Lloyd N. Unsell (1923-2007), a founding member of the American Oil & Gas Historical Society, in 1986, he received the industry’s prestigious Chief Roughneck Award in 1986 — the only person not affiliated with an oil company to do so since the award began in 1955. He joined the Independent Petroleum Association of America in 1948 and soon managed public and media relations; he was promoted to executive vice president in 1976 and president in 1985. Unsell was part of key industry industry debates — and also helped win final approval for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial’s design and construction in 1982. In December 2004, Unsell gave AOGHS exclusive permission to publish the draft forward and early chapters of his then in-progress memoirs, Recollections of Lloyd N. Unsell.
Chapter Four: “Glitter of the Oil Capital”
When I went to work on the Tulsa
World, I learned very quickly what it meant to be a little frog in a big
pond. The dynamics of downtown Tulsa were fascinating for a small town
reporter. The Tulsa Chamber of Commerce stationary still proclaimed that the
city it served was “The Oil Capitol of the World.” Houston may have been edging
up on that claim, but all the elements on which Tulsa had based the title were
still in place – headquarters for Skelly Oil Co., Carter Oil Co., the SONJ
domestic production subsidiary, Stanolind Oil & Gas, the Standard of
Indiana production arm, Mid-Continent Petroleum Corp., Service Pipeline Co.,
National Tank, Bovaird Supply, Hinderliter tool, Unit Rig, and production headquarters
for a dozen other medium to large integrated companies. But Tulsa was also
headquarters for dozens of highly successful independent oil companies, and
managers of the hundreds of phone book listings of oil-related enterprises
which were competing for space in the bristling downtown area where business offices
were at a premium.
Tulsa was headquarters for the then
world’s largest commercial magazine, the Oil & Gas Journal which now only
has a printing plant there, and a half dozen major industry associations. But
one of the crown jewels of Tulsa’s claim as the major oil city was the
International Petroleum Exposition (IPE) which had been a world renowned
industrial exposition since 1923. When I arrived on the scene, feverish plans were
already under way for the first postwar Exposition in May 1948, many months
away. Tulsa had endemic housing and hotel room shortages, and an IPE Housing
committee had been formed to find space for oil show visitors from 33
countries. It wasn’t going to be easy. Downtown Tulsa was a fascinating place
in 1947. Major department stores and speciality shops lined Main Street and
Boston Avenue for blocks, and shopping throngs crowded the streets on most
days, giving the city the flavor of a bustling “big little town.” Great
downtown theaters that matched any west of the Mississippi, particularly the
Orpheum and the Ritz, attracted sellout throngs with long lines of movie-goers waiting
for the next show. The downtown was blessed with eating establishments serving
the after-theater crowds, and a favorite was Bishops, a spotless eatery open 24
hours, seven days a week. So popular was this restaurant that it almost always
had lines of waiting patrons. Some of its waitresses were institutions, on
their jobs there for decades.
The Tulsa World and the competing Tulsa
Tribune both had daily oil pages, but neither had a business page. The two
papers’ oil editors, Paul Hedrick at the World and Andrew Rowley at the Tribune
were known to everyone in the Tulsa oil community, and had no problem
filling their respective spaces with industry developments fresh to their
readers. I was a assigned a “beat” that included the local banks, travel organizations,
the railroads and airlines all of which had busy downtown offices competing for
the patronage of the traveling public, and represented the World at the
weekly luncheon meeting of the Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors, to cover
anything of interest on which the group may act.
My earlier oil experience had consisted of lowest echelon work as an oilfield truck swamper, floor hand on oil well servicing rigs, and a small cog position in manufacturing oil tools at the Hinderliter plant in Tulsa. Now, I was getting to know some of the leading lights in the management of production operations of some of the largest oil companies in the land, exposed to their personalities, and learning about their backgrounds and experiences in the industry. Oil and gas leaders indeed were dominant in the Tulsa business community, and in the forefront of civic and business organizations in the city. It was my good fortune to get to know many of them well.
