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Joe Walter : an Appreciation

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Geosciences alumni of the University of Texas from the late 1940's and early 1950's were a remarkable cohort. They were brought up in a Texas transitioning from 'cows and cotton' to industry and petrochemicals. They were forged in the twin crucibles of depression and war, and whether or not they were directly touched by those events, their characters and values were guided by broader historical lessons. They were trained by excellent faculty and mentors to think about geology with precision, preparation, persistence and innovation - particularly the latter. Geology at this time was in the midst of a major transition as well - from an observational to an analytical science, and new technologies (another unintended consequence of war) would soon enable major theoretical and practical breakthroughs.

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Joseph Charles Walter, Jr., or Joe as he was widely known, was a Houston native, the son of Gladys Hoskins and Joseph Charles Walter, Sr., an oil and gas landman, so from a petroleum geology perspective, he started with certain advantages. Born on October 7, 1927, he completed Lamar High School and graduated from UT Austin with a Petroleum Engineering BS degree in 1949, and an MA in Geology in 1951. His thesis, done under R.K. DeFord, was titled Paleontology of the Rustler Formation, Culberson County, Texas, and identified Permian invertebrates, among which was Derbya sulcata Walter. n. sp., now the image on the bookplate that bears his name.

Joe Walter working on his thesis

Combining his petroleum engineering background with a paleontology study demonstrated the acuity of Joe's analytical foresight. It led him to an expertise in both hydrocarbon fluids and the unique rock materials that contain them as specific products of spatial, temporal, and biological processes.
Joe and Elizabeth Walter

Joe's career started ordinarily enough, as he did a six year apprenticeship with Jersey Standard/Humble, honing his analytical skills further in evaluating oil reserves - crucial training for his later successes. During this period, he made two significant life changes, marrying Elizabeth Cowden from Midland (BS, UT Austin, 1951), and deciding that he did not want to spend his life behind a desk buried in a huge company.

Walter family Walter family

In 1957, after daughter Carol Walter Looke and son J. C. Walter III (Rusty) were born, Joe set up shop in association with his father's business, Houston Royalty Company. Within the span of a few years, Joe Sr. and his partner Irwin Smith died, Joe (Jr.) and his partners bought controlling interest in, and later merged with, Royalties Management Co. from Tulsa. This gave him the capital base to begin his real enterprise - exploration for oil and gas.

Joe in the office Company Logo










As detailed by Jack Donahue in "The Finest in the Land", Joe's excellent skills and preparation in assessing reserves served him well. His new company, Houston Oil and Minerals, went public in the late 1960's. After flirting with the refining business, Joe took a long shot on a gas play in the Frio of Galveston Bay and got a big boost, permitting the company to go international. Again, Joe was successful, working the North Sea, Africa, Middle East, South America and Australia, where he got into and out of the coal business. At the same time, writes Donahue, Houston Minerals Corp., a subsidiary, was building the fourth largest mineral position in the US. Meanwhile, the company got into and out of the Baltimore Canyon play without losing money, and the little startup now had five divisions and 1400 employees. Joe Walter, by this time suffering from heart disease, was stuck behind a desk at a big company, and exactly where he did not want to be. In 1981 he arranged a merger with Tenneco, had a heart transplant at Methodist Hospital performed by Dr. Jimmy Howell, and attempted to retire, but within two years, as head of Walter Oil and Gas and president of the Petroleum Club in Houston, he was back making deals.

Joe in front of containerWalter announcement Joe in charge

Between that time and his death June 14, 1997, Joe continued his business interests with Walter International and Walter Oil and Gas International, but he also had time for other pursuits. He has been widely acknowledged as a major force behind Houston's Methodist Hospital and Methodist Health Care system, and St. Luke's United Methodist Church. He loved to hunt birds on his 'farm' near Brownwood; he was an avid woodworker, and, the crux of our tale, a great friend of the University of Texas at Austin. Joe received many honors from The University of Texas, and has given us many as well.

Liz and Joe hunting Joe and Carol hunting Family Hunting

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Joe's University of Texas at