A GOOD COWBOY
T. Boone Pickens (courtesy of T. Boone Pickens)
Today, T. Boone Pickens passed away at age 91. Eight years ago I had the privilege of shadowing him. Through that process, we became friends. He graciously hosted my family at his Texas ranch on numerous occasions. In his memory, I’m sharing here a short piece I wrote about my experience with him.
I spent the weekend with T. Boone Pickens, one of the wealthiest men in America. He made his fortune in oil and gas. Nobody knows energy like Boone.
But the college football world knows him as the booster who made the largest single gift to an NCAA athletic program in American history – $165 million to Oklahoma State back in 2005. The money built the finest facilities in the country and helped propel Oklahoma State to one of the best teams in the country last year.
I met up with Boone at his office in Dallas and flew with him on his Gulfstream to his 68,000-acre ranch in the Texas Panhandle.
The Lake House at Boone Pickens' ranch. (courtesy of T. Boone Pickens)
Then on Saturday night we took the Gulfstream to Stillwater, Oklahoma to watch OSU play Texas before 58,000 fans.
The stadium before Texas and Oklahoma State kick off. Photo by Jeff Benedict
Texas won 41-36 on a controversial last-minute touchdown. But the best part of the weekend was being with Boone on the ranch. You can learn a lot about a man by spending a little time with him in the middle of nowhere.
The ranch. (courtesy of T. Boone Pickens)
At 84, Boone is as active as anybody I know. He rises at 6:00 every day and begins by checking the commodities markets. Then he exercises. Before eight he’s at his desk. Typically he works until six in the evening. Then he has dinner, either with a family member or close friend or associate. The older you get the more you value relationships and companionship. He is in bed by 10 most nights. He’s followed that pattern most of his life.
His philosophy is simple. “There is work, and there is home, and there aren’t any stops in between,” he said. “I decided early on to concentrate on business and home and to omit the distractions and temptations that mess up so many lives.”
I like guys who think like that.
Jeff with Boone in Boone's library. Photo by Jay Rosser
At one point, Boone invited me to take a ride with him to survey the ranch. I interviewed him while we tooled around in his SUV. In between him showing me the thousands of trees he planted and wooden windmills he’s built, I asked him about early childhood influences. He told me about the paper route he started as a 12-year-old boy in Holdenville, Oklahoma.
This was in the 1940s and one day he was going door-to-door to collect from his customers when he discovered a wallet in someone’s yard. He opened it and saw that it belonged to one of his customers – Mr. White – who lived three doors down from where the wallet turned up. Boone promptly went to Mr. White’s home and knocked on the door.
“Mr. White, here’s your bill fold. I found it.”
Smiling, Mr. White took his wallet and removed a dollar. “That’s for you, Boone,” he said. “Thanks for bringing this home to me.”
A dollar was a lot of money to a boy back then. At the time, Boone earned one penny for each paper he delivered.
When he got home that day, Boone ran up to his grandmother, mother and aunt and showed them the dollar. They were sitting on the screened in porch. He told them what he had done.
His grandmother told him to return the dollar.
“Well, Mr. White wants me to have it,” Boone told her.
His mother and aunt agreed with Boone’s grandmother.
“But...” Boone started to protest.
“Son,” his grandmother said, “we are not going to be paid to be honest.”
“But he didn’t pay it to me and then I was honest,” Boone said. “I was honest in taking it to him. Then he paid me.”
“Take the money back,” she insisted.
He rode his bike back across town to Mr. White’s house and knocked on the door. Mr. White had a puzzled look on his face when he opened the door and saw Boone. Then Boone handed him the dollar.
“No, no, Boone. I want you to have it. That was a good deed you did.”
“I know it,” Boone said. “But my grandmother and my mother and my aunt don’t want me to have it.”
On the way back home, Boone got caught in a rainstorm. Feeling sorry for himself, he went out of his way to get as wet as possible. When he finally reached home he looked like a drenched rat. “I nearly drowned,” he told his grandmother.
“Son, if you had gone when I told you to you would have been back before it rained.”
He and I cracked up when he shared the part about his grandmother having no sympathy for him.
But seriously, that story says a lot about Boone and his attitudes toward honesty and money. Integrity is the currency of sound business. And generosity is a key to true happiness. No wonder this guy has done so well.
A self-made man, he has made billions. But he has quietly given away vast amounts of his fortune to improve the lives of others. His gifts to medicine, education and the environment have far surpassed the money he donated to Oklahoma State athletics. But he told me that nobody has been more vocal in their gratitude than Oklahoma State athletes, coaches and fans. They even named the newly expanded 60,000-seat football stadium, which he financed, after him.
An older fan thanks Boone for his generosity. Photo by Jeff Benedict
The moment we touched down at the Stillwater Regional Airport on the night of the game, men wearing green shirts and earplugs were on the runway to greet him. They all know him by name and treat him like he’s their best friend. Thanks to Boone, the runway was stacked up with small planes that had come in from all over Texas and Oklahoma, carrying the luxury suite types who trek to Stillwater to watch them take on the Longhorns.
Boone Pickens' Gulfstream. Photo by Jeff Benedict
Boone has his own suite at the stadium.
Boone watching the game from his suite. Photo by Jeff Benedict
But he’s just as at home with security guards, parking attendants and the people selling hot dogs and game programs. That’s obvious when you walk into Boone Pickens Stadium with Boone Pickens. Everyone who has a job there loves this guy. And it’s clear that they appreciate him. And he appreciates them.
When Boone comes out of the tunnel onto the field during pre-game warm-ups, the fans in the student section go nuts.
OSU students. Photo by Jeff Benedict
They immediately recognize him and start chanting his name: “Boone. Boone. Boone.” He goes right over to them and shakes their hands and talks to them.
OSU students cheering Boone. Photo by Jeff Benedict
Here’s a guy who could live and act like Thurston Howell. But instead he is totally at home with security guards and college students. He appreciates people. He likes being around them. He doesn’t feel above them. He’s never forgotten that he started out as a paperboy in Holdenville. Now there’s a stadium 97 miles away in Stillwater. It has his name on it. And on Saturday nights, the place is packed with people from the American heartland. They are wearing cowboy boots, Wrangler jeans, orange shirts and black cowboy hats.
Boone waives to students as he exits field. Photo by Jeff Benedict