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Hargis says Pickens’ gifts ‘changed how we thought about ourselves’

Boone Pickens Gift to OSU

OSU President Burns Hargis (right) embraces Pickens as Pickens heads to the podium for a speech. ROBERT S. CROSS/Tulsa World

T. Boone Pickens was one of the first people who urged Burns Hargis to become Oklahoma State University’s president.

Hargis said he has a clear memory of the moment. At an intersection in Oklahoma City, Pickens casually offered the idea about Hargis’ future. Hargis didn’t give it serious consideration then, but like many of Pickens’ visions, it turned to reality.

As OSU’s president, Hargis sees how Pickens’ donations have changed the campus community. Pickens, a mega-benefactor and energy tycoon who died Wednesday at 91, catalyzed a ripple effect with his colossal donations to his alma mater. Others followed with sizable contributions, but Pickens’ impact extended beyond the dollars pumped into university projects.

“I think the other important thing about his giving, though, was it changed how we thought about ourselves,” Hargis said. “I just feel like it gave us a confidence that maybe we didn’t have (before).”

When Hargis took office in 2008, at least three years after his conversation with Pickens in Oklahoma City, straightforward advice from Pickens guided him.

“You need to be the best recruit we’ve ever had.”

Pickens not only expected success from others but also created it. As OSU celebrated his 80th birthday in May 2008, he donated $100 million to endow faculty chairs. Hargis said the state matched Pickens’ contribution dollar for dollar, and other alumni soon followed with gifts.

“He gave so much money, but it really was that he wanted to give to things that would transform the university,” Hargis said. “He wanted them to really matter.”

Despite outside perceptions that Pickens was somewhat analogous to a king at OSU, Hargis said Pickens didn’t use his financial status to exert power over the campus. Hargis and Pickens didn’t always agree, and though Pickens wasn’t scared to speak his mind, he gave Hargis room to make the executive decisions about the university.

“I never saw him act like he was too good for somebody,” Hargis said. “He was a kid from Holdenville, and he never forgot it.”

Hargis and Pickens met in the late 1980s during a dinner party at then-governor Henry Bellmon’s mansion, but they forged a tighter friendship when Hargis served as a regent for the Oklahoma Agricultural and Mechanical Colleges of OSU.

Hargis reflected on stories that illustrate Pickens’ sense of humor and quick wit. Pickens, who had hearing loss as he grew older, once jokingly told Hargis not to raise his voice during a phone conversation. When Hargis pointed out that Pickens couldn’t hear, Pickens responded with a snappy remark: “I can hear you. I just don’t know what you’re saying.”

“He always had a comeback,” Hargis said.

Hargis said he and Ann, his wife, enjoyed dinner with Pickens a month or two ago. Hargis mentioned that Pickens was doing fairly well then, but his health had declined in the past few weeks.

When Pickens died, Hargis was on a flight across the Pacific Ocean. Hargis said he wished he could have made it back sooner, but he had been in China to visit OSU’s partner universities, carrying out the presidential job Pickens had identified for Hargis.

In Cowboy fashion, Pickens spurred others to give to OSU, whether they contribute through money, personal impact or both.

“He really has inspired a tremendous amount of support for the university,” Hargis said. “So as I look around and I see new buildings, the condition of our campus and obviously the athletic facilities, it’s just a real testament to his loyal and true passion for OSU.”