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Pickens’ Legacy Reverberates Even With Those He Never Really Knew

An agent of change for lives he never knew.

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It might be an exaggeration to say that you would not be reading these words if not for Boone Pickens. But if it is, it’s not much of one.

An independent website primarily focused on Oklahoma State football would not have played well 20 years ago. Or 25 years ago. Or 35 years ago. Or 45 or really at any point other than that brief period of time when they let a goat run around Lewis Field in the late 1980s.

OSU was not good at the sport you need to be good at for an entity like this to exist.

Then Pickens started funneling money into OSU’s accounts, started filling the coffers with cash that turned into bricks and cement and steel that transformed a university’s athletic program. OSU won nine games six times in the 20th century. It has done so nine times since Pickens pumped $20 million into the facilities in 2003 and they hung the letters of his name across the thing and lit it all up at night. A beacon of hope.

I remember hearing that Lewis Field was no longer called Lewis Field back in those days. I remember thinking “Who is Boone Pickens?” I was 18 that year. How could I know how much the erasure of the name of a professor from the early 1900s from the erecter set of a stadium sitting in the middle of a small town off I-35 would affect my life a decade later?

I’ve been in the depths of all of this for the last 24 hours. Diving into old articles, pulling quotes and bathing in numbers. It’s natural and easy to try and quantify a life. Even more so when the life you’re trying to quantify is that of a man who spent his life quantifying everything. But how do you measure a life whose impact changed the trajectory of your own, even though no financial transaction was ever made?

Pickens was wealthy, for sure. He made and gave billions and once piped that he was “put on earth” to make money and give it away. It’s a hell of a justification for your own existence.

Somebody in his inner circle once joked with me that Pickens was so wealthy that when he was selling his west Texas ranch, I couldn’t even afford to purchase the kennel where they kept the hunting dogs.

I met Pickens one time. He invited my wife and I to a Cowboys game a few years ago. They played the Ravens. Three years before Justice got there. He wore a Masters sweater. I wore a stupid grin on my face all day. Who am I to be sitting here with this legendary businessman and philanthropist talking about whatever it is you talk about when the relationship is that inequitable?

Two years later I hitched a ride on his plane to OSU’s home opener in Stillwater. I remember that day very clearly. It was the game he was supposed to come to, but he stayed behind in Dallas. We were already on the plane, and his driver brought him all the way out there in a SUV. Drove the thing right up next to the plane, rolled the window down and left 10 seconds later. I remember sitting in his plane watching him ride away. It was surreal and a bummer.

I looked around like, “So do I need to see if one of my other friends can fly me up there?” We made the trip anyway. It remains a highlight.

Pickens was generous. Just because you talk about the money you give away doesn’t negate its effect. He lived a life, but he also changes a lot of lives along the way. His people and his circle were always quite kind to me and to my family. That’s not insignificant.

A business writer I read once said that you will be the same person you are today 10 years from today, except for the books you read and the people you meet.

What about the people you only met once? Or the people who you never met at all? My life did not change because I met Boone Pickens. My life changed because Boone Pickens existed.

I’ve said this often, and I believe it deeply. Starting this website — outside of becoming a Christian — has been the most important thing I’ve ever done. I don’t mean professionally, I mean in my entire life. Why?

Because starting this website changed the trajectory of my career. It allowed me to stay home and led to my wife and I fostering and eventually adopting our oldest child. My daughter might not live in our home if not for Boone Pickens. That sounds like nonsense, but I’m not convinced it’s untrue!

I’ve been sad today, which has been unexpected because I wasn’t close to Pickens. I’ve been sad, I think, because I feel deeply the passage of time. Death is one of its chief markers.

On Tuesday I spoke with somebody close to Pickens who said something like, “I’m going to do all I can to make sure his legacy lives on and his life continues to impact other lives.”

A noble pursuit for anyone, to make sure a life matters. Also an unnecessary one in this case.

You may not agree with a lot of the things Pickens did or what he stood for. That’s fine. He probably didn’t agree with a lot of the things you did. But what’s undeniable — and the thing I keep coming back to — is how an oversized life like this can bring other lives into its orbit and fling them out into the ether to exist on their own.

Mike Holder can say that’s true. Look at this quote from Pickens’ book, The First Billion is the Hardest.

Mike is a fierce competitor and a family man, and I told him he would make a great athletic director. He said he’d think about it.

“I can tell you right now that I’m not going to donate the money unless you become athletic director,” I told him. “Here’s my take on you, Mike. You win a golf championship every four years. You’ve figured out a way to win at that game, and now you’re going through life with your feet on the handlebars. You’ve never been tested at the level I’d like to test you. It’s time for you to step up and take on a big challenge.”

“What do you mean, feet on the handlebars?”

“You’re a leader, and you need to lead at a higher level. That’s what I mean.”

Pickens’ pursuits demanded a wake of greatness whether he explicitly said it or not. This site is hopefully a shred of evidence of that reality. I want it to be great, and we’ve worked for it to be great. But it can only exist because Oklahoma State has been great at football, which generates interest in Oklahoma State news, which pushes people to read the news and participate in the community.

Oklahoma State is only great at football because Boone Pickens opened the floodgates nearly two decades ago.

In sports, we talk about legacies a lot. How one’s changes after a championship or a specific performance. You often change your own legacy. But how often does your legacy change the legacy of another person? How often does the life you led reverberate in the homes of other people.

Regardless of what you believe in or what you’re passionate about, that’s the type of life we should all strive for. That because of my existence, somebody else’s existence is altered. A dent in the universe.

Boone Pickens was a powerful man. With great wealth and great accomplishment comes great power. He gave much of that power away. He effected change. Burns Hargis called him a “change agent.” That’s a dart from Burns. It’s spot on.

He spent his whole life keeping a ledger of the change he effected in the world, but I suspect the greatest change he effected is the invisible one. The one you can’t measure. Mine. It’s the tragic irony of generosity. You think you can measure it, but you can measure it not.

That’s ok though. Because this fall when the equinox flips and you’re walking into or out of a 55,000-person party with your friends or your family and you see the orange underglow of his name splayed across the stadium he built, you won’t think about how different his life was because of what he did. But you might think about how different yours is.

And that’s a gift that can’t be measured like all the other gifts he gave because it replicates itself into the future for an indeterminable length of time.

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