Editor’s Notebook: Gold Medal Life

September 2013, Vol. 240 No. 9

Jeff Share, Editor

In 1992 I first met George Phydias Mitchell on the 60th floor of Houston’s tallest skyscraper. If you looked far enough to the north you could see The Woodlands, the master-planned development community he created about 30 miles from where we sat. If you looked 50 miles to the south, you might see the city of Galveston where Mr. Mitchell was born, where he spent much of his fortune on revitalization efforts, and where his wonderful life would end on July 26 at age 94.

He was the most influential businessman in Southeast Texas for many years and the most beloved. He was a modest, generous soul, a true philanthropist. Although a billionaire, he never flaunted his wealth or success.

Much has been written about Mr. Mitchell’s career as a successful oilman, a profession that takes brains, money, and the nerve to roll the dice. It also helps to be a visionary. That’s what led to his decision to explore the possibility of using unconventional methods to develop natural gas and oil resources. Today the combination of hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling is changing the world.

Mr. Mitchell received many honors and awards, including a lifetime achievement award from the Gas Technology Institute, which, along with the federal government, partnered with him in developing the technology that led to the shale revolution.

But there was one award I desperately wanted Mr. Mitchell to receive, the Presidential Gold Medal, the highest honor a civilian can receive. To qualify, a recipient must have made “an especially meritorious contribution to the security or national interests of the United States, world peace, cultural or other significant public or private endeavors.”

I spent three years writing letters, e-mails and even making phone calls to the White House, Department of Energy and our congressional representatives. I said Mr. Mitchell not only deserved the award, but that it just might be big a step toward resolving the bitter feud that exists between the Obama administration and the petroleum industry.

I received two responses: one from someone at DoE about two months ago who thought it was worth looking into and another from a former Democratic operative who said to forget it for the obvious reasons.

Those who will receive 2013 medals were recently named: Ernie Banks, Ben Bradlee, Bill Clinton, Sally Ride. Oprah Winfrey, Gloria Steinem, Dean Smith, Loretta Lynn and several others. Not to minimize any of their accomplishments, but if President Obama and his staff had really thought about it, they would have learned some interesting facts about Mr. Mitchell.

Like you, Mr. President, he came from a humble background and had to work his way through college by starting a laundry service and later selling stationery. And as you often suggest, he too thought that private business and the government could work together. He embraced federal involvement and worked hand-in-hand with the DoE and GTI to develop the advanced technology that has unleashed enough natural gas to last us for centuries.

As you also claim to be, Mr. President, Mr. Mitchell was devoted to natural gas, even at a time when few others were. As he told me, “it’s a beautiful fuel, can be used for so many things, and is clean.” That’s right, Mr. President, he thought natural gas could go a long way to improving the environment and preventing climate change.

And there was something else you should know, Mr. President, because you of all people would have appreciated it. As he was developing The Woodlands community, he visited some of the poorest urban areas in the country such as Watts and Bedford Stuyvesant because he wanted to see what could be done to improve the lives of those who live in such blighted areas.

As part of being perceived as a model community, he hoped to see The Woodlands benefit from diversity. That didn’t happen, to Mr. Mitchell’s disappointment, and was a big reason why he sold the development company in 1998.

You missed a grand opportunity, Mr. President. If Mr. Mitchell had not been an oilman, would he have been worthy of that gold medal? And just as importantly, does this offer an indication of how you really feel about the oil and gas industry?

Editor’s Note: Sad to report that former Major League baseball player and pipeline welder’s helper Johnny Logan died Aug. 9 in Milwaukee after a lengthy illness. The 86-year-old All-Star shortstop was on the July cover of P&GJ and was the focus of that month’s Editor’s Notebook in what was to be his last interview.