Chapter Five: “Mr. Tulsa”“
When I moved to Tulsa, Skelly Oil
Co. was a familiar name, not because I was a customer, because I didn’t own a
car, but because a family friend had operated a Skelly service station in
Seminole. The name W. G. (Bill) Skelly, however, meant nothing special to me,
though to every long-term Tulsa resident he was known as the city’s top
booster, and to many as “Mr. Tulsa.” Before long I would come to learn that
Skelly earned that title because he simply loved the City of Tulsa, and for
years had sought to express this affection in many visible ways.
Tulsa was making great plans to
host the first post-war International Petroleum Exposition (IPE) scheduled in
May of 1948, and the President of IPE since its founding in the 1920’s, W. G.
Skelly, was worried. The IPE housing bureau had rapidly run out of hotel space,
and many Tulsans had discovered they could schedule vacations during the “oil
show” and rent their homes to exhibitors, oil companies and foreign visitor
delegations for good money. Trouble was, this opportunity was becoming too much
of a “good thing” to some folks, and Mr. Skelly’s phone and post office box
were overloaded with complaints of outlandish demands being made by some who
apparently were determined to “get rich” renting their homes to oilmen. It
nettled Skelly that anyone living in Tulsa would make demands that would “alienate
our visitors to the city,” so he called the Tulsa World seeking its support in
appealing to the “civic conscience” of Tulsans to treat prospective oil show
visitors as they would wished to be treated. I was sent to interview Skelly and
do this story.
It wasn’t a long walk. The Skelly
building, a rustic red brick structure, was on a corner adjoining The Tulsa
World building. A secretary more than twice my age at the time, a clearly
competent, pleasant lady having behind her long years of service to the founder
of Skelly Oil, ushered me into the presence of “Mr. Tulsa,” introduced me, and
announced my purpose. Mr. Skelly motioned me into a chair, and said, “This is a
very simple story. We have some people trying to pick the pockets of folks
wanting to come to the oil show. We want visitors to Tulsa to feel good about
being here. We want them to want to come back. If they leave feeling they’ve
been fleeced, they’ll never come back. That’s it; simple story.”
I told Mr. Skelly he had given me
one paragraph, and that we needed to discuss the problem at some length so I
could get the feel of it, and develop his philosophy about it since he was so
incensed about the problem. He had other things to do, and saw little need of
this extended conversation, but agreed, so he responded to my questions for the
better part of an hour.
Mr. Skelly was a curious
interviewee. He was bald, for the most part, with wisps of hair above both ears,
had a very large head with an oversized W. C. Fields nose, astride which sat
heavy thick-lense eyeglasses. To a visitor, the thick glasses magnified his
eyes which appeared to be enormous, a little bulgy, and somewhat rheumy. He had
a nervous habit of quickly stroking the side of his nose with the knuckle of his
index finger, sniffing as he did so. He always stroked his nose twice, and
sniffed twice, simultaneously, while making a point in the conversation. When
he thought I had notes enough to do the story, he said so, and dismissed me
when his secretary announced that a visitor with an appointment was cooling his
heels in the anteroom.
I went back to the World newsroom,
itself a little antiquated in those days. Every reporter used an old Underwood
upright, any one of which could be heard on the street. All of them going at
once created an indescribable racket, augmented by the clacking of a half-dozen
AP teletype machines along one wall. To make matters worse, the city editor,
Loren Williams, was near deaf (no doubt because of all the racket) and kept a
police radio receiver on the wall behind his desk blaring at full volume. As a
defense mechanism, I learned to consciously shut out all this tumult when I was
concentrating on a story at deadline, and the habit sticks to this day.
I called the oil show office, and
got a few examples of complaints about excessive rental demands, then went to
work on the story. It was late morning on Friday and relatively quiet when I
finished W. G. Skelly’s appeal to Tulsans not to abuse the pocketbooks of
visitors to the much-heralded oil show, still many months away. I roughly
edited the article, pasted the succeeding pages together which was the practice
in those non-computerized days, tossed it into the city editor’s in-basket, and
went off to cover my regular news beat.
