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The Roller-Coaster Life of a Texas Wildcatter

By Mike Cochran

Publication Year: 2007

The native son of a distinguished West Texas family and a 1954 graduate of Texas A&M whose career and personal pursuits have ranged from farmer to insurance salesman to wildcatter, pipeline entrepreneur, rancher, banker, real estate mogul, big game hunter, conservationist, philanthropist, front-running gubernatorial candidate, and oil tycoon, Clayton W. Williams Jr. is by all measures one of a kind. He has repeatedly been on the Forbes list of the 400 wealthiest Americans, yet more than once Claytie has also been on the verge of bankruptcy. This authorized biography captures the dimensions of his fascinating life: his determined work ethic and honesty; his passionate interests and rough-hewn style; his devotion to wife and constant companion Modesta and family; his all-in wildcatter bets and integrity-above-all payoff of debts; his patented gaffes in the “wildest, woolliest Texas governor’s race ever” and their spotlighted consequences for the state and nation; and running through it all, both unrestrained celebrations and knees-on-the-ground repentance. His many notable successes, his most admirable traits, as well as his most outrageous flaws are all portrayed in this book, often in Claytie’s own words or in the extensive comments, revealing anecdotes, and first-person accounts of others, supplemented by family and business documents, as well as contemporary journalistic records. This book tells it all, revealing one distinctive maverick who has left his boot prints all across Texas for 75 years.

Published by: Texas A&M University Press

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. 1-8

OK, so he's a Texas Aggie who nearly burned down one West Texas town, forced the headline-grabbing evacuation of another—nothing personal, just business—and torched his own bid for Texas governor with some actions and brash words reflecting a political tin ear that a majority of voters found unnerving....

One. At Home in West Texas: Where Legacy Matters

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1. "As a typical Aggie, I tried to drill my way out of trouble."

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pp. 11-23

It was a silent, solemn group that boarded the company plane in Midland one fine spring morning in 1991 only months after a tumultuous Texas governor's race had sapped much of Claytie's strength and spirit—plus $8 million of his personal fortune. If not the worst of times, it was a close second. ...

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"As kids we learned we had four ancestors who were with George Washington at Valley Forge."

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pp. 24-39

Judge O. W. Williams was immortalized in a 1966 book, Pioneer Surveyor—Frontier Lawyer, assembled and edited by S. D. Myres for Texas Western College, now the University of Texas at El Paso. Myres described O.W., a relative by marriage to legendary frontiersman Daniel Boone, as a scholarly reporter who had a ...

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3. "They said about the Panthers:They're small, but boy are they slow."

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pp. 40-55

The most detailed account of Claytie's childhood emerged from the least likely of places&edash;a momentous 1997 African hunting trip with Modesta, son Jeff, and daughter Chim. Freed from his frenzied work pace, Claytie slowed down long enough to record in a daily journal his recollections, experiences, and lessons from what ...

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4. "High-quality people treat an underling with dignity and respect."

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pp. 56-60

Claytie wasted no time volunteering for the draft after graduating from Texas A&M in 1954, and the normally dreaded basic training proved to be a snap."It was old hat to me and not near as tough as A&M," he said. Claytie, A. W. Bishop, and David Ligon—the boyhood buddy who claims he was with Claytie when they discovered beer and ...

Two. Oil-Patch Dreams: The Rise of Clajon, the Little Company That Could

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5. "Fifteen minutes. That close. Fate."

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pp. 63-71

Johnny May and Clayton Williams Jr. hit it off at once, quickly deciding to partner in the oil and gas business as lease brokers and well promoters. Claytie knew nothing about his new venture, but both his dad and his grandfather had represented land-owners in oil and gas leases, and May and his father were already ...

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6. "Clayton and I did lots of partying and drinking, chasing girls and whateve."

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pp. 72-87

Despite the tragedy, the Sibley #1 discovery well foreshadowed development of the Delaware Basin's Coyanosa Field, where May-Williams would be successfully involved. The Mobil-Sibley also kicked off the hottest play in the United States and significantly enhanced the budding May and Williams enterprise. Moreover, the well became another forerunner of Clajon Gas, the little company ...

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7. "I couldn't understand what this beautiful woman saw in me, but who was I to question her taste?"

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pp. 88-102

"The first time I saw Claytie was in 1963," Modesta said with a mischievous grin lighting up her face. "I didn't meet him then, but I saw him." My mother and my brother Wade and another friend and I had all gone out to dinner at the old Monterrey Kitchen in Midland. There was a guy sitting over there with his date, minding his ...

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8. "Well, I guess we'll have to buy this damn ranch!"

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pp. 103-115

On an early spring day in 1972, Claytie and Modesta drove from Fort Stockton to look at a Davis Mountain ranch north of Alpine. They had visited the area previously, and Claytie knew the Willie Henderson Ranch was under grass lease to one of the Southwest's most exceptional cattlemen, Ted Gray of Alpine. Gray had ...

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9. "Don't mix alcohol with business, whether it's oil or cows."

