In Market: Gene Powell, the roughneck’s Sherlock Holmes

🕐 3 min read

“It gets in your blood. Ask any oilmen, they’ll tell you the same thing.” – Gene Powell

A lot of things got in Gene Powell’s blood, not just oil. He was innately curious and sought answers like a roughneck’s Sherlock Holmes, digging and worrying something to death until he had an answer that satisfied him.

“He likes to find out the answers to questions and when he can’t find out the answers it continues to bug him until he knows the answers,” said a man I quoted in the story we published in 2007. 

When I learned that Gene had died last week at age 78, I couldn’t help but reflect. I’m pretty late in life to have mentors, but I’ll count that as one of those blessings.

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I first met Gene when he called me up to talk about the Barnett Shale. I got a lot of those calls then, back in the early 2000s. But Gene had something – and not just the Barnett Shale Newsletter – something he initially put together for fun and no profit. A newsletter, I should add, that everyone read religiously.

I went over to his house to meet him with our owner, Rich Connor. At the time, Gene lived in a small post-World War II home near TCU. He traversed the house calling up data on various computers. He had once said thumbs down on the possibilities of the Barnett Shale, but now he was like a fiery Billy Sunday, preaching of the possibilities of this natural gas play that was becoming a cause celebre in the then-moribund oil and gas industry.

As we walked around the small frame house, he remained attached to an oxygen tank, the result of some lung issues he had. So as Rich and I followed in his wake, we had to avoid the plastic tubes whipping across the floor.

Gene was passionate that the Barnett Shale could change the world. When Rich and I attempted to leave, Gene would say, “Let me show you one more thing,” Colombo-like.

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When we finally left, I said, “I feel like we’ve been in a David Lynch movie.”

I got to be in that David Lynch movie several times over the years. A few years back, Powell thought he had an illness that would finally do him in. He beat that illness and came back looking and feeling better than I had ever seen him. The photo on this page comes from a visit about a year ago when he came to the Fort Worth Business office. The photo in the photo is one from 1983 that Gene gave me, where ,J.R. Ewing-like, he had two dual wells in an oil field in West Texas and a Rolls Royce. In that photo, Gene is leaning against the automobile with one set of the dual oil well jacks pumping away in the background. It was at about the high point of the Texas oil industry, which came crashing down in 1986.

Like the oil industry, Gene crashed then too, but came back again and again. And the last conversation I had with him, he was very ill but he was still curious. He had lost some short-term memory. “If you call me tomorrow, I won’t know you’ve been here today,” he said. “Call me in a few weeks and I’ll know you’re here today. Isn’t that something? Just blows my mind.”

I’ll miss being in that David Lynch movie. Thanks Gene.

Robert is a Fort Worth native and longtime editor of the Fort Worth Business Press. He is a former president of the local Society of Professional Journalists and was a freelancer for a variety of newspapers, weeklies and magazines, including American Way, BrandWeek and InformatonWeek. A graduate of TCU, Robert has held a variety of writing and editing positions at publications such as the Grand Prairie Daily News and InfoWorld. He is also a musician and playwright.

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