No Texas archetype is more indelibly stamped on the public perception than the Texas oil man—a shrewd, flamboyant figure captured most recently in the character of J. R. Ewing in the long-running television series “Dallas.” During the 1980s when this program was playing worldwide, reinforcing the stereotype of the oil man as a conservative, unprincipled rogue, another Texas oil man named J. R.—in this case, J. R. Parten—was quietly concluding a remarkable career that spanned most of the twentieth century. Although J. R. Parten shared some characteristics with the fictional J. R. Ewing—he was a highly successful and tough-minded entrepreneur—Parten was a quiet gentleman, loyal to his friends, and a man of honor and principle. Little known during his lifetime, he remains a relatively anonymous figure despite the fact that he played a number of historically significant roles in Texas and the nation, and counted numerous bigger-than-life characters as colleagues, associates, and friends: Huey Long, Sam Rayburn, John Henry Faulk, Lyndon B. Johnson, and Harry Truman, among others.
Through numerous interviews and unlimited access to Parten’s personal papers, the author tells the fascinating story of Parten’s life, from small town East Texas at the turn of the century to the capitals of the world. After studying at the University of Texas from 1913 to 1917, he served in World War I as the youngest major in the field artillery. He entered the oil business in 1919 and was a true pioneer in the industry, establishing numerous energy businesses that earned millions of dollars and employed thousands of people. While serving on the University of Texas Board of Regents from 1935 to 1941, Parten used his knowledge of the oil business to greatly increase the university’s income from its oil holdings, and fought tenaciously for academic excellence and freedom of speech for students and faculty. When democracy was threatened during World War II, Parten was a dominant figure in the development of the “Big Inch” and “Little Inch” pipelines, which stretched from East Texas to the East Coast and provided critical fuel for the victorious Allied war effort. In 1945 Parten served as chief of staff for the U.S. delegation to the Allied War Reparations Commission in Moscow and later participated in the Potsdam Conference in Berlin.
A lifelong Democrat of moderately liberal cast, Parten was a player in state and national politics, often crusading on the liberal and losing side of elections and issues. In 1950 he helped establish the Fund for the Republic in an effort to counter threats to basic civil liberties during the Red Scare of the 1950s. His support for the Texas Observer and for sometimes unpopular politicians and ideas brought important liberal ideas to the local and national stage. As a generous philanthropist and political activist—often behind the scenes—Parten supported world peace and opposed nuclear weapons and the Vietnam War. A man who stood firmly behind his beliefs, Parten was a quiet doer in a culture that is more likely to recognize the flamboyant gesture. He held fast to his principles, but as a lifelong learner he was always willing to change. J. R. Parten was a man who made a difference.