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pp. 116-128

With the dawn of the pivotal '70s, more of Claytie's ventures began turning profits, and his fledgling registered cattle enterprise was poised to become both a financial and social bonanza extending deep into the next decade. After making the down payment on the Alpine ranch in 1972, he told Ted Gray, the ranch tenant: "I'd like ...

Three. The Go-Go Years: Blowouts, Blowups, Big Riches, and a Half-Billion-Dollar Debt

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"It's going to be the biggest change in our lives—ever!"

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pp. 131-145

For Claytie and Modesta Williams, New Year's Eve 1975 would be an event like no other in a lifetime overflowing with elegant parties, global hunting trips, glorious celebrations, and too many peaks and valleys to count. When the earth shook in the wee hours of that December morning, it was not triggered by another of their amorous ...

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11. "Claytie outworked everybody—and outtraded everybody."

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pp. 146-169

Two grumpy veterans of the oil industry had gotten together again in late 1973—Claytie and Bill Haverlah—and the new oil-patch journey they charted would eventually propel them to career highs. Haverlah had quit the Williams companies in 1967 when the thrill of working for Claytie became more wearing than rewarding ...

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12. "I gave Modesta an unlimited budget to decorate this building, and she overspent it 43 percent."

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pp. 170-178

With oil hovering around forty dollars a barrel in early 1981, Claytie formed ClayDesta Corporation, a Midland-based commercial real estate development and property management firm. The centerpiece of this enterprise would be development of a glittering $42 million, 183-acre office park north of downtown christened ...

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13. "We've got to stand by our people."

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pp. 179-182

Claytie's innovative entrepreneurial activities spawned a truly Byzantine venture in the early 1980s that opened with a bang, bang, bang and ended with a thud and a subplot that rivaled anything dreamed up by a morose Hollywood scriptwriter. It began innocently enough, as spelled out by Claytie and a professional ...

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14. "I have never witnessed a warmer rapport between speaker and crowd."

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pp. 183-196

In March 1984, two prominent members of the Association of Former Students of Texas A&M University appeared in Claytie's office on a stealth mission of sorts. It was a stealth visit only in that Claytie was not informed of the purpose. One of the callers was Randy Matson, a world-class shot-putter and Olympic gold medalist ...

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15. "If anybody perceives you to be slick or dishonest or crooked, they're not gonna mess with you."

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pp. 197-203

In one of several related news stories in the late 1980s, a writer described Claytie as a West Texas farm boy, cowhand, insurance salesman, real estate investor, energy developer, communications pioneer, and cattle breeder. But the reporter went on to reveal that Claytie was wrapping up what he considered the most satisfying ...

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16. "He is the sun and we are all the little planets that rotate around him."

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pp. 204-218

What do you say when you're about to marry a guy's beautiful young daughter, and your future father-in-law tells you he likes to hunt, fish, work, and have sex, and then asks: "What about you?" How does a young man respond when the father of his new fiancée asks irritably, "Why don't I just take you outside and whip your ass?" ...

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17. "Now, before you get mad and before these guys pull their guns and shoot me, let me tell you why we're going to do it this way."

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pp. 219-228

As Professor Clayton Williams Jr. traversed the financial hills and hollows of the 1980s, he joked often about his entrepreneurial diversity, and the pitfalls therein. "I'm in oil and gas, real estate, banking, and cattle—everything that's losing money," he told D Magazine with a bit of lighthearted candor. In 1984, acting not so ...

Four. Political Adventures: The Wildcatter Who Would Be Governor

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18. "Maybe this is the time to give back."

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pp. 231-247

With the sale of ClayDesta Communications in the works, and with the final semester of teaching with Ella Van Fleet at A&M at hand, Claytie and Modesta invited a couple of employees to their Midland home to exchange gifts on Christmas Eve 1988. "It was a very relaxed setting . . . and we were in a little bit of a coasting ...

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19. I'm afraid the plane has gone down."

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pp. 248-260

The primary campaign was humming along on a high note in the run-up to Valentine's Day 1990. A Republican Women's rally on February 13 was a roaring success in Sterling City, where Claytie's mother, Chic, had attended school. The rally was held at a historic home and drew a historic turnout. ...

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20. "If it's inevitable, just relax and enjoy it."

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pp. 261-274

With his primary triumph, presidential luncheon, mystery-meat dish, and horror-film pal Vincent Price behind him, Claytie would have been content to savor the moment and watch from the sidelines as the Democrats slugged it out in their runoff. "It was all fun, but they just kept throwing work at me," he said. "You've got to ...

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21. "I'm done with the campaign. I quit."

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pp. 275-282

Though Claytie's self-inflicted miscues of March and April commanded barrels of newspaper ink and more air time than most natural disasters, he rode out the storm. His cowpoke image, brutal honesty, and what Time called his rustic sincerity had connected with voters in an unprecedented fashion. And nobody knew it better ...

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22. "A handshake is a sign of trust. I withdrew my trust."

