former lawmakers to area residents in blue jeans and work shirts and carrying cowboy hats. Gray-headed men wiped tears from their eyes as the stories and memories flowed. And many laughed as Stipe’s antics were recounted.
Ginger Barnes, who worked for him for 43 years, sat front and center.
Their relationship was one of mutual respect, and “working for him allowed you to feel like you helped people,” Barnes said.
Stipe’s rose-draped casket was rolled out of the sanctuary, and those exiting the service walked by and said a final farewell to a colorful, legendary but controversial man who became a household name for many reasons.