Pickens, Thomas Boone, Jr. (1928–2019)

By: Mia Gomez

Type: Biography

Published: February 19, 2020

Thomas Boone Pickens, Jr. (better known as T. Boone Pickens), oilman, corporate raider, and philanthropist, was born to Thomas Boone Sibley Pickens, a lawyer for Phillips Petroleum, and Grace Marcaline (Molonson) Pickens on May 22, 1928, in Holdenville, Oklahoma. Pickens adopted his ambitious tendencies and business savvy from his parents. When Pickens was still a child, his father bid the family’s savings on oil-lease deals and often gambled in poker games. Pickens’s mother Grace, however, taught him fiscal discipline and was a gas rationing administrator during World War II. Young T. Boone Pickens cultivated his aggressive entrepreneurial skills at an early age when he had a newspaper delivery route and grew his operation by taking over other boys’ routes. The Pickens family moved to Amarillo, Texas, when Pickens was in high school. He attended Texas A&M University on a basketball scholarship but lost the scholarship after breaking his elbow during a game. This development prompted Pickens to transfer to Oklahoma A&M College (now Oklahoma State University) where he graduated with a degree in petroleum geology in 1951.

Upon receiving his degree, Pickens began working as a well-site geologist for Phillips Petroleum. In 1954 he left Phillips to establish his own wildcatting companies. He reportedly borrowed $2,500 to start Petroleum Exploration in Amarillo, and he later founded Altair Oil & Gas in Canada. These companies were predecessors to his enterprise that he took public in 1964 under the name Mesa Petroleum. He shifted the company’s focus from wildcatting to corporate raiding, making Mesa one of the largest independent oil and gas companies in the United States. In 1969 Pickens made his first attempt at acquiring another company when he targeted Hugoton Production of Kansas. He argued that the value of their oil reserves surpassed that of their stock prices, and he successfully convinced shareholders Hugoton would make better profits under new management. Mesa’s Hugoton takeover marked a shift in both Pickens’s career and the landscape of corporate America.

In the early 1980s Pickens launched a series of failed attempts at taking over the largest American oil companies—Unocal Corporation, Phillips, and Gulf. Despite Mesa’s failure to take over these companies, Pickens, with a salary of $20 million, became the highest paid executive in the United States, and he was featured on the cover of numerous national publications, including the March 4, 1985, issue of Time magazine. He was also a guest on many national television news programs. His ambitious bids resulted in a series of mergers among other companies like Texaco, Mobil Oil, and Exxon as they tried to protect themselves from hostile takeovers.

Pickens’s reputation led his critics to accuse him of being a “greenmailer”—holding companies fiscally hostage as he purchased large amounts of stocks and thereby pushed up prices in the expectation that companies would buy back their capital while he reaped enormous profits. His takeovers resulted in a series of lawsuits and investigations led by the U. S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) as companies became increasingly worried that Pickens was engaging in insider trading. In 1985 Unocal sued Mesa in the Delaware Supreme Court which decided to shut out Mesa from making hostile bids. In 1986 the SEC ruled in favor of Mesa and lifted the ban on offers made by shareholders seeking to take over a company.

Pickens, who preferred the term “shareholder activist,” believed that shareholders deserved more power within the companies in which they invested. His founding of the United Shareholders Association in 1986 made Pickens an important leader in the “shareholders rights” movement. The organization lasted for eight years and at its height consisted of 65,000 members. He has been credited as a pioneer in promoting physical fitness in the workplace, and he began a corporate wellness program at Mesa and built a multi-million-dollar fitness facility for his employees in Amarillo. He moved corporate headquarters to Dallas in 1989. In the wake of the SEC ruling, however, Mesa struggled to make profits as oil prices plummeted and natural gas prices never rose to the level of Pickens’s expectations. Pickens was forced to sell the company in 1996 after shareholders attempted to push him out.

In 1997 Pickens founded BP Capital Management—a hedge fund focused on the oil industry—and the Pickens Fuel Corp. which promoted natural gas as an alternative to gasoline. Pickens advocated the use of compressed natural gas to fuel vehicles. By 2007 his fortune was estimated to be $4 billion. About that time, he launched the Pickens Plan, a campaign that emphasized American energy independence from foreign oil companies and the installation of wind turbines. In 2008 he financed a national media and ad campaign to detail his plan to the general public.

Pickens openly supported the Republican party and became involved in politics during President George W. Bush’s 2004 re-election campaign when he helped finance Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, an organization that questioned Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry’s involvement in the Vietnam War. In 2016 Pickens supported Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump and later backed President Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accord.

Pickens, widely known for his philanthropy, donated millions of dollars to several organizations. He donated a total of $50 million each to the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas and the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, as well as $7 million to aid Hurricane Katrina recovery efforts. He gave a historic $165 million to Oklahoma State University in 2005 to fund the building of a new stadium, a donation that prompted the school to rename the stadium Boone Pickens Stadium. In 2006 he contributed $11 million to the University of Texas Center for Brain Health. His memoir, The First Billion is the Hardest: Reflections on a Life of Comebacks and America’s Energy Future, was published in 2008.

Pickens married and divorced five times. In 1949 he married Lynn O’Brien; they had four children. They divorced in 1971. In 1972 he married Beatrice Carr and adopted a stepdaughter; they divorced in 1998. He was married to Nelda Cain from 2000 to 2004 and subsequently wed Madeleine Paulson, and they divorced in 2012. His fifth marriage, to Toni Brinkler, lasted from 2014 to 2017.

Beginning in 2016 Pickens suffered a series of minor strokes and then a serious fall in 2017. As his health began to decline, he closed BP Capital in January 2018. T. Boone Pickens died at the age of ninety-one on September 11, 2019, in Dallas. His funeral was held at Highland Park United Methodist Church in Dallas and included Governor Greg Abbott and Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones as speakers. He was buried on the grounds of Karsten Creek Golf Club, the home course of Oklahoma State University, in Stillwater.

Christopher Helman, “Remembering When T. Boone Pickens Got A Brain Scan,” Forbes, September 11, 2019. Pickens, T. Boone, The First Billion is the Hardest: Reflections on a Life of Comebacks and America’s Energy Future (New York: Crown Business, 2008). Marty Steinberg, “T. Boone Pickens, the ‘Oracle of Oil,’ corporate raider and billionaire philanthropist, dies at 91,” CNBC, September 11, 2019. “T. Boone Pickens, May 22, 1928–September 11, 2019,” https://boonepickens.com/) accessed February 12, 2020. Washington Post, September 11, 2019. 

  • Business
  • Founders and Pioneers
  • Company Founders
  • Oil and Gas Industry
  • Oil Entrepreneurs and Wildcatters
  • Patrons, Collectors, and Philanthropists
Time Periods:
  • Texas Post World War II
  • Texas in the 21st Century
  • Dallas/Fort Worth Region
  • Dallas
  • North Texas

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Mia Gomez, “Pickens, Thomas Boone, Jr.,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed May 23, 2022, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/pickens-thomas-boone-jr.

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February 19, 2020

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