With a swoosh the Gulfstream 550 is effortlessly launched into the heavens for the hour-long slingshot from Dallas to Stillwater, the sleek jet headed for Oklahoma State University and the football field bearing the name of our host -- Boone Pickens Stadium. The game against Kansas State University is spectacular, a record 58,750 fans roaring their (now) #2-rated Cowboys to an explosive 52-45 victory.
It’s hard to believe this stadium was the scene of the crime five years ago.
In 2005 the energy billionaire tycoon made a $165 million gift to his alma mater, and in some media circles, believe it or not, people were fit to be tied. “ABC World News Tonight,” with Elizabeth Vargas playing Concerned Anchor and Brian Ross in the role of Intrepid Gum-shoe Investigative Reporter breathlessly disclosed to the nation that this gift was an “audacious” abuse of a “loophole” in that year’s Katrina Relief Act. It was an “apparently legal” maneuver to reap an unfair tax benefit.
The New York Times had different reasons to be upset. When OSU re-invested Pickens’ gift into Pickens’ hedge fund, this was Wrong, Wrong, Wrong. It found one lawyer to say Pickens was “a rich man manipulating charity for his own benefit,” and another to ask, “Is it a conflict of interest? Well, probably.” This after being told Pickens had waived all fees and commissions.
Boone and I chatted about this at the time. “If only I’d used the money to build a couple of yachts instead,” he’d sighed sardonically. Boone responded to critics his way: he increased his giving. Reportedly his donations to OSU have hit the $500 million mark.
So anyway five years later we’re in Boone Pickens Stadium, in Boone’s box – yep, he has one of those, too – and there’s controlled pandemonium, with family, staff, university officials, friends (including a couple of octogenarian childhood mates), alumni and students swarming. The school is electrified. Boone’s money has brought real talent, both in coaching and players, with state-of-the-art facilities taken for granted at Ivy League schools, but heretofore unknown to rural communities like Stillwater. It’s paying off. OSU is in the hunt for a national championship.
Through all the commotion I spy a young black man in a wheelchair, clearly crippled. I watch as Boone’s wife Madeleine tenderly takes his hand in greeting and they chat: there’s a connection there. I make my way over to him to get his story.
It’s both tragic and beautiful. Nate Waters, 33, was 19 when he got into a fight with his mother’s boyfriend. That monster broke his neck. The doctors told him he’d never regain the use of any limbs, but Nate disagreed. Nate is brimming as he recounts this. This is a man who does not accept defeat.
But to do the proper rehab required regular visits to a clinic in St. Louis and a financial investment far beyond his means. So he reached out to others, over a hundred others. One by one all turned him down.
Discouraged and admittedly intimidated, he wrote “Mr. Pickens.” Who came through, assuming all rehab and equipment costs – over $80,000 to date. Nate is now Boone's guest in Boone's suite.
“Hope,” Nate says emphatically. “Boone gave me hope. I was on 'E' when Boone came into my life. For a business maven like Boone to identify with an inner city kid from Chicago like me, that was inspiration.”
Nate proudly waves the arms he was told he’d never move. “And I’m not done yet!” he beams.
I ask Boone if there are others. He shrugs. In fact there are others. An endless list of others. There are medical institutions nationwide funded by him. Brain centers. Cancer centers. Eye centers. Hospitals. For youngsters there are educational programs; for the elderly there are retirement communities; and in between for those in need there are all manner of shelters, mentoring programs, activity centers, meals-on-wheels and the like. Museums have benefited, so have public policy groups and botanical gardens too. And there is money – lots of money – for dozens of military groups, especially for wounded warriors. That one tugs fiercely at this man.
How much in all? I ask. Boone smiles and answers quietly, “This year we’ll hit the billion mark.” Yes, as in one billion dollars in gifting. “And since I turned 70 I’ve paid $700 million more in taxes.” Then he adds almost in disbelief: “And they’re saying I haven’t done my fair share?”
I don’t know if my old friend Boone considered ours a private chat. The hell with it. Think about this charity, you Occupied Do-Nothings, the next time you bash the 1% that have been so instrumental in helping you in more ways than you’ll ever know – or appreciate.