DALLAS — Before December 2016, when he was staggered by the first of what would be multiple strokes, T. Boone Pickens was among the busier and more vibrant 88-year-olds on the planet.
Five days a week, there were 6:30 a.m. treadmill-and-weights workouts. During a typical Friday, he might have breakfast in Dallas, lunch in New York and dinner at his 68,000-acre Mesa Vista ranch in the Texas Panhandle.
Now, his routine includes frequent sessions of speech and physical therapy.
A Holdenville native, Pickens turns 90 on Tuesday.
Any profile of Pickens includes references to him as a well-known takeover operator and corporate raider during the 1980s and to his five divorces.
“He’s a complicated guy, in a way,” said Robert Stillwell, Pickens’ corporate attorney since 1963. “His family relationships are extremely complicated. He just plows ahead.”
Just as important a part of Pickens’ bio are references to his philanthropy.
“I was put on this earth to make money and to be generous with it,” Pickens once said.
In the oil-and-gas and investment businesses, he made and lost billions of dollars. His total lifetime benevolence amounts to slightly more than $1 billion.
After sections of New Orleans were destroyed by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Pickens was among the first to respond with a significant donation to the American Red Cross. He arranged to fly two planeloads of displaced dogs to California, where they were adopted into new homes.
About half of Pickens’ donations have gone to his alma mater Oklahoma State, “split between academics and athletics,” says Jay Rosser, Pickens’ longtime chief of staff.
Since 2003, the Cowboys have played home games at Boone Pickens Stadium.
In 2016, Pickens was the CEO of his BP Capital hedge fund company in Dallas. He maintained a heavy schedule of travel and media appearances. During a period of 14 years, he attended nearly every OSU football game, home and away.
Still a Dallas resident, Pickens recently made moves suggesting he is edging toward retirement. He sold his Gulfstream 550 jet and announced BP Capital was closed for business. His prized possession — his incredible ranch — is available for sale. The listed price is $250 million.
“When the ranch gets sold, it will leave a big hole for me,” Pickens wrote during a recent email exchange with the Tulsa World. “But it’s the right thing to do. I can’t see the beautiful vistas as well as I once did, and my hunting days are over.
“Keeping it puts a big burden on my estate. And I’d truly like to stick around to see someone enjoying it half as much as I have.”
On a first-name basis with former Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton and with entertainment figures including Warren Beatty and Burt Reynolds, the Pickens who had everything and did everything now aspires at 90 to be what he was at 88.
Pickens describes his current frustration level as being at “110 percent.”
“I work hard every day, trying to get everything back,” he wrote. “But along with the frustration is acceptance. There are two things I’ve enjoyed doing throughout my life. One is quail hunting, the other golf. I have macular degeneration and it’s progressed to the point I can’t shoot or hit a golf ball very well.
“So, I’ve given up on those and accept the fact it’s just not realistic for me anymore. . . . I do accept it and will find other things I enjoy.”
The Pickens party
Oklahoma State football coach Mike Gundy was among the crowd who gathered Saturday for Pickens’ 90th birthday party at the Dallas Country Club. Most of the 450 waited in a lengthy line to be photographed with Pickens, who wore an OSU orange blazer.
Positioned near a grand piano were five cakes. One was a multi-tiered white cake decorated only with a large “90” and Pickens’ signature.
Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones was there. So was Cowboys legend Roger Staubach. So were OSU President Burns Hargis and athletic director Mike Holder, along with former OSU quarterback Brandon Weeden and former OSU golfer Rickie Fowler.
Video messages were submitted by, among others, Warren Buffett, Steve Forbes, George Strait, Ted Turner, Garth Brooks, Mason Rudolph, Mike Boynton, Les Miles and Karl Rove.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s video statement included this: “You’ve been able to get me to do something that I have never done in my entire life, in celebration of this event.”
Abbott flashed OSU’s “Pistols Firing” hand gesture and said, “Go Pokes!”
Burt Reynolds also sent a video to the party: “I am in awe of your talent,” he told Pickens. “The fact that we’re not close friends is your fault.”
Former OU football coach Barry Switzer’s video got the biggest laugh of the day.
“I want to wish you a happy 90th birthday,” Switzer said to Pickens. “I know it’s a big day for you, and I want to be a part of it. I have always said I wish you had been a Sooner. We have a geology school (at OU). It’s a little closer than going on to Stillwater another 80 miles.
