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 brown nut.
“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 century 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 infinitum.
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 quizzically.
“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 this time!
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 in l949.
“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 sympathized.
“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 event.
I took on that assignment a little bleary-eyed.
This concludes the first five chapters of “Recollections of Lloyd N. Unsell,” provided by the author, who continued writing his fascinating his memoirs until his death at 84 in 2007. Lloyd, a founding member and sponsor of the American Oil & Gas Historical Society in 2003, a year later gave AOGHS exclusive permission to publish the forward and first five chapters of his in-progress memoirs, “Recollections of Lloyd N. Unsell.”
The American Oil & Gas Historical Society preserves U.S. petroleum history. Support this AOGHS.ORG energy education website with a contribution today. For membership information, contact firstname.lastname@example.org. © 2019 Bruce A. Wells.