When I returned to the newsroom in
late afternoon, the Skelly article had been bounced to the managing editor, Lee
Erhard, who called me over and said, “This reads good to me, but do me a favor.
Take it over and let Mr. Skelly read it.”
I said I had several stories to
write, and feeling a little offended by Erhard’s suggestion, I said if he wanted.
Skelly to read the piece, he should send it over by a copy boy.
Erhard wasn’t persuaded. “Look,” he said, “Mr. Skelly is a special person in this city. If he wanted to add something to the story, the guy who wrote it ought to be there. So as a personal favor to me, take it over and let him read it.” There was a note of finality in his voice, as he handed me the copy.
In the stroll back to Skelly’s
office, I unconsciously rolled the story into a cylinder perhaps an inch and a
half in diameter. The same gracious secretary rang Mr. Skelly, and inquired
whether he wished to read the story I had written. He did indeed. So she
ushered me into his office, and I handed him the rolled-up copy. This suited
him fine, because he held anything he read about 8 to 10 inches from his face,
so he slowly unrolled the story as he read it, a process that seemed
interminable. When he finally finished, he stroked his bulbous nose, sniffed,
tilted his head back, and scrutinized me through those heavy eyeglasses.
Finally, he said, “You’re a very fortunate young fella. I wouldn’t change a
word of this.”
Still smarting from an immature notion that my professionalism had been compromised, and stillnot fully appreciative of W. G. Skelly’s exalted status in the community, I said, “You’re pretty lucky too, Mr. Skelly.”
“How’s that?” he asked.
I said, “You’re the only person I
know who has editing privileges at the Tulsa World.”
The president of Skelly Oil Company
looked at me for a long, tortuous moment, while I was biting my tongue at
having made such a petty remark. “Just a minute,” he said. He pulled out a
drawer of his desk, rummaged around in it a moment, then handed me a misshapen
“Put this in your pocket,” he said,
“and rub it now and then for luck.” Not knowing what he had given me, I dropped
it into my pocket, thanked him, and departed.
Walking through the newsroom, I ran
into Paul Hedrick, the World’s oil editor for many years.. Paul said. “I hear
you’ve been interviewing Mr. Skelly.”
I said the rumor was true, and I
pulled the brown nut from my pocket and showed it to Paul, asking if he knew
what it was. He smiled and said, “I’ll be darned (strong language for Mr.
Hedrick). You mean he gave you a buckeye? He only gives those to people he
likes.” Paul went on to explain that Mr. Skelly was a native of Ohio, where the
buckeye is the state tree, and
had absolute faith that the buckeye
seed was a working good luck charm.
Mr. Skelly’s appeal to the “civic
conscience” of Tulsans ran on Sunday, two columns wide down the left side of
page one. At midweek, Mr. Skelly called me and said, “Young fella, your story
is working. The housing office says what people are demanding to rent their
homes is moderating already, and I’ve had some good response too. I thought you’d
like to know.”
I thanked Mr. Skelly, who immediately
changed the subject. “I called you because I wanted to offer you a little civic
duty, young fella.” In the considerable time I was around Mr. Skelly, he never
called me by name. He addressed me simply as, “Young Fella.” When he referred
to me in conversation with others, he would tilt his head in my direction, and
say, “…this young fella thinks,” or “this young fella says..”
This was before television found
its way to Tulsa, but Mr. Skelly owned radio station KVOO, where perhaps the
only broadcast “celebrity” other than Bob Wills was Sam Schneider, the farm
editor. Sam had an early morning broadcast which had an enormous following
among farmers all over the southwest, since KVOO had 50,000 watts of clear
channel power. Sam was in constant demand as a speaker before farm groups, knew
what he was doing, and was an all-around nice guy.