“I know they named a stadium after you up there, but just think about it. If you had been a Sooner, you would have had the greatest rushing team in college football named after you: the wishBoone. How about that? Instead of the wishbone, it would have been the wishBoone. Happy birthday, big boy. Have a good one. Take care.”
Pickens does enjoy a good party. In 2007, to commemorate the 60th birthday of then-wife Madeleine, Pickens hosted a fete at the Bellagio in Las Vegas. Entertainment was provided by Don Henley, Diana Ross and Michael McDonald.
Bartlesville vs. Boone
As he became known as one of the more prominent practitioners of corporate takeovers, Pickens was on a Time magazine cover in March 1985. He had become as infamous as he was famous.
The magazine headline: “High Times for T. Boone Pickens: A wily raider shakes up corporate America.”
A few months earlier, Pickens shook up Bartlesville — at that time the home of Phillips Petroleum. Phillips was Pickens’ first employer after he graduated from Oklahoma State (then known as Oklahoma A&M) with a geology degree in 1951. In 1956, Pickens established Amarillo, Texas-based Mesa Petroleum.
As Pickens attempted to gain control of Phillips in December 1984, the Bartlesville community response was orchestrated and impassioned.
As so many within the Bartlesville work force were employed by Phillips, or had jobs related to the Phillips operation, residents wore “Boone Busters” T-shirts with a design borrowed from the “Ghostbusters” movie logo.
“They hated (Pickens). It got ugly and dangerous,” said Stillwell, who, as Pickens’ attorney, was aware of every aspect of the Phillips takeover bid. “We actually got afraid and pulled out of that deal, in some part at least, because of (threats).
“We said, ‘We can’t win it, anyway. Let’s just get out of it.’ We pulled out of it in a matter of six hours or something.”
The concern in Bartlesville was that Pickens would gain control of Phillips, move the headquarters to Amarillo and in the process eliminate scores of Oklahoma jobs.
That’s fiction, Stillwell insists today, “and we said that from the start. Boone said, ‘I and my team will move to Bartlesville.’ We were going to move to Bartlesville. Boone made that promise. (Phillips shareholders and Pickens’ opponents) chose not to believe it. In all of the takeover situations, Bartlesville was the most organized. The whole town got involved.”
Bartlesville resident Beth Maddux became known as the “Cookie Lady.” She orchestrated the baking of thousands of heart-shaped cookies, adorned with a Phillips 66 logo and sent to politicians as a way to call attention to Bartlesville’s potential loss of Phillips Petroleum.
Maddux also encouraged Bartlesville students to write notes to President Ronald Reagan. More than 3,000 messages were sent to the White House.
“Phillips was all we had,” Maddux said. “It made Bartlesville more special than it would have been otherwise. I don’t know what happened at home over the dinner table, but I don’t remember hearing one adult person say that they hated Boone Pickens.
“We were just scared to death. We thought Boone would load up Phillips and move it to Texas, and we wouldn’t have a way to make a living in Bartlesville. We weren’t hating. We were afraid.”
Stillwell says Pickens “always considered the human factor.”
“Boone isn’t heartless, and he wasn’t heartless back in the takeover days,” Stillwell said. “It’s not like we were going to take over the company, steal all of the money and shoot all of the people. Our intent was to make it better — to make money for everybody.”
Maddux says Pickens no longer seems vilified in Bartlesville.
“You have to realize what he’s done for OSU,” Maddux said, “and there are lots of OSU graduates in this town. The OSU people love him now.”
Always a competitor
In 1930, the University of Texas completed construction on Gregory Gym, a 4,000-seat basketball venue. Thomas Boone Pickens Jr. was there in 1946, when, as a junior guard for Amarillo High School, he ended the first half of a state quarterfinal game by converting on a half-court, buzzer-beating shot.
Pickens’ bucket gave the Sandies an 18-15 lead, and they would go on to win 38-33. Amarillo High was eliminated by Houston Davis in a semifinal.
After a failed attempt to play basketball at Texas A&M, Pickens transferred to Oklahoma A&M, got a geology degree and surged into his next life in the oil-and-gas business.
Even as a young man, Stillwell says, Pickens was pretty much as he is now: witty, driven and smart.
“When he was in his 30s, he looked like he was about 14. Towheaded and thin,” Stillwell says. “He was ambitious and focused. He was a leader, and he was always funny. Always had a new joke, every time you saw him. I don’t know where he got them. Maybe the Lord gave jokes to him.”
