Warren Family Embodies The Spirit of Tulsa

Associate Editor

In the 1950s, William Kelly Warren, Sr. spent $8 million to build a hospital on a hill in sparsely populated south Tulsa overlooking a growing city he had helped build. It was to be a “nice- sized, acute care hospital” according to his son, William Kelly Warren, Jr. But in typical fashion to everything the Warren family touched over the years, Saint Francis Hospital continued to grow into one of the largest medical complexes in the country. Not surprisingly for a Tulsa family who started with a $300 cornerstone and turned it into the multi-million dollar Warren Petroleum Corp.

Of all the many early day success stories of Tulsa entrepreneurs who came here in search of fortune, the Warren family story is one of the most exemplary for many reasons. It has all the necessary elements of rags to riches, entrepreneurial acumen, ingenuity and vision and of course generous philanthropy.

Warren Sr. arrived in Tulsa in 1916. The oil boom was well underway and the city’s prospects for lucrative job opportunities were attractive to a young man from Nashville, Tenn. who at age 18 had already experienced years of struggling with poverty by working as a newspaper carrier, a Western Union messenger, a baseball park peanut vendor, a drug store employee, a door to door salesman and even a dance hall instructor. Like many of the other young arrivals to Tulsa in those days, he soon found employment with one of the many emerging oil companies. First it was Gypsy Oil Company and later Gilliland Oil Company and finally McMann Oil Company. But unlike most of the others this young man had a set of personal attributes that would propel his success as a businessman and eventually as a benevolent contributor to the city he loved.

The most obvious attribute was his willingness to take a calculated risk that held great promise for the future. In 1922, 18 months after marrying Natalie Overall, the couple scraped together 300 dollars and organized a firm for procuring the rights to handle gasoline and liquid petroleum gases, thus positioning the new company strategically in the market chain and cash stream of the emerging United States energy industry. It was a move that proved very profitable and enabled the firm to began purchasing companies and amassing what eventually would become a sizable enterprise.

Over the next three decades starting with two employees, until 1956 when Warren Petroleum merged with Gulf Oil, the company grew to over 2,000 employees owning and operating 27 LPG plants and 17,000 barrels of daily oil production. Finding that special niche in the energy industry market chain coupled with solid, visionary leadership and ingenuity resulted in Warren Petroleum eventually emerging as the world’s largest independent distributor of liquidized petroleum gas.

It would take the family’s next generation to build on what was started, but according to William Kelly Warren Jr., ”Without what my father had started I could not have gone on to build the business I did. He laid the foundation for our growth and success.”

Although the success of Warren Petroleum put poverty surely behind him, Warren Sr. never forgot his early years and turned his attention to the more profound issues of life and death. His sense of social justice, learned in part from his lifelong Catholicism, and his struggles as a young man with a father dying of tuberculosis, made him understand the important role access to good medical care plays in the quality of life for all. He also harbored great respect for doctors and their talents, so much so he regretted not having studied medicine. He channeled that regret into an effort that would generate a healthcare renaissance in Tulsa.

In 1945, the William K. Warren Foundation was founded. From then on it seemed anytime the City of Tulsa developed a medical need Warren’s charitable organization was there to address it with ample resources and encouragement. Much of the results of this can be seen from atop the original Saint Francis Hospital. Nearby are the Warren Clinic, the William, Kelly and Warren Medical Buildings, Saint Francis Heart Hospital, the Imaging Center, Montereau, an independent and assisted living facility, the new Children’s Hospital, scheduled to open in January 2008, the Natalie Warren Bryant Cancer Center and Laureate Psychiatric Clinic and Hospital.

When Warren, Sr. died in 1990 at age 92, his son, Bill Warren, as he prefers to be called, took over to carry on the family legacy following the philosophy of his father. He stated it this way, “My father established all of this. And I don’t look upon myself except as carrying on his wishes,” he says. “Mine is a similar philosophy, but I don’t take any credit for myself.” Recently the third generation Warren, John Kelly Warren, has taken over the Foundation and continues the family legacy of community involvement.

The history of Tulsa is resplendent with the names of so many who came here seeking opportunity, achieved great success and wealth and then without fanfare returned much of that wealth back to the community. Certainly oil was the catalyst driving wealth and success, but it was the good hearts and philanthropy of families like the Warrens that did so much to create one of the most livable cities in the world. The Warren family exemplifies the Tulsa spirit as one of the city’s finest centennial families.

Updated 08-13-2007

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