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T. Boone Pickens at 85: Energy mogul talks about his life, legacy and why he can't retire [Tulsa World, Okla.]

By Ziva Branstetter, Tulsa World, Okla.
McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

May 19--DALLAS -- Days away from his 85th birthday, T. Boone Pickens isn't satisfied with the estimated $1.2 billion fortune he's amassed.

"I really honestly need to make some money right now. You get into big gifts, I mean, I've got to make some more money," he says, pausing on each word for emphasis.

A computer screen with red and blue charts sits behind his desk, tracking the performance of his energy commodities fund, BP Capital.

One of the country's richest men, the Texas oil and gas mogul from Holdenville has a net worth estimated by Forbes Magazine at $1.2 billion.

Pickens says he has donated almost as much as he's now worth, including $525 million to Oklahoma State University athletics and academics.

He says he plans on giving away more money to nonprofit causes he supports, including OSU, medical research and groups that help veterans.

To do that he needs to make more, he told the Tulsa World in an interview at his Dallas office last week.

"I will go out of here in a box, is the way that I will retire," he says, leaning back in an armchair in front of his desk. "Because I like to work. I really do enjoy it, and I like to make money and I like to give it away."

Pickens, who turns 85 Wednesday, is seemingly undeterred by recent events that might discourage others at any age.

His idea to benefit his beloved alma matter by insuring the lives of 27 OSU alumni turned into a two-state legal battle, costing Pickens an estimated $22 million before the program was abandoned.

The family was struck by tragedy Jan. 29, when 21-year-old Thomas Boone Pickens IV, a student at Texas Christian University, died from a drug overdose. The family buried "Ty" Pickens on his grandfather's ranch.

The death came shortly before Pickens learned about the blog of his 58-year-old son, Michael. The blog postings led Pickens to sue his son in Dallas County District Court, accusing him of "cyber bullying."

Michael Pickens' blog alleges that his decades-long drug addiction and other family problems were due to his father's "abusive" treatment.

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In court filings, Pickens strongly denies his son's allegations of abusive behavior and asks a judge to prevent "further public disclosure of private facts."

Pickens and his fourth wife, Madeleine, are also divorcing after seven years.

Repeating a lifelong theme, the octogenarian remains confident he will rise above his recent setbacks. He took his $7 millionDallas home off the market, is dating a new girlfriend and says he is raising money for a new equity fund.

Pickens is still betting big on the future of natural gas, particularly to fuel 18-wheelers, as a way to break the country's dependence on foreign oil.

"I am an optimistic guy, and if I get knocked on my ass I think I'm going to come back. That's happened a few times, and there has always been a recovery," Pickens says.

'Gotta pick it up'

Those who know him say Pickens finds redemption in hard work.

Billye Treadwell, 79, is a friend from Holdenville whose husband, Tommy, grew up with Pickens. She said Pickens is motivated "to see the results of his work and ... the fruits of his work."

"It's just something in Boone that he will always succeed," she says.

When he doesn't travel, Pickens works out most days with a trainer who arrives at his house at 6:30 a.m. Pickens tracks his treadmill workouts on paper calendars for months, grading each day's efforts and totaling the points at the end of each month.

Pickens notes he has been sick and traveling more than usual.

"That means I gotta pick it up is what it means," he says with a shrug.

While his Forbes Magazine estimated net worth fell from more than $3 billion in 2008 to $1.2 billion this year, Pickens continues to live a life known only to the uber-wealthy.

His Gulfstream jet flies him to his sprawling 68,000-acre ranch on weekends. The Mesa Vista spread in the Texas Panhandle is dotted with 20 miles of lakes that Pickens created by drilling into the water table to provide water for wildlife habitat.

Cascading waterfalls surround a massive stone guest lodge and a smaller "lake house" on the property. The grounds include a golf course, chapel and an air strip for his jet.

Pickens' pint-sized papillon, Murdock II, accompanies him each day to the office and flies to the ranch.

