Family and Street Smarts: Walter Hugo Helmerich III
By JOHN ERLING
Walter Hugo Helmerich, was a friend and monthly luncheon companion for more than ten years. He was a great storyteller and the inspiration for Voices of Oklahoma – when he rejected the idea of writing his autobiography, which was suggested many times. Not only did he contribute his story to , but also he convinced his friend Henry Zarrow to do likewise. He also made a significant contribution to our program (www.voicesofoklahoma.com) – long before there was an actual website. He recognized the importance of preserving the legacy of Oklahoma – one voice at a time. We would have included his story in any event but he holds a special place in our library and hearts.
Walt was the grandson of an art glass manufacturer in Chicago. “He was a very sweet man” and theirs was a “very religious family. I think that was one of the reasons that my dad left home early. A teenager doesn’t like to be faced with religion every day and the bible at every meal” (Listen to Chapter 1). “My Grandma was kind of the one in charge. I don’t have any idea (what her name was), I called her Grandma. Even her husband called her grandma. My Dad called her Mom.”
Walter II, Walt’s Father, was a test pilot at Post Field in Oklahoma City. At one time, he held the world’s altitude record, and he married Walt’s mother, whose family did not approve of the marriage. When Walter II was told he’d never get a dime of his fiancée’s family money, “… My Dad was not only offended but he said I not only will never take a dime from you, but before I’m gone, your two sons will be working for me. Later that turned out to be true.” When he was told his parents were married in 1918, Walt said, “That may be true, I wasn’t there.”
His maternal grandfather was C.F. Colcord. He was one of three people who owned The Glenn Pool oilfields and was one of a small group of men “… that stole the state seal and all of the books and moved them (from the then state capital in Guthrie) to Oklahoma City” (Chapter 3).
Walt was born in Tulsa in 1923. He attended Lee Elementary and Cascia Hall. He spent his senior year and graduated from Lake Forest Academy in Chicago. He was a “mischievous kind of guy.” In Chapters 4 and 5, he remembers putting garter snakes down the back of classmates’ dresses. He remembers pulling the pants down of a classmate that later became president of Exxon.” He tells about his family dropping him off for church at Boston Avenue Methodist. He would go through the church and head to the bowling alley next door. Then, when it was time to be picked up, he would come out the church door and his family never knew.
Walt attended the University of Tulsa for one year (1940) and, at the urging of his father, moved to because they had the best program in the country. After a year at , he enlisted in the Air Force. At age 19, he talked his way into Officers Candidates School and after graduation, found himself in Blyth, Calif., “…A germ couldn’t live there, which is the reason it was called the world’s healthiest airbase (Chapter 8). After his discharge at age 23, he enrolled at OU. Listen to Chapters 9 and 10 to hear him describe how he became a successful student and entrepreneur, (selling parlay cards) and how he got into Harvard. It is not the story you would expect.
At Harvard, he met classmates from Hollywood. He met, and later married, Peggy Dow, “… the new starlet sweeping Hollywood.” “On our first real date, I proposed. She said, ‘Marry you? I don’t even know you! Why would I marry you?’” She lived at the Hollywood Studio Club with Marilyn Monroe and Barbara Hale and a whole bunch of young actresses. You can hear Peggy Dow Helmerich tell her version of this same story at www.voicesofoklahoma.com too. Their marriage was not love at first sight.
Peggy urged Walt, who wanted to be a teacher, “… to just get a job. I don’t even know you but you need to get a job. I don’t know why she didn’t think teaching was a job, but that’s what she said.” So, Walt got his first job with the family business: Helmerich and Payne. “I loved every day of the 50 years I was there, and we went through some really tough times.”
Helmerich and Payne was and still is one of Oklahoma’s most famous oil and gas concerns. Listen to Walt talk about the #1 Francis well, which sits on the grounds of the Oklahoma State Capital. You can hear Walt talk about the firm that had, at one time, as many as 4,000 wells and about working with his father. “He was old school and didn’t necessarily accept some of the things I wanted to do. We had lots of business conflicts. Dad never had time for me growing up. I mean, he was always busy and he just never had time for me. But I had tremendous respect for him. He was honest; he was direct. He was hard working. He was totally committed to the company.”
The Walt Helmerich story is all about Oklahoma and many of our most prominent citizens. His story includes Parker Drilling, Penn Square, John Kirkpatrick, Ed Gaylord, Oral Roberts, Bud Wilkinson, Henry Bellmon and Utica Square – a Walt Helmerich production. The most dramatic part of Walt’s story however (Chapter 18) is about his 1974 kidnapping. For those who knew Walt, the most telling part of that story happened immediately after his rescue. He refused a press interview after he was released because his son Hans had a basketball game he wanted to attend. You will know why Walt and Peggy were so focused on their kids (Chapter 4) when Walt says “… With the demands at work and us going out every week, let’s just give that up for 10 years and spend time with the boys, because I will always regret that my Dad never had time for me. We spent all of our summers and everything with them (the five boys). Our boys are our best friends now, so it was worth it.”
Voices of Oklahoma is the only Internet site dedicated solely to celebrating the history of Oklahoma via personal oral histories. We work to preserve Oklahoma’s legacy “one voice at a time.” You are invited to hear the complete Walt Helmerich story and to download the transcript of his interview. founder John Erling has collected more than 50 oral histories for Voices of Oklahoma. John was a radio broadcaster for 45 years; 30 of which were in Tulsa where he hosted the popular daily radio show “Erling in the Morning”. He is an inductee into the Oklahoma Broad-casters Hall of Fame, and he can be heard again, along with the Walter H. Helmerich, story at www.voicesofoklahoma.com.