Skelly asked if I knew Sam, and I
said yes that I knew him very favorably. “Well, this is good. We’re going to
have the first Tulsa Fat Stock Show and Exposition next March. It’s developing
well, but we need a publicity committee. I’d like you to serve as co-chairman
with Sam. You can handle the newspapers, and Sam will be responsible for radio.
Does that make sense?”
“I suppose so,” I said.
“Then I can count on you.”
I was already beginning to learn
that not many people said “no,” arbitrarily, to Mr. Skelly.
“I suppose so,” I said again.
“Good,” he said. “the planning
group meets at my house, sometimes every week. You must attend those meetings.
My secretary will advise you.” He hung up the phone.
Mr. Skelly’s home, built in the
teen years of the 20th
as I recall, suited him perfectly. It was furnished in turn-of-the-century
decor, one memorable example a massive teakwood dining room suite. The chair
backs, hand carved, featured elephants in a curved line up both sides, the
elephants increasing in size as both lines met at the center top of the massive
chairs. I was told that Mr. Skelly personally bought the suite in India. The
elephant motif was well-suited to him; he had been a Republican national
committee member for as long as anyone could remember.
The stock show group met in the
basement, where a huge table had been set up conference style. Two of the
principals were Jay P. Walker, founder of the National Tank Co. who had an
Angus ranch west of Sand Springs, and J. W. Sharp, whose ranch was on Mingo
road northwest of Tulsa. Sharp raised Herefords, as I recall. These meetings
were run loosely, and one quickly got the impression that plans for the Tulsa
stock show were being developed without a plan. The only thing certain about
this project was that it was near to the heart of W.G. Skelly. More than once
in these meetings, he would declare with complete confidence that one day the
Tulsa stock show would be “bigger than the Kansas City Royal,” which, of course,
was then, and still is the granddaddy of all stock shows. But Mr. Skelly had
such uncompromising faith in Tulsa that he could not imagine the city not
spawning and nurturing to greatness a stock show measuring up to his boundless
vision. He had for years given dozens of 4-H Club youngsters their first purebred
calf, from his own ranch along the Verdigris river. It was a certainty in his
mind that Tulsa was destined to have a stock show that would incubate and
encourage the rise of young and successful ranchers the length and breadth of
the “Magic Empire” of which his beloved city was the hub.
I recall that the central subject
of the first meeting I attended was “money.” There wasn’t any in the till, so
plans were progressing to have a dinner in the Mayo hotel to which all the city
fathers would be invited, there to be pep-talked on the grand vision of Tulsa’s
first annual Fat Stock Show and Exposition, then appealed to for funds which
were needed to open an office and hire an exposition manager. Somehow, I got
the feeling that all this deadly-serious planning should have been started a
year earlier, at least. There was so much to do; animal categories to be
designated, premiums to be established, catalogs to be printed (not to mention
distributed), ribbons printed, trophies designed and ordered, and on and on ad
I learned also at the first meeting
what I suspected when I accepted the co-chairmanship of the “publicity
committee.” Mr. Skelly advised that Charlie Border, who ran the agricultural department
at the Chamber of Commerce in those days, had arranged a room complete with
phone and typewriters where Sam Schneider and I could write the stock show
publicity. I tried to reason privately with Mr. Skelly that I had a full-time
job occupying me for l0-plus hours six days a week, and had little time to write
press releases, work up newspaper mailing lists, and stuff envelopes, but he
waved these protests off with assurances that it wouldn’t be that big a job.