Pickens became a skilled golfer. At one time, he was a 6-handicap player. After Pickens achieved some wealth, he and Stillwell would play together in tournaments at Eldorado Country Club in Palm Springs, California.
“If there was an important shot or putt, I might choke,” Stillwell said. “Boone never choked. If there was downhill, 6-foot putt with a break in it, you’d want Boone to putt it. He might miss the putt, but he would never choke.”
Stillwell describes the Pickens of then and now as being “extremely competitive in everything he does.”
Pickens never smoked. As for alcohol, he’s never been more than a light drinker — an occasional glass of wine type. The combination of clean lungs and a clean liver has to be among the reasons why he had a 90th birthday party.
As recently as the mid-2000s, at the Cooper Clinic in Dallas, Pickens would compete against co-workers and Holder in physical stress tests.
Pickens took on clinic founder Dr. Kenneth Cooper, a renowned health-and-fitness guru who is three years younger than Pickens and a University of Oklahoma graduate.
Pickens of OSU vs. Cooper of OU.
Bedlam on treadmills.
“Boone always wanted to take it to the max,” Stillwell remembers. “Boone got the others to give him an age-adjustment equivalency on the numbers. If not outright, he always beat them on the age adjustment. It was a big deal to him. If he wins, he’ll stick it in your ear.”
While workplace fitness centers are somewhat common today, they certainly were not 35 years ago. During his Mesa Petroleum years, Pickens was among the first CEOs to emphasize a fitness culture for employees. A workout facility was developed within the Mesa corporate headquarters in Amarillo, and Pickens would use it every day.
When Pickens was 75 and Holder was 55, they were matched in a Cooper Clinic stress test.
“I didn’t know it was a competition until he started asking how I did,” Holder said. “When he stayed on the treadmill two or three minutes longer than me, it was sobering. The next year, I knew what I was getting into.”
During a Cooper test, the treadmill’s incline and speed were increased every three minutes. The incline maximum was 18 degrees. The objective was for the participant to log as many minutes as he or she could possibly endure. Pickens consistently rated among the top 1 percent in his age group.
In 2009, Pickens and media members were given a tour of OSU’s 20,000-square-foot strength-and-conditioning facility — a facility made possible primarily by Pickens’ donations. Clad in a tailored suit, Pickens didn’t hesitate to take a seat at a machine and knock out a set of chest-press repetitions.
Pickens reports he “worked out at least five days a week” before the December 2016 stroke.
“I’d wake up at 6 a.m., be in the gym with my trainer by 6:30 and in the office by 8,” Pickens recalls. “My trainer had it pretty good. I did all the hard work. I only gave him a three-word (assignment): ‘Keep Boone alive.’”
Optimism and reflection
In his email to the Tulsa World, Pickens expressed optimism that better days are ahead.
“I’m planning on 2018 being better than 2017,” he wrote. “But remember, I’m a geologist and geologists are optimists by nature. Sure, you drill some dry holes, but you always know you’ll hit on the next one.
“A few strokes and a bad fall later have really altered my perspective,” Pickens continued. “I’m clearly in the fourth quarter and time is not my friend. I have come to accept and even embrace my mortality. Those who saw me at the OSU home games (in 2017) saw my mobility isn’t great.
“Speech therapy several times each week is paying off, but I have a lot more work to do before even thinking about getting back on CNBC or other (television networks). We all have goals, and that’s one of mine.”
Holder’s relationship with Pickens dates to 1973.
“Boone’s got some health issues, but I see him and think of him as the way he’s always been,” Holder said. “He still gets up every day with a positive, can-do attitude. He’s trying to get better physically and make tomorrow better than today.
“Other than my wife, the greatest blessing in my life has been Boone Pickens. And the most significant thing that ever happened in the history of Oklahoma State University is when Boone transferred from Texas A&M to OSU. We wouldn’t look anything like we do today if not for Boone Pickens.”
Rosser was Pickens’ chief of staff in 1992-96 and again since 2002.
“It’s a draining job, but one you look forward to every day because there is a new adventure every day,” Rosser said. “I’ve learned so much from him. He is a whirling dervish of ideas and action. To be a part of that is incredible. It’s not for the faint of heart, though.
“It’s a little trite to say there will never be another one like him.”
At the end of Pickens’ birthday party, a final message flashed on the video screen: “Coming May 22, 2028. Boone at 100. You’re invited.”