Former Congressman Bill Brewster, who represented Oklahoma’s Third District from 1991 to 1997, died early this morning at the age of 80 after a year-long battle with cancer.
His daughter, Karel Brewster, said her father died peacefully at his home in Marietta after returning from M.D. Anderson in Houston.
“He wanted to come home, see his friends and die at home. I’ve always known my dad was a leader and a public servant, and I grew up knowing that,” she said. “But Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, you would have been amazed at the number of people who came to our house and who wanted to see him and tell him ‘thank you’ for all of the different things he had done for them.”
Karel Brewster called her father “humble and kind” and “the greatest man I have ever known.”
“It was truly amazing as his daughter to see [people visit him last week]. A couple of times, it looked like he was running for public office, because he sat in the middle of our trophy room holding court, and while his body was totally failing, his mind wasn’t,” she said. “It was amazing to see him be able to do that and for people to thank him and to realize the difference he made in people’s lives and the impact he has made.”
During his many years in politics, Brewster, a Democrat, was known for staking ground as a centrist and for his ability to work across party lines.
“He taught me what being a leader meant,” Karel Brewster said. “It didn’t mater whether you were a Republican or a Democrat — whatever you are — just be a good person and do the right thing always.”
Brewster’s colleagues remembered him as forceful and determined.
“Bill was one of the most energetic and committed people I’ve ever met,” said former Oklahoma House Speaker Steve Lewis said.
In a statement released Monday, U.S. Rep. Tom Cole (R-OK4), remembered Brewster as a coalition-builder and a “bipartisan conservative Democrat.”
“No one was better at building the bipartisan coalitions that it takes to accomplish things in Washington, D.C.,” Cole wrote. “Throughout his career, Bill was always a doer as opposed to being a complainer. He worked with both parties to advance the conservative causes and Oklahoma interests that he championed throughout his career both in and out of public service.”
Former Oklahoma House of Representatives Speaker Glen D. Johnson called Brewster a close colleague and a good friend.
“Bill Brewster was always a strong, passionate and very effective advocate for improving education at all levels, strengthening our Oklahoma businesses, enhancing our health care system, and expanding our state’s economy,” Johnson said. “Bill was a person of character and integrity, and his word was his bond. He will be greatly missed.”
A political career marked by tragedy
Brewster was born in Ardmore on Nov. 8, 1941. He attended high school in Petrolia, Texas, and went on to study pharmacy at Southwestern Oklahoma State University. While attending SWOSU, he met is wife, Suzie, through serendipity. As recounted in a 1996 article in The Oklahoman, Brewster asked Suzie out because he had been unable to reach another young woman he was trying to ask to a homecoming dance.
Bill and Suzie were married just a year later, and they celebrated their 59th anniversary this year.
Brewster’s political career began while the couple was living in Colleyville, Texas, in the 1970s, when he ran for the local school board out of frustration over the size of his daughter’s first-grade class.
In 1977, the family returned to Oklahoma and settled in Marietta. Brewster was working as a pharmacist and showing cattle when he decided to run for the State Legislature. He won election to the House in 1982 and served until 1990, when he launched a campaign for Congress, taking on Lt. Gov. Robert S. Kerr III in the Democratic primary.
The day Brewster officially announced his candidacy, on Jan. 31, 1990, tragedy struck. His and Suzie’s other two children — Kecia, 16, and Kent, 13 — and two family friends died in a plane crash near Coalgate in southeast Oklahoma.
Lewis remembered that the crash happened the day the House was voting on a landmark education bill, HB 1017.
“We needed his vote, and he and his family were flying back from southeast Oklahoma in two airplanes so he could vote for the bill,” Lewis recalled.
The crash occurred 10 days before Karel Brewster’s birthday. Her father ultimately decided to continue his congressional campaign, winning 51 percent of the vote in the primary against Kerr and claiming the seat in the general election.
“And if we hadn’t of continued right then, I don’t know what we would have done,” Brewster told The Oklahoman in 1996. “We needed something right then to occupy our time. I was not going to lose that one. That’s just all there was to it. If [Kerr] had spent a million bucks, we would have won it.”
‘Impossible to think of one without thinking of the other’
Brewster served in Congress until 1997. During that time, he sat on a number of committees, including Ways and Means, Public Works and Transportation, Veterans’ Affairs and Transportation and Infrastructure. He developed a reputation for being pro-business and co-founded the Blue Dog Coalition — a group of centrist Democrats who said they felt “choked blue by the extremes in both parties.”
Brewster also founded the Congressional Oil and Gas Forum, a legislative caucus to advocate for the energy industry.
An avid hunter and a staunch supporter of gun rights, he was the co-chairman of the Congressional Sportsman’s Caucus, spent 20 years on the board of the National Rifle Association and served as president of the Shikar Safari Club. In 1993, he was among a group of gun advocates that took President Bill Clinton duck hunting. In 2018, President Donald Trump appointed him to chair the International Wildlife Conservation Council. From 2016 until this year, he also served on the Oklahoma Wildlife Conservation Commission.
Brewster left Congress in 1997 after deciding not to run for reelection, and he took a job with the lobbying firm R. Duffy Wall & Associates. He later founded his own lobbying firm, Capitol Hill Consulting Group. His wife, Suzie, also worked as a lobbyist until her retirement and now serves as chairwoman of the Murray State College Board of Regents. Their daughter, Karel, still works as a lobbyist at the Oklahoma State Capitol.
In 2003, the Oklahoma Legislature voted to name a stretch of State Highway 77 the Congressman Bill K. Brewster Highway.
Throughout Brewster’s life and career, he and Suzie were known for the strength of their bond as a couple and as a political team.
“It is impossible to think of one without thinking of the other,” Cole said in his statement.
House Appropriations and Budget Chairman Kevin Wallace (R-Wellston) said he has known the Brewsters for 20 years and that they were the first people to ask him to run for the Legislature.
“We shared a connection in that we both raised whitetail deer,” Wallace said. “His love and passion for the state of Oklahoma and for the outdoors cannot be matched. He was a true statesman who left a legacy of sacrifice to public service. He will be greatly missed.”
U.S. Rep. Frank Lucas (R-OK3) issued a statement calling Brewster “a tremendous friend.”
“Bill lived life with an immeasurable amount of passion and always strived to do better for his community and those he cherished,” Lucas said. “Throughout our working together in Congress, I could always look to Bill’s principled characteristics and leadership even though we represented different parties in Congress. No one represented Oklahoma as a finer statesman than Bill Brewster.”
Both Brewsters are in the Southwestern Oklahoma State University’s Distinguished Alumni Hall of Fame. They gave annually to the university’s pharmacy school and also funded scholarships for graduates of Marietta High School, according to a statement from the family.
Brewster is survived by Suzie, Karel and his grandson, Braxton Billy Kent Brewster.
Bill Brewster is scheduled to lie in repose in the Oklahoma State Capitol on Thursday, Oct. 6, from noon until 2 p.m. A visitation will follow from 6 to 8 p.m. at the Flanagan Watts Funeral Home in Marietta. A celebration of his life is scheduled for 1 p.m. on Friday, Oct. 7, at Crystal Rock Cathedral in Ardmore.
The family asks that, in lieu of flowers, donations be sent to the Brewster Scholarship Fund, P.O. Box 368, Marietta, Oklahoma, 73448.