Sam Schneider and I quickly came to
the conclusion that what Mr. Skelly expected of us was beyond our doing, but
Sam was on wobblier footing than I because he worked for Mr. Skelly. So it fell
to me to suggest hiring a part-time person to build and maintain mailing lists,
write publicity, and do all the follow-up work that was needed. We found a
woman who had been a reporter on the Tulsa Tribune, and had quit the newspaper
to start a family. She agreed to work four to five hours a day, for a nominal
$3 an hour. Mr. Skelly fumed about this, and argued that we could get a
journalism student from the University of Tulsa for 50 cents an hour, pleading
the poverty of the stock show coffers. But reasoning the thing through, showing
that we clearly had much work demanding experienced help, we prevailed and
hired the former reporter. I breathed a sigh of relief, and so did my wife who
had developed disdain for two things: l) morning newspapers with midnight
deadlines, and 2) “civic duty” as defined by W. G. Skelly.
I forget the exact time, only that
it was very cold, the night of the fundraising dinner held in a nice room on
the mezzanine of the Mayo hotel, overlooking Fifth street. Jay Walker had
arranged for special cuts of aged beef, and the Mayo supplied all the
accompaniments. There were about 60 of Tulsa’s leading citizens there to be fed
and solicited.. It was more than half a century ago, but I still remember a few
of them: A. E. Bradshaw, chairman of the National Bank of Tulsa; R. Otis
McClintock, president of the First National Bank; L. W. Grant,
founder/president of Sooner Savings & Loan; R. W. McDowell, president of
Mid-Continent Petroleum Corp., L. C. Clark of Clark-Darland Hardware (later to
be mayor of Tulsa) C. H. Wright, founder of Sunray Oil, my boss Eugene Lorton,
publisher of the Tulsa World, and others of similar stature.
There were three people at the head
table including Mr. Skelly and Jay P. Walker, a natural born promoter who was
there to preside. The third person was the “show piece” of the evening, a young
man named Ray Gene Cinnamon, a farm boy from the hamlet of Garber, OK., who had
taken his prize steer to the Kansas City Royal, was awarded the grand
championship for the animal, and in recognition of his achievement had been
named “Star Farmer of America” by the Future Farmers of America (FFA).
Jay Walker had found young Cinnamon
and prevailed on him to come to Tulsa for the purpose of telling the city’s
business luminaries what a wonderful thing they were about to do for young
people like himself. Ray Gene didn’t disappoint. He said it was caring people
just like those in his audience who had generated his interest in his life’s
pursuit. Such men, through the Oklahoma State Fair at Oklahoma City, he said,
had sparked the interest and shown the way to hundreds of young men then
positioned to help elevate the quality of the livestock industry in Oklahoma.
He said he couldn’t say enough for the wisdom of the men seated before him, for
it was the interest of such men who had given him the vision which assured his
success in the cattle business. He concluded by saying he felt so strongly
about the mission of the Tulsa stock show, that he wanted the “privilege” of
making the first contribution. He then plucked a crisp new hundred dollar bill
from his shirt pocket, said “the first hundred dollars,” smiled, laid the bill
on the table, and sat down.
Sitting near the head table, I
turned to see if I could read the reaction. Ray Gene Cinnamon had Tulsa’s elite
in his pocket. There wasn’t a dry eye in the place. It was only left for Jay
Walker to say, “Well, gentlemen, it couldn’t have been said any better. If you
see the point of what we’re up to now, we need your checks or your pledges.’ In
a very few minutes, some $68,000 was put on the table, a lot of money in 1947. The
Tulsa Fat Stock Show and Exposition wasn’t broke any more.
After the crowd had dispersed, I
straggled into the cloak room in the corner of the mezzanine, and Jay Walker
was there retrieving his topcoat. In a low voice, I told Mr. Walker he had done
a great job of salting the mine.
“Whatta you mean?” he looked at me
“Well, boy reporters don’t walk
around with hundred dollar bills in their shirt. I know, because I am one, and
I don’t think boy farmers do either.”
Jay Walker looked a little
flustered, then took my arm and pulled me over against the wall. He said, “Mah
gawd, boy, you ain’t gonna put anything like that in the paper are you?”
I told him heavens no, that I just
wanted him to know there was a little skepticism left in his audience. Jay
Walker walked out of the cloakroom grinning and shaking his head.
