James T. Highley. Under its effective commission system of municipal government, which was adopted in 1911, Oklahoma City has had no more efficient and valuable an official than the present incumbent of the position of commissioner of public safety, and the preferment thus granted to Judge Highley well denotes his unassailable place in the confidence and respect of this ambitious and progressive community, in which he has been a prominent and influential figure from the year that marked the admission of Oklahoma as one of the sovereign commonwealths of the United States. He has long been a leader in connection with the activities of the democratic party and as the invincible advocate of the cause of organized labor, and both in Kansas and Oklahoma he became widely known as a newspaper publisher and editor. He is one of the strong, steadfast and honored citizens of the Oklahoma metropolis and capital city and as such is entitled to special recognition in this history of the state.
James Thomas Highley was born in Bates County, Missouri, on the 4th of March, 1855, and is a son of Robert B. and Mary E. (Hays) Highley, both natives of Virginia, whence they came to the West and numbered themselves among the pioneers of Kansas. Judge Highley was afforded the advantages of the common schools, but in his broader and especially comprehensive education he well exemplifies the consistency of the statement to the effect that the discipline of the newspaper office is to the alert and ambitious young man the equivalent of a liberal education. At the age of sixteen years he entered a newspaper and general printing office at Paola, Kansas, where he served a full and thorough apprenticeship to the “art preservative of all arts” and became skillful in all details of the printing business as exemplified in an office of the scope of that in which he completed his service. For three years thereafter he was employed in job-printing and morning newspaper offices in Kansas City, Missouri, and thus amplified his experience under metropolitan influences and conditions.
In 1878 Judge Highley returned to Paola, Kansas, where he purchased the plant and business of an uncompromising republican paper known as the Paola Spirit. He promptly transmogrified the paper into an equally ardent exponent of the cause of the democratic party, and he developed the Spirit into one of the leading democratic papers of the Sunflower State, having been associated with Bernard Sheridan in the editing and publishing of this paper from 1878 to 1888, and having in the meanwhile served two years as a member of the city council of Paola. In July, 1888, Judge Highley disposed of his newspaper and other interests at Paola and purchased the Garnett Journal, at Garnett, Kansas. This paper likewise was transformed by him from the standard of the republican to that of the democratic party, and as its editor he vigorously pushed the paper forward to a place of distinctive influence in Kansas politics and as an effective exponent of local interests in its normal field of circulation. In 1892, within a short time after the election of Cleveland to the presidency of the United States, Judge Highley was appointed postmaster at Garnett, and of this office he continued the efficient and popular incumbent until the election of McKinley to the presidency, when he promptly resigned, thus showing his independence and his consistency, since he had no desire to cling to the office under a republican administration.
In 1901 Judge Highley sold his newspaper property at Garnett and came to Oklahoma Territory, where his vigorous policies and unfaltering civic loyalty have made his influence even more benignant and pervasive. He established his home in Oklahoma City and here instituted the publication of the Labor Signal, which he avowedly pushed to the front as an organ and mouthpiece of organized labor. Under his courageous and undaunted administration and able editorial policies the paper soon became a power in connection with the interests of labor unions of all kinds throughout the territory, and to his efforts in this, and other connections was largely due the establishing of a number of trades unions that are now numbered among the strongest and most influential in the state. He filled all the principal offices in his local union in Oklahoma City and was also elected president of the Central Trades Assembly of Oklahoma. Well, indeed, may be reproduced in this sketch the following pertinent estimate which was written by one thoroughly familiar with the character and achievements of him to whom the article is dedicated:
“Concerning such sturdy Westerners as Judge Highley an entire volume could be written, so aggressive and humane has been his entire life, not only in connection with general civic affairs but also as a public official. He has prided himself on never having made a compromise for personal expediency, and he has insistently lived up to his honest convictions, no matter what adverse pressure was brought to bear or how earnestly his friends have urged a compromise. Though he has often encountered bitter opposition and even unjustified personal enmity, he has the satisfaction of knowing that he has been sustained by those who stand for the right and are not afraid to do their duty. As police judge he was often referred to as the ‘Golden Rule Judge,’ and as a citizen no one has ever had to question his position or doubt his courage in the maintaining of his convictions. Every stage of his education has had the illumination only of experience and hard work, and thus pomp and power can not intimidate him or any policy of self interest deflect him from the course which he believes to be right. Just a frank, honest, sincere, courageous man of the West, ready and quick to think and act– this designates Judge Highley as he is and as he is known of men.”
In 1907, the year which marked the admission of Oklahoma to statehood, Judge Highley was elected to the bench of the Police Court of Oklahoma City, and in this judicial office he served four years, with signal circumspection and ability and with a dignity and humane consideration too often absent in the administration of the affairs of such tribunals. In this connection it may well be noted that Judge Highley made radical departures from the policies of the average police judge, and especially in making it assured to all that an arrest was not equivalent to a conviction when a case was presented in his court. Insistently just, he tempered justice with mercy, and the unfortunate man who was not criminal by instinct or desire, the youth who had made a mistake at the outset of his career, were given sympathetic consideration when they appeared before Judge Highley, were admonished to do better and were given an opportunity for starting anew on the path of rectitude. This humane magistrate was never able to accept as conclusive evidence of guilt the mere fact that some policeman chanced to arrest a person, and when at times confronted by the city attorney with the statement that on some point of law the Supreme Court of the United States had made a decision at variance with that maintained by Judge Highley, the latter, with humorous dignity, was prone to reply that he often found it necessary to reverse the findings of the Supreme Court.
In May, 1911, when Oklahoma City adopted the commission form of government, Judge Highley was made the democratic nominee for the office of commissioner of public safety. In the primary election he received 270 more votes than the next highest nominee on the entire ticket, and in the ensuing general election a most flattering majority was rolled up in his favor, as the citizens in general realized his special fitness for this exacting office. His first term was for only two years, but in May, 1913, he was re-elected for a term of four years. It is but consistent to say that the various municipal affairs that come within the jurisdiction of the department of which Judge Highley is the executive head have never had so effective and careful supervision as under his earnest and faithful administration. Under his fostering care the health department and the fire department have been developed to a high standard of efficiency and have won the highest commendation in the community.
On the 19th of May, 1892, at Garnett, Kansas, was solemnized the marriage of Judge Highley to Miss Olive H. Hiatt, who was born and reared in that place and who is a daughter of John G. and Mary E. (Pattie) Hiatt, both of whom were born in Virginia, where the respective families were founded in an early day. Representatives of the Pattie family were prominent participants in the American wars with the Indians during the period from 1821 to 1833, and an uncle of Mrs. Hiatt was the author of that valuable historical work known as Pattie’s Narrative, a publication that was issued by Henry Flint, a leading publisher in Cincinnati immediately after the close of this conflict and that is accepted as the most authoritative history of the Indian wars of that troublous epoch in our national annals. Judge and Mrs. Highley have two children: Thomas Hiatt Highley, who was born May 10, 1893, is a member of the class of 1913 in the University of Oklahoma; and Mary Temple Highley, who was born February 4, 1898, remains at the parental home, which is at 2206 West Nineteenth Street and which is known for its gracious and unostentatious hospitality.