Greater Tulsa Reporter
BENEFACTORS: Peggy and her husband Walter Helmerich III have been two of the most generous benefactors of Tulsa and the state of Oklahoma. The above photo was taken at the 2005 announcement of the Helmerich Advanced Technology Research Center at the Oklahoma State University-Tulsa campus, which is scheduled to open in November.
D. FORREST CAMERON for GTR Newspapers
Editor’s Note: This article is the seventh in a centennial year-long series saluting families who were in Oklahoma about the time of statehood and have since contributed to the state and Tulsa’s well-being.
Walter Hugo Helmerich II came to the Sooner state as a pilot instructor for the fledgling Army Air Corps in 1917.
Helmerich had dreams of becoming the kind of barnstorming pilot that thrilled county fairs in those days, but two things stopped him. One, he fell in love with Cadijah Colcord, the daughter of Charles F. Colcord, a wealthy oil pioneer. Papa Colcord was against the marriage so the couple eloped. Second, plans to put on a flying show ended when Helmerich’s two partners were killed while testing new planes. With a wife to care for, Helmerich decided on a less precarious occupation; joining with his brother-in-law Ray Colcord, he oversaw the drilling of a well in Osawatomie, Kan. It was exciting. He was hooked.
By selling his interest in a fig orchard, Helmerich managed to buy a share of an oil rig. Moving to South Bend, Tex., the two men looked for oil.
They were successful, but the social environment of South Bend was not gentile. Once an outlaw leaped on the running board of Helmerich’s car and ordered him to stop. Helmerich, who was approaching a bridge, gave his car the gas and simply scraped the crook off with the bridge’s uprights.
On another occasion, while Helmerich was taking his wife and her friend to South Bend’s best restaurant, shots rang out and a man fell dead not 10 feet from them. Tulsa, where Cadijah’s mother had moved, seemed a safer base.
Helmerich, who hadn’t graduated from college, met an Amhurst graduate named Bill Payne. Payne had degrees in bacteriology and chemistry but his genius was finding oil and gas. The pair joined up and Helmerich & Payne was born. Payne was to leave the company in 1936 in a very friendly parting, but the name remained.
While on a business trip to New Mexico, Helmerich received word that his wife was about to give birth. He rushed home, but by the time the train pulled into Tulsa, Walter Helmerich III had been born.
The Depression sent Helmerich & Payne into a tailspin, but Helmerich was a wizard at cajoling money out of banks and the little company survived. The experience bred in him a caution that was to pay dividends when the oil crash of the 1980s found his companies with very little debt to service.
Young Walter III had dreams of being a teacher. These changed in 1950 when he escorted a date to the opening night party of “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.” There his date made a beeline for a show business financier who was in the company of a beautiful young lady. With the date and the financier in rapt conversation, Walt asked the lady if she’d like to dance. She said yes. The conversation continued. The dancing continued. Eventually Walt asked her for a date. On that date he asked her to marry him. The young lady, a rising Hollywood actress named Peggy Dow, refused. Walt pursued.
In the meantime his father knew the business was changing and asked Walt III to go to Harvard Business School. Helmerich did, came back, redesigned the slipshod wildcatting business practices into a smoothly running corporate operation and the business grew to greater heights of prosperity. He also won Peggy.
When time came for a change in leadership, it arrived quietly. On Dec. 1, 1960, Walter Helmerich II walked into the office of Walter Helmerich III and said, “You’re President. Good luck.”
The fortune has indeed been good but one can hardly put it down to luck. Helmerich branched out into a host of energy-related fields and became actively involved in real estate. When he bought Utica Square in 1964 he quickly moved to make it THE quality place to shop in Tulsa and to make the experience more pleasurable to his customers, he planted 300 trees.
Helmerich III had his own brushes with bad guys. Kidnapped in 1974 he was held for several hours until $750,000 could be raised. His main concern, he told the kidnapper, was that he make his son’s baseball game by 7 p.m. He made it. The kidnapper was arrested the next day.
The Helmerich gifts to Oklahoma institutions have flowed freely. The most recent ones are the Helmerich Family Theater at Cascia Hall and the new Oklahoma State Helmerich Advanced Technology Research Center, due to open in November, toward which the Helmerich’s contributed $9 million.
“Even when we were dating,” says Peggy, “Walt was a very generous person. I can’t remember the very first thing he gave to the Tulsa community but it stretched us. He said, ‘you know that’s the best feeling I’ve ever had in my life’. He is a true giver.”
The children continue to contribute:
Walter Hugo (Rik) Helmerich IV owns Pepper’s Restaurants.
Dow Zachery (Zak) Helmerich is an investor and “minors’ in art.
Matthew (Mat) Helmerich is a writer and works for a district attorney in southern Florida.
Hans Christian Helmerich is CEO of Helmerich & Payne.
Jono Helmerich is president of the Tulsa 66ers.
Tulsa owes the Helmerichs, past and present, a huge “thank you.”