A few days after this, I was
standing at one of the AP tickers which was moving a story about an entrepreneur
in Denver who had sponsored a big winter carnival-type event to which nobody
came because of blizzard conditions. The only thing that had saved this fellow,
according to the story, was weather insurance. I made a mental note of this,
and at a subsequent meeting of the stock show planners in Mr. Skelly’s
basement, I broke my usual silence and reported on the Denver showman’s
experience, then asked if any consideration had been given to such insurance.
Mr. Skelly looked at me with a
strained tolerance, and declared such a thing would be a waste of money. He
said they had looked back 20 years at conditions in the March time-frame when
the stock show was scheduled, and the weather was always perfect, so there was
nothing to worry about. Truth be told, W. G. Skelly just could not conceive
that Providence or the elements would or could betray the city of Tulsa by
spoiling an undertaking so important to its future.
Somehow, we all muddled through and
things got done, and it was hectic every day, but
as the big opening day approached,
everything had fallen into place. The epic (opening) day for Bill Skelly’s great
outreach to farm youth of the Magic Empire and beyond was to be Friday the 13th
of March. If that day means bad luck, it was sure set to justify its reputation
Nobody could remember anything like
the great Oklahoma blizzard of 1948. Almost seven inches of snow fell on
Wednesday, March 11. By Thursday morning it was gauged at more than l0 inches,
but much of it had been driven by winds of nearly 70 miles per hour, and
drifting was a major problem. The low early Thursday was in the teens.
Following the snow came sleet and ultimately the ground layer was like packed
ice. Everything in Tulsa closed – the refineries, businesses, schools, all
local traffic, and inter-city buses. Three youngsters from Washington County,
stalled with their pigs in a truck bogged in a snowdrift, and one had severe
frostbite. Volunteers pitched in to see that the hardy youngsters who braved
the storm had three hot meals a day. The judging went forward, and 4-H and FFA
boys and girls took home more than $112,000 in prize money for stock shown and
sold at the first — and last — Tulsa Fat Stock Show.
Continuance of Bill Skelly’s dream
depended on a large public turnout and a heavy gate at the turnstiles, but the
crowds never materialized. As a fallback, the show’s officials thought attendance
at the then popular Verne Elliott Rodeo, a highlight of the stock show, with
the Lone Ranger himself a featured attraction, would be a big revenue
generator. But the bitter cold kept the public away, even for this extravaganza.
When the show was over and the thaw had come, the Tulsa Fat Stock Show was
worse than broke, it was deep in the red. The blizzard of ‘48, so fierce in its
biting ways, had killed Bill Skelly’s dream.
One of the things I remember was,
with two other reporters on phones gathering and passing on information, I
wrote the story of the blizzard and its devastating impact. It was the only
news story I ever wrote with an eight-column headline, page one. Three or four
weeks after the death of the Tulsa Fat Stock Show, I ambled into the Skelly
Building barber shop for a haircut. Mr. Skelly was just getting out of one of
the chairs, and the barber asked him if they would try to hold the stock show
“No, nobody thinks the city would
put up the money to try it again,” he said.”We’re goin’ to have problems just
paying the bills.”
“Really too bad,” the barber
“Yes, a big disappointment,” Mr.
Skelly said. Then nodding in my direction, he said “This young fella thinks the
weather broke us, but we really could have used better publicity.” With that,
he winked at me and ducked through the door leading to the building lobby.
It was a private joke, and as near
as he would ever come to acknowledging that weather insurance wasn’t such a bad
idea after all.
While Bill Skelly’s dream of founding a major stock
show in Tulsa died aborning in the great blizzard of 1948, just six weeks later
his International Petroleum Exposition opened, playing to sellout crowds for
ten days, and was a success by all standards. And I was thrust, unexpectedly,
into the midst of the “Big Oil Show,” as the Tulsa World’s key reporter on the
I took on that assignment a little bleary-eyed.
End of Chapters Three and Four!
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