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OPINION | RICHARD MASON: For many, Arkansas roots run deep

by Richard Mason | May 2, 2021 at 8:43 a.m.

I was born in El Dorado; when I was 5 years old 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 of Arkansas at Fayetteville. By the time I was a sophomore, I was coasting along with something around a 2.5 grade point average when my father was in an 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 bachelor of science degree in geology, the oil industry was in a slump, and geologists were being laid off.

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 GPA, and earned a master's degree in geology. Vertis claims being married did it. She is probably right.

Then I headed to Houston to find a job, and after four days of being rejected by at least 20 companies, I got off the elevator on the wrong floor and ended up in the southwest district office of Exxon. I had already been turned down at the main Exxon office. However, the district exploration manager knew the head of the UA 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. In the next two years, I had almost 100 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 well site geologists. Are you interested in transferring to Benghazi, Libya?"

I knew Libya was in North Africa and 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 U.S., debt-free, with money in the bank.

I was assigned to the Corpus Christi office to work as a subsurface exploration geologist. I loved the job, and we made great friends. Things were going better than I had ever expected, but after two years, I decided I didn't want to spend my career as a major company geologist, and 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 company, I quit and opened my own office as an independent geologist.

After a successful year, I partnered up with an older geologist, Joe Baria, and 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 confirmed a huge natural gas field.

We had adopted two wonderful kids, 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, 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!"

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, but were turned down. Those lots are still just sitting there, but not for sale.

We took El Dorado off the table, but still wanted to move to the mid-south. The windy, humid climate in south Texas didn't suit us. We narrowed the towns down to Jackson, Miss., Columbus, Miss., and Tyler, Texas. We checked out Jackson first, but since we are both from small towns, we considered it too big. A weekend in Tyler ended up with a head shake. Only Columbus was left, and it would be better for my business to move there.

We were excited when we found a great house, built in the early 1900s on the ruins of an antebellum mansion. It resembled the original mansion, and at 10,000 square feet it was impressive. It would require some work to restore, 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.

That all changed in an instant. We drove back to 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 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.

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