Forty hunting dogs are available to accompany hunting parties gunning for quail roaming Pickens' ranch. Pickens can no longer hunt quail, due to macular degeneration, which causes him to see double. He says he isn't a "shopper" and has some frugal habits from his youth. He grew up in a 1,173-square-foot white wood-frame home his grandfather built in Holdenville. After he made his fortune, Pickens had the home moved to the ranch.

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He says he hasn't bought a new suit since 2008 and writes the purchase dates inside each jacket so he knows when to buy new ones. Pickens rarely travels for pleasure.

Known for his impatience, Pickens once quit a good job as a geologist at Phillips Petroleum, with a wife and new baby at home.

He amassed a fortune building Mesa Petroleum, which he bills as one of the world's largest independent oil companies. He lost control of the company in 1996 and left, a point at which he often says his "dauber was down."

Pickens also struggled then with depression and a bitter divorce.

He started over at 68, gathering investors in a commodity and equity fund. BP Capital, which operates two funds, took a few million and turned it into reported earnings reaching $5 billion.

"I'm still a wealthy person, but I got really chopped down" in 2008 and 2009, he says bluntly. "But I'd like to come back from that, and I feel like that's a real challenge for me right now."

Those who know him in the energy business say his knowledge of the field is matched by few.

Tom Ward, chairman and CEO of Oklahoma City-based SandRidge Energy, has invested in funds managed by Pickens and known him for more than a decade.

"I think of him as a great geologist. That's what made him such a great trader; he understood the economics," Ward said. "He really has been one of the pioneers to talk about natural gas before anyone else did."

In the sunset of his life, Pickens says he wants to make his mark on the world and leave it a better place.

"I really do want people to know I was here and that I did influence some things and I did contribute. And I think I've done a good job of that. ... My gifts are now approaching my net worth. I am proud of that."

He's not planning on making money just to pass it all to his five adult children, Pickens says.

"I raised my family I would say modest. ... If they were going to get rich, they were going to get rich on their own."

'A different place'

OSU Athletic Director Mike Holder met Pickens in 1973 when Pickens attended the university's first pro-am golf tournament. Holder, then head golf coach, said Pickens made such an impression on him that he scraped together money to buy 100 shares of Mesa Petroleum stock.

"I wrote Boone a letter and said, 'I'm a big believer in you and I think you are going to do great things.' "

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Pickens eventually gave about $250 million to the school's athletic programs and a roughly equal amount to academics. He says he expects OSU will win a national football championship in his lifetime.

"He's the most generous man I've ever met," Holder says. "He's a sucker for a sad story, and he's out to help as many people as he can. ... He's everything that made this a great country."

OSU President Burns Hargis said Pickens' record-setting donations to OSU athletics and academics had a multiplier impact. The university recently announced it had reached its $1 billion "Branding Success" fundraising campaign goal early.

"We've attracted over 80,000 new donors to our campaign," Hargis said. "We've created thousands of scholarships, about 130 endowed chairs and professorships. ... It's just a different place, and it's a different place because of Boone Pickens."

Hargis and Holder reject the notion that Pickens' gifts bought him the right to hire and fire coaches or make other key decisions. His advice is sometimes sought, and it's welcomed when he has time to give it, they say.

"Unfortunately he's not that involved," Holder said. "What a resource. There's not one question I could ask him about personnel that he probably couldn't give me an answer from experience."

Court records filed in lawsuits over the Gift of a Lifetime paint a different picture, at least in that instance. Lawyers for the life insurance company produced emails in which Holder said he was under pressure to finalize the deal by Pickens or "I will be in a cave with Bin Laden."

Polarizing figure

Pickens is among the billionaires who have taken the Giving Pledge. The challenge by Bill Gates and Warren Buffett asks those who sign it to give away at least half of their wealth, either during their lifetimes or after death.

