Philanthropist and oil magnate T. Boone Pickens passed away on Wednesday, September 11th. He was 91.
Already obituaries and articles abound, reflecting on Pickens’ life as a businessman and philanthropist, recounting the sometimes-tumultuous growth of his fortune and his various philanthropic investments. Following so quickly on the heels of the death of billionaire philanthropist David Koch, it is interesting—and encouraging—to see the less disdainful commentary on Pickens’ life and legacy, even if he was largely a philanthropist of right-wing and conservative causes, and a man who made his fortune through oil.
Of course, this difference stems largely from Pickens’ unique history of giving. He made his fortune first in the oil industry—not exactly an industry beyond reproach—and later running a hedge fund, BP Capital. His hedge fund, however, was oriented primarily toward natural gas; and while he ran the hedge fund, he began to take an interest in environmental concerns.
Pickens’ environmentalism even earned him favor with the environmentalist group, the Sierra Club (even if they didn’t always agree), as well as with Former Vice President Al Gore, and even Senator John Kerry, whom Pickens strongly opposed in his presidential campaign against President George W. Bush.
As a philanthropist, Pickens gave millions of dollars to Republican political campaigns and causes, as well as military veteran groups. He also supported wildlife conservation, clean energy, and various health and human services causes. On top of this, he was an alumni donor of the first order, giving hundreds of millions of dollars to his alma mater, Oklahoma State University. His generosity to OSU was (if sometimes controversial) transformative for the university.
It is an interesting time to reflect on Pickens’ giving and his legacy. While billionaire philanthropists are being criticized, protested, and forced to resign—while one billionaire is being maligned immediately in the wake of his passing—T. Boone Pickens stands out as donor not easily criticized, dismissed, or maligned.
His giving was sufficiently diverse to win him friends in many circles, including the forgiveness of presidential-hopeful John Kerry, as well as the friendship of President George W. Bush, to take just one interesting juxtaposition.
Our thin and thinning civil society suffers: from echo chambers narrowing our horizons; from the media and the public together pegging donors as simply right-wing or left-wing pawns; from influencers in the public eye being (as least observably) too predictable. Pickens’ giving reaches across the aisle and pushes against these trends. On his tribute page in the first and third positions, one reads glowing comments from George Bush and Warren Buffet—an unusual pair, to say the least.
To quote Wendell Berry again, Pickens, in some ways, at least, was “like the fox who makes more tracks than necessary, / some in the wrong direction.” This unpredictability—walking more than a narrow and predictable path—is essential for a healthy civil society.