Over the years, I’ve noticed a number of people who grew up in Arkansas and moved away deciding to return, and since I’m one of those folks, I decided to tell the story of my return.
I was born in El Dorado, but when I was five, our family moved to Norphlet because of the World War II gasoline shortage. My dad was working at the refinery there. After high school, my mother was adamant that I attend college, so I enrolled at the University. By the time I was a sophomore, I was coasting along with something around a 2.5 grade point, when my father was in a terrible accident caused by a drunk driver… He was that driver. He died, my mother was sued by the driver of the other car, and my family was penniless.
To stay in school, I started working at the University dining hall, the school bookstore, and the University Museum… all at the same time. When I graduated with a B. S. in Geology, the oil industry was in a slump, and geologists were being laid off, not hired.
By that time I had fallen in love with Vertis. We were talking marriage, and this was our plan: I would continue working at the refinery, where I had been working during the summer, until the end of the fall semester, we would get married and both of us would attend the University.
I had managed to get into Graduate School on probation, but if I didn’t make a 3.0 or better that first semester, I was out. I hit the books, almost doubled my grade point, and got my Master’s Degree in Geology. Vertis claims being married did it, and she is probably right.
Then I headed to Houston job hunting, and after four days of being turned down by at least 20 companies, I got off the elevator on the wrong floor of the Main Building, and ended up in Southwest District office of Exxon. I had already been turned down at the main Exxon office. However, the District Exploration Manager knew Dr. Jackson, the head of the University Geology Department, and I was hired.
Then we were off to Kingsville, Texas, home of the King Ranch, where I worked doing geologic mapping and recommending drilling locations on one of the large oil and gas fields on the ranch, and in the next two years, I had almost a hundred wells drilled. Things were going great! That was when I was called into the District Geologist’s Office.
“Richard, the Company is beefing up the Libyan office, and they are looking for wellsite geologists. Are you interested in transferring to Benghazi, Libya?”
I knew Libya was in North Africa, and I was shaking my head as I started to leave, when he said. “They’ll double your salary.”
We had a lot of college debt. So, even after terrible recommendations from geologists who had worked in Benghazi, I took the job. Two years later we transferred back to the States with money in the bank and debt free.
I was assigned to the Corpus Christi, Texas office to work as a subsurface exploration geologist. I loved the job, and we made great friends. Things were going along better than I had ever expected them too, but after two years, I decided I didn’t want to spend my career as a major company geologist, and I quit to work for a small independent oil company, where I would earn an interest in the oil or gas I found. A year later, after a tension filled year working for an alcoholic, womanizer who owned the small company, I quit and opened my own office as an independent geologist.
After a successful year as an independent, I partnered up with an older geologist, Joe Baria, and we formed Gibraltar Oil Corporation. For the next three years we partnered with a New York investment company to drill wells. We took a north Mississippi deal from a former Mississippi State classmate of Joe’s, Hilton Ladner, and made a small gas well. Hilton and I decided to roll the dice and drill a long offset well, which would either extend the small field, or if it was a dry hole, condemn it. We drilled the well, pulled the log, and when we examined it on the hood of his car, we danced in a Mississippi cotton field. It made a great well and confirmed a huge natural gas field.
Things couldn’t have been better. We had adopted two wonderful kids, we were active in our church, and had a raft of friends. I bought a lot on Corpus Christi Bay, and our architect designed our dream house, which would set on piers out over the bay. We were excited, and sent the plans out for bids. The next week our architect produced a bid and said, “You need to jump on this bid!”
That night as we discussed the bid, I said to Vertis, “You know, if we build this house, we’ll never move back to Arkansas. Is that what you want?”
Vertis was very quiet for a couple of minutes, then shook her head, and softly said, “No.” When two people are as close as we are, that wasn’t a surprise. I’d been thinking the same thing.
The next weekend we hired a real estate agent in El Dorado, and started looking for a lot to build our dream house. Weeks passed, and we made numerous offers on suitable lots in town, but we were turned down. Those lots are still just sitting there, but not for sale. We took El Dorado off the table, but we still wanted to move to the mid-south. The windy, humid climate in south Texas just didn’t suit us. We narrowed the towns down to Jackson and Columbus, Mississippi, and Tyler, Texas. We checked out Jackson first, but since we were both from small towns, we considered Jackson too big. A weekend in Tyler ended up with a head shake; no. Only Columbus was left, and it would be better for my business to move there.
We were excited when we found a great house. It was built in the early 1900s on the ruins of an antebellum mansion. The house resembled the original mansion, and at 10,000 square feet it was impressive. It would require some work to restore the house, but it was a steal at $100,000.
“Vertis, let’s go home for Thanksgiving, and then come back Monday and make an offer on this house,” I said. “We’re going to move to Columbus!” Our minds were made up.
However, that all changed in an instant. We drove back into El Dorado, and when we turned onto Calion Road, and passed the old Palace beer joint, I almost yelled, “Look Vertis! The Palace is for sale!”
That next Monday I called Richard Mays, an attorney in El Dorado who I had known in college, and instructed him to buy the 17 acre property. That was in early 1974, and on Labor Day, 1975 we moved into our dream house, not overlooking Corpus Christi Bay, but a one acre backyard pond.
Richard Mason is a registered professional geologist, downtown developer, former chairman of the Department of Environmental Quality Board of Commissioners, past president of the Arkansas Wildlife Federation, and syndicated columnist. Email [email protected]