T. Boone Pickens, a pioneering capitalist who built a fortune in the energy industry and then gave away more than $1 billion as a philanthropist, died in Dallas today at the age of 91.
The straight-talking, visionary businessman was a larger-than-life presence on the American scene for decades, hailed for his unflagging energy, self-effacing humor and entrepreneurial smarts. “I am most grateful to have had the privilege to have known him and to have had the experiences I had with Boone in my life,” said his close friend Alan White, who founded Dallas-based PlainsCapital Bank. Pickens, White said, was a “true Texas legend.”
Another good friend of Pickens’, Andrews Distributing founder Barry Andrews, called the energy tycoon a “great man.” Said Andrews: “My fondest memories of Boone are riding with him on his beautiful Mesa Vista Ranch [in the Texas Panhandle] and listening to the greatest storyteller share incredible detailed stories about his life. Every story would relate to friends and business in some way. I am proud to have known Boone and will treasure our times together.”
Born in Holdenville, Oklahoma, Pickens was still a youngster when he moved with his family to Texas in the 1930s. He attended Texas A&M and then what’s now Oklahoma State University, graduating from there with a geology degree in 1951. After working for a time for Phillips Petroleum, he started Mesa Petroleum and eventually built it into one of the world’s biggest independent oil companies.
Pickens became a national business celebrity in the 1980s, landing on the cover of Time magazine, for example, after Mesa’s bold attempt to acquire the much-larger Gulf Oil. As a result of that and other efforts, Pickens and his investors made hundreds of millions of dollars in profit after selling the shares they’d snapped up in the takeover bids. He sold Mesa to Richard Rainwater in 1996—Pickens was 68 at the time—but then went on to found BP Capital, a Dallas hedge fund that invested so successfully in energy companies that he eventually became a billionaire.
Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, who was another close friend of Pickens’, said he was a “natural-born competitor” who never let adversity get him down — even when, in his early 70s, he was going through a tough divorce and in a deep depression. “Such depression, that he told me that he literally had to lift his leg up with his hands to put it on the floor to move out of the bed. He was broke at that particular time,” Jones recalled. “For a guy that had ridden as tall and had done as much in the world [as he had], that was quite a comedown at that time. Well, all Boone did … was make more money after he was 70, do more successful things, help more people, make more charitable contributions after he was 70 years old … That’s when he really had some of his greatest marks. He really should, in my eyes, be known as the fourth-quarter guy: the fourth quarter of life.”
Pickens “evolved over time, from a pure oilman to what used to be perceived as a corporate raider … to a really savvy investor,” said David Johnson, a business analyst for KRLD-AM. “He played on the national stage from Day One. He always thought big, like when he took on Gulf Oil. He was always a straight shooter, and said exactly what he thought.”
Dallas was “fortunate to have him” here, Johnson added, and he fit well in Big D. “This is a community of big personalities, and Lord knows he had one of the biggest. Everybody knew him, and anybody who didn’t, wanted to know him. I never had so much fun as wandering over to his [BP Capital] office for lunch at Preston Center. You never knew who you’d see there: business figures, sports stars, always somebody interesting.”
In an interview at that office five years ago with Jeanne Prejean for D CEO magazine, Pickens described his friendship with former President Ronald Reagan, showed off a guitar signed by George Strait, and told about his Papillon “Murdock, the smartest dog I ever had,” who was buried in Pickens’ back yard. “I said on the gravestone, ‘Murdock was my best friend,’ ” the businessman told Prejean. In the office, Murdock’s collar was displayed in a frame.
In Murdock’s place was another dog, Murdock II. While he may not have been as smart as his predecessor, Murdock II would accompany Boone to the office and race to each staff member’s office, just to check in.
And, while none of Boone’s several marriages were long-term, his staff members like Jay Rosser and Sally Geymüller were with him for decades.
Pickens often said that he liked giving away money, and he gave away plenty through his foundation over the years — more than $1 billion worth. About half of it went to his alma mater, Oklahoma State. But, besides education, he also was uncommonly generous to causes including conservation, at-risk children, the U.S. military, entrepreneurship, and healthcare.
In healthcare alone, for instance, Pickens gave to nonprofits including the American Red Cross, the Center for BrainHealth at The University of Texas at Dallas, MD Anderson Cancer Center, Presbyterian Communities and Services Foundation, Texas Scottish Rite Hospital, The Senior Source, the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, the Visiting Nurse Association Meals on Wheels, the Dallas YMCA, and Baylor Scott and White Health.
Following a $10 million gift from Pickens’ foundation in 2012, Baylor Scott and White named its new Dallas cancer hospital the Baylor T. Boone Pickens Cancer Hospital. “The patients served by his generosity may never know him, but his thoughtful gift will touch their lives,” said Rowland K.”Robin” Robinson, president of the Baylor Scott and White Dallas Foundation. “I am forever grateful for the opportunity … to be involved with thoughtful people whose generosity has made our city a better place. Boone [was] the personification of this spirit.”
A memorial service for Pickens has been scheduled for Thursday, September 19, at 2 p.m. at Highland Park Methodist Church.
While his life may seem like the stuff of legends, the reality is that T. Boone Pickens was the real deal.