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pp. 282-295

The September upswing provided Claytie's campaign team a welcome boost of confidence, but both sides worried that an eleventh-hour bobble could swing the election. As September rolled to a close, Ann contended she had pulled within six percentage points of the lead—a claim not substantiated by the Williams pollsters. ...

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23. "I was a little political before I got political. When I got political, I wasn't worth a damn."

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pp. 296-308

With nearly 3.9 million votes cast, Ann Richards won by fewer than one hundred thousand. She collected roughly 49.4 percent of the vote; Claytie, 47.2 percent, and a third-party candidate, 3.4 percent. The Richards camp cited as pivotal "a surge to the polls in minority-dominated South Dallas, supplemented by heavy ...

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24. "He made mistakes along the way,but he's a class act who took his lumps with dignity."

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pp. 309-314

It is ironic that the best definition of "Bubba" as it pertained to the 1990 election sprung not from the pen of a Texas writer but from a Canadian reporting on the Williams phenomenon for The Globe and Mail, Canada's national newspaper. "To fully understand Clayton Williams's campaign for governor of ...

Five. A New Millennium: No Slowing Down

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25. "I know Claytie can ffind a way out of this."

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pp. 317-327

On that spring 1991 flight to Houston—the bankruptcy flight—conversation remained as scarce as free money. The foursome aboard the company jet—Claytie, Modesta, and executives Paul Latham and Mel Riggs—grappled with their private thoughts, quietly, thinking of their mission: getting the best advice possible...

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26, I'm gonna get a baseball bat and beat the son of a bitch to death."

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pp. 328-341

Claytie's postelection recovery remained in full swing even after the 1994 consolidation and downsizing. With Paul Latham and Mel Riggs already in place, Claytie's Midland-based, frontline recovery unit included son-in-law Jerry Groner, a lawyer-landman, along with engineer Greg Benton and geologist Sam Lyssy. Groner...

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27. "Back in the Saddle Again"

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pp. 342-346

On May 22, 2001, Clayton and Modesta Williams celebrated their thirty-sixth wedding anniversary, an event that ordinarily would not command front-page headlines. But Claytie seldom embraced ordinary, as the Midland Reporter-Telegram would lustily attest. "Claytie Rides Again," proclaimed the headline on a story ...

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28. "Consider the hunting trip over and get the hell out of Dodge."

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pp. 347-359

After a series of major hunting excursions in Canada, Alaska, Mexico, and the continental United States, Claytie and Modesta had embarked in 1974 on their first overseas big-game adventure in Asia."We went to Afghanistan, and that was like the end of the world," Modesta recalled. They found everything fascinating—the people, ...

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29. "We bought $300 million worth of seismic data for $7.5 million."

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pp. 360-367

As 2001 surrendered itself to historians, Claytie and his exploration team had emerged from recovery mode. "We're back growing again, in intermittent spurts," he said. Armed with an abundance of the scientific 3-D seismic data—and gathering more—they were prowling now for even bigger, better, but elusive prospects. ...

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30. "The heart of Muster is the heart of Texas A&M, and the heart of the Aggie experience."

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pp. 368-387

The pageantry was spectacular, a cheering, chanting, emotional throng afloat in a sea of red, white, and blue—and maroon. The Aggie Band and the Singing Cadets appeared even more stirring than normal, commanding twelve thousand-plus Aggies and former students to their feet for rousing renditions of Texas Our ...

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31. "Being who he is, is more important than him being in politics. He wouldn't have fit, ever."

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pp. 388-402

By any measure, 2006 was a banner year personally and professionally for Claytie and his company: a year that presumably buried forever any haunting memories of bankruptcy and bank failures and the painful dispersal of many of his entrepreneurial treasures. "Things are too good," he fretted facetiously. "That's why I'm ...

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pp. 403-406

From day one, Claytie stressed to me that the secret to whatever success he's enjoyed is no secret at all. "I have always surrounded myself with bright, talented, and conscientious people," he said. Looking back over his fifty years in the oil and gas business and his other endeavors, he cited "just a handful" of the friends, associates, and ...

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Author's Acknowledgments

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pp. 407-410

As may be expected in an ambitious endeavor such as this, I have so many people and publications to thank for their contributions to this book that it is impossible to name them all. Foremost, I owe particular gratitude to my editor Michael Blackman, a longtime Fort Worth friend and colleague whose talent, wisdom, ...

Photo Credits

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pp. 411-412


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pp. 413-435

E-ISBN-13: 9781603444507
E-ISBN-10: 1603444505
Print-ISBN-13: 9781585446346
Print-ISBN-10: 1585446343

Page Count: 446
Illustrations: 72 b&w photos.
Publication Year: 2007

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Subject Headings

  • Political candidates -- Texas -- Biography.
  • Businesspeople -- Texas -- Biography.
  • Texas -- Biography.
  • Williams, Clayton, 1931-.
  • Oil industry workers -- Texas -- Biography.
  • Oil well drilling -- Texas.
  • Governors -- Texas -- Election.
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