Friends to the End
Friday, November 15, 2019
Mike Holder fondly remembers his camaraderie with Boone Pickens
Since his passing, T. Boone Pickens’ legacy of generosity has been at the forefront, with more than half a billion dollars given during his lifetime to his alma mater, Oklahoma State University. His name is etched in granite at the T. Boone Pickens School of Geology and proclaimed in letters several feet tall inside and outside the football stadium. News of his business prowess and gutsy decision-making is easily retrieved. He touched thousands during his lifetime — but far fewer actually knew the man.
For OSU Athletic Director Mike Holder, Mr. Pickens was a confidant, a mentor and most of all, a friend.
In 1973, Mike Holder was an Oklahoma State University graduate student set on joining the PGA Tour when coach Labron Harris convinced him to apply for the university’s head golf coach opening.
“When you’re young, you think you can do anything,” Holder said. “I thought I would be better than the coach I had, and that was delusional. I thought I would do it for a year, work on my game and then go play on the PGA Tour.”
Holder inherited a program budget of $27,000, which had to cover his salary, money for scholarships, tournament entry fees, equipment and everything else. Holder was stumped. He had big plans for his new job but no idea how to make them happen.
Holder came up with a golf tournament, the Cowboy Pro-Am, to raise funds and invited alumnus Jerry Walsh to play. Walsh brought two friends: Mr. Pickens and Sherman Smith. Holder was simply grateful Walsh produced a team for the tournament. He couldn’t have known that the future was walking into the world of the Cowboys with three sets of clubs.
"He changed everybody’s perception of what is possible and then what part everybody should play in the future."
The trio played every year. Holder was intrigued by Mr. Pickens, the CEO of a successful company. Once Holder studied up on the man, he bought a little stock in Pickens’ company, Mesa Petroleum.
“I wrote him a letter and told him we bought some stock in his company, you know, to reciprocate,” Holder said. “He did a favor for Jerry Walsh when he came here. So I wanted him to understand that I appreciated it, and that I also had confidence in him, so I invested in his company.”
Little by little, over one golf weekend a year, a friendship was forged. One of Mr. Pickens’ passions was quail hunting, and he occasionally invited Holder to come to his ranch in west Texas for a weekend hunt.
“When Boone Pickens invited you to do something, you accepted the invitation,” he said. “I came initially out of respect for him. (Quail hunting) wasn’t something I particularly wanted to do, but that changed quickly.”
For 22 years, the trio of Walsh, Pickens and Smith played the Cowboy Pro-Am. Then came Nov. 19, 1995. Walsh and his wife died in a car accident in Amarillo.
“That was a really, really tough loss for me, but especially for Boone. That was his best friend,” Holder said. “I never will forget, after that funeral, I was visiting with Boone and he said, ‘Why don’t you come out to the ranch, and we’ll hunt a little bit of quail?’ I still wasn’t a quail hunter, but I knew he needed somebody.”
The years from 1995 to 2000 were years littered with losses for Mr. Pickens. He lost Walsh. He lost his company, Mesa Petroleum. He sold the Dallas mansion with the manned guard house at the end of the drive and leased a modest home. He sold the corporate jet. During 1997 and 1998, Holder said Mr. Pickens suffered incredible losses of equity in his new business, BP Capital.
Quail hunting was a refuge for Mr. Pickens, and Holder joined when he was invited. Those trips to west Texas would become defining moments of Holder’s life. Jokes and advice were dispensed. Parables were told often enough to earn informal titles such as “The Cowboy and the Rattlesnake.” Holder was competitive and took Mr. Pickens’ instruction well. He learned to love quail hunting but appreciated the time with Mr. Pickens more, regardless of the score.
Holder once asked Mr. Pickens how he was handling the losses that decimated his personal and professional lives after 1995. He remembers Mr. Pickens saying change was good; it was an opportunity to reflect on life, how he got to this place and what he would do about it.
“Besides,” Mr. Pickens told Holder, “at night when I put my head on the pillow and close my eyes, it all looks the same.”
It turned out the growing mountain of disappointments was only a figurative bump in the road.
“It didn’t affect him that much,” Holder said. “He always valued people and relationships a lot more than material things. He was very humble and very unselfish, and those are two qualities in short supply these days, particularly among successful people. He’s everything you would want to be — who most people aspire to be but fall short.”
Mr. Pickens’ comeback venture, BP Capital, began to succeed after 2000. Then in his 70s, Mr. Pickens’ eyesight began a natural decline, and his hunting suffered. Life got busier, and the quail season fell further down his list of priorities.
For Holder, Mr. Pickens was his best friend. But Holder noted there are hundreds of people who think Boone Pickens was their best friend.
“He had a lot of people who loved and respected and admired him because of who he was and how much fun he was to be around and then how generous he was,” Holder said. “I guess the best compliment I could give him is he’s the best friend I’ve had when times are good, and he’s an even better friend to have or a partner to have when times are bad because he’s the same.”
Mr. Pickens changed the game for OSU, Holder said.
“I think you’ll find that giving has been transformed at our university,” he said. “And I fully expect at some point in time that someone will give more money to OSU than Boone Pickens.”
The money, though, was secondary. Mr. Pickens’ primary contribution to Oklahoma State cannot be truly quantified.
“Most people focus on the money he gave to OSU, but that’s not the most valuable thing,” Holder said. “It was telling us we had to play by the rules, work hard, play hard and compete hard, and then he set the example about dreaming big.
“He changed everybody’s perception of what is possible and then what part everybody should play in the future. Everyone has got to be all in and everyone has got to do their part.”
If mortals could return to an earlier time, Holder said he would go back to the late 1990s and bask in that season of life again, the years before the money came. He would spend those hours again with his mentor, surrogate father and friend, enjoying bright mornings and open land, brimming with the possibility of adventure. They had no worldly concerns beyond the day’s objective, and mealtimes were peppered with the ribbing that came from a good win and salted with Pickens’ wisdom.
“He changed my whole life in those five years,” Holder said. “And all of it was because the way he treated me and treated everybody around him at the ranch. He treated everybody as an equal. He was a giant of a man who acted like the common man.”