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The renaissance man

By Rex Nelson

This article was published August 6, 2014 at 4:07 a.m.

On the front of this newspaper's Perspective section on July 20, there was a guest column by an El Dorado-based geologist named Richard Mason. The column explained the fracking technology that has revolutionized the oil and gas industry and set the United States on the road to energy independence.

For the uninitiated, it should have been pointed out that Mason is much more than just a geologist. He is, in some ways, south Arkansas' renaissance man.

Along with his wife Vertis, Richard Mason led the way in taking a dying downtown at El Dorado and transforming it into one of the best downtowns for any city its size in the South. He's an ardent environmentalist, having angered untold numbers of business lobbyists after then-Gov. Bill Clinton appointed him in the 1980s to the state Pollution Control and Ecology Commission. He's a former president of the Arkansas Wildlife Federation. He's also an incredibly prolific author, having recently finished the ninth and 10th books in a series of novels that he calls the Richard the Norphlet Paperboy series.

"My first book in the series was titled The Red Scarf and was published by August House," Mason says. "It sold out the 7,500 copies in the first edition. It was picked up by a Hollywood executive and is under a movie option. Since that time, I've worked with a self-publisher to publish another 18 books. They're all on Amazon. I've found that I love to write but hate to promote my books."

In the final book of the Paperboy series, Runaways, the two principal characters are caught up in a flood and become reluctant runaways, winding up in New Orleans. Mason's nonfiction books have titles ranging from Surviving Marriage to Haunted. It has been quite a ride for someone who grew up at Norphlet, a small town deep in the pine woods of Union County that rose to prominence during the south Arkansas oil boom of the 1920s. Norphlet had a population of 1,063 people in 1930; by 2010, it had dropped to 844 residents.

Like a character in his novels, Mason was a paperboy, delivering the Arkansas Gazette, the Shreveport Times and the El Dorado Daily News. He spent much of his time hunting, fishing and trapping. He would watch as salt water ran from area oil wells into streams, killing fish and vegetation. Mason once told a reporter that he thought the crusted salt, glinting in the south Arkansas sun and crunching beneath his feet during dry periods, was "the natural order" in south Arkansas.

The St. Louis, Iron Mountain & Southern Railway built a line from Gurdon to El Dorado in 1891, and Norphlet was among the depots along the route. The railroad opened up opportunities for those in the timber industry. Writing for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture, Steve Teske describes when the business focus of Norphlet turned from timber to oil and gas: "Seeking to tap into the Smackover Oil Field, workers for Oil Operators Trust were drilling a well in Norphlet designated Murphy No. 1. On May 14, 1922, their drilling struck a large pocket of natural gas, which began to escape at a rate estimated at 65 to 75 million cubic feet of gas per day. Efforts to cap the hole were ineffective. On the morning of May 16, the gas ignited, shooting flames more than 300 feet into the air and creating a crater at least 450 feet across and 75 feet deep. The explosion and fire, which demolished the oil derrick, sent fragments of shale up to 10 miles away from Norphlet. A second well, drilled a few weeks later in an effort to reduce the fuel supply of the fire, also caught fire and created a second crater." Still, the industry thrived.

Mason, who's in his 70s, graduated from Norphlet High School steeped in the culture of the oil and gas industry. He then worked his way through the University of Arkansas, earning bachelor's and master's degrees in geology. Mason and his wife, a Smackover native, headed to Houston following graduation in search of a job. He was hired by what's now ExxonMobil as an exploration geologist. Mason worked on the famed King Ranch in south Texas for two years and then two years in Libya before being transferred to Corpus Christi, Texas. It was in Corpus Christi that he decided he didn't want to spend the remainder of his career working for a large corporation. He left the company in 1968 and eventually teamed up with a Corpus Christi wildcatter named Joe Baria to form Gibraltar Energy Co.

The company drilled 28 wells and made small finds. Mason then met a geologist in Mississippi named Hilton Ladner, who wanted to explore an area known as the Black Warrior Basin near Columbus, Miss. Their first two test wells showed promise. A third well confirmed that they were onto something big. They had discovered a gas field eight miles long and two miles wide. Mason and his wife were thinking about moving to Columbus in 1975 when he saw a sign on a 20-acre tract at El Dorado. The couple bought the property, built their home and have been in El Dorado ever since. After his business partner retired in 1977, Mason became the sole owner of Gibraltar.

Mason was simply looking for office space in El Dorado when he was bit by the historic-preservation bug. He also realized that his home county was in the midst of a long economic decline and decided to do something about it. Since then, Mason and his wife have purchased and renovated 17 buildings. Through it all, he never lost his love of writing.

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Freelance columnist Rex Nelson is the president of Arkansas' Independent Colleges and Universities. He's also the author of the Southern Fried blog at rexnelsonsouthernfried.com.

Editorial on 08/06/2014

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