The plainspoken grandson of a Methodist preacher from Indian Territory, Pickens never forgets where he came from, said Billye Treadwell, his friend from Holdenville.

"I know that (if) I need something right now, I can call Boone. That's just the kind of guy he is," she says.

Treadwell added that Pickens always stops by for some of her chicken salad after visiting the cemetery where his mother, grandmother and other family members are buried.

On Mother's Day, Pickens attended a ceremony to celebrate renovations that his donations funded at the Grace Pickens Holdenville Public Library, named for his mother.

"He's a faithful friend. ... He's never forgotten where he got his start," Treadwell said.

Pickens has fond memories of growing up in Holdenville during the Depression and World War II.

He would play basketball at a corner lot before the family gathered for dinner on his grandmother's screened-in porch. He had a paper route, throwing the Holdenville newspaper and taking over open areas of town when he could.

"My mother and dad both had jobs. So what could we complain about? ... I always had a pair of shoes and never missed a meal."

The family moved to Amarillo, Texas, when he was in high school, and he played basketball there for three years. He later left to play for Texas A&M University.

The Aggies didn't renew Pickens' $25-a-month scholarship after his freshman year, and he transferred to Oklahoma State University to study geololgy.

"In their (Texas A&M) 12th Man Magazine, it was (listed) the third-worst mistake they ever made," Pickens says with a laugh.

The magazine article hangs on a wall in his company offices, along with a famed 1985 Time Magazine cover. It depicts Pickens as a crafty raider playing the corporate "takeover game."

Editorial cartoons from publications across the country also hang in Pickens' offices. Some -- from his days trying to acquire Phillips and other oil companies -- paint him as a greedy manipulator.

His plans to acquire the companies failed, but he profited anyway, critics note. To some, he remains a polarizing figure.

Pickens says people misunderstood his intentions to get shareholders the money they were due. Now he hopes people mostly think of him as "a patriotic old man with a good idea."

Pickens laughs when talking about a reporter who asked him recently why he doesn't "make room for somebody else."

"Well, I see the feed trough as infinite in length," he says. "Everybody can get to the feed trough. If you want to get up there, well get up there and go to work. ... But I don't need to get out of the way of anybody."

Breakdown of Pickens' OSU gifts

$20 millionBoone Pickens StadiumMarch 2003

$165 million athletic expansion Dec. 2005

$100 million faculty chairs and professorships May 2008

$63 million additional gift for Boone Pickens StadiumOct. 2008

$100 million challenge gift for student scholarships Feb. 2010

$20 million add. challenge gift for student scholarships Jan. 2011

$57 million various academic & athletic programs, including Boone Pickens School of Geology

Other charitable gifts by Pickens include: University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, $50 million; University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, $50 million; Presbyterian Communities and Services Foundation, $18.4 million; University of Texas at Dallas Center for Brain Health, $11 million; Air Force One Pavilion at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, $10 million; Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, $6 million; YMCA of Metropolitan Dallas, $5 million; Gaylord-Pickens Oklahoma Heritage Museum, $3 million.

Source: Oklahoma State University, T. Boone Pickens Foundation

Thomas Boone Pickens, 84

Hometown: Holdenville

Children: Five

Education: Bachelor's degree in science -- geology, Oklahoma State University

First job: Delivering newspapers in Holdenville, Pickens took over open areas around his route

Current position: Founder and CEO of BP Capital. Dallas-based BP Capital oversees an equity fund and a commodities fund, both energy-based

Companies founded: List includes Mesa Petroleum, Clean Energy Fuels, BP Capital. Pickens has taken eight companies public

Magazine covers: 35, including Time Magazine, in 1985

Books: Three, including his latest: "The First Billion is the Hardest."

Twitter: @BoonePickens

Ziva Branstetter 918-581-8306


(c)2013 Tulsa World (Tulsa, Okla.)

Visit Tulsa World (Tulsa, Okla.) at

Distributed by MCT Information Services

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