The Self-Appointed Jester of the Oil Patch

WE DON’T HAVE TO CREATE eccentric characters. All we have to do is recognize them when they pass by, and they are always passing by. Oilfield Willie was and will always be one of my favorites.

An odd assortment of characters left their wayward footprints in the grease dirt of Kilgore’s streets.  Perhaps the most memorable was Henry Ralph Wooley, the self-appointed jester of the oil patch, a man known as “Oilfield Willie” when he wandered into town early in 1931.

He had gained fame as an unaffected, pure-in-heart backroads orator who, some said, always found the next road to the next boom, and, this time, the road had led him to the pines of East Texas.

Oilfield Willie could be found wherever oil was soaking the ground and the pump jacks were pumping.  Kilgore would be his last stop.

Willie never worked, and he could depend on his friends shoving few scattered coins in his pocket every now and then, and he had no enemies.

He was served free meals by almost every restaurant in town, and when someone once ridiculed him for not working a legitimate job, Willie simply glanced at the man’s lunch tucked under his arm, smiled, and said, “Well, you don’t see me carrying a brown bag to work.”

Wildcatters even had a habit of looking him up and giving him a handful of money for good luck before they drilled into the inner sanctum of the earth.  He’s not quite right, some said, but, then again, Willie was seldom wrong.

Photographer Jack Nolan had run across Oilfield Willie wandering the streets of several oddball oilfield towns, and he said, “Some folks think an unknown power guides him, but Willie claims to know everything.”

At least, he had an opinion on everything, especially politics, and he was never content to keep that opinion to himself.  Oilfield Willie staged mock political campaigns whenever he could find a forum that would listen to him, speaking on street corners and from the stage of the Crim Theater.

“What are you running for?” Willie would be asked.

“The county line,” he always answered.  It was a race he could win.

Willie elected himself by a single vote, his own, to the office of “Governor of the East Texas Oilfield.”  He always and humbly referred to himself as Governor Willie, and, as a Dallas Morning News reporter wrote, the governor, more likely than not, had a reputation for astounding his oil patch constituency with “brilliant flashes of logic.”

He stumped for “more oil wells but less oil, more beef but less beefing, and more rain but less mudslinging.” In 1932, Oilfield Willie ran for Governor of Texas on a liberal platform that called for ten dollar-a-barrel oil, ten-cent beer, no proration, cutting peace officers down to one gun, removal of all soldiers from the oilfield, bigger dance halls, higher skirts, and free roses for women.

When he launched a furious, no-quarter-asked-or-given campaign against E. O. Thompson for a seat on the Texas Railroad Commission, Oilfield Willie brazenly told the press, “I have the goods on Thompson and will expose the whole thing.  There will be plenty of fireworks and not a single fizzle. My minutemen have been busy, and they have a load of information – good and otherwise. I have been pledged support of the black shirts, blue shirts, and night shirts … And they plan a huge parade to be announced later.”

Willie promptly called for a joint debate and said that the honorable E. O. Thompson “can choose the joint.”

By the age of thirty-four, Oilfield Willie had conducted his last political campaign. He died in a car crash, and the Longview Daily News sadly reported: “Kilgore was different yesterday.  Governor Willie was gone.  Few men were better known among the oil fraternity than this court jester of the oil belt, whose antics and homespun humor were as East Texas as the derricks and slush pits he loved.”

He went to his final resting place as “Governor Willie.” Liggett Crim, a Kilgore oilman, paid for his burial and placed a marker above his grave remembering Willie as the chief potentate of his oil dirt empire, even if his staunch effort to rule over all of Texas had been cut severely short by a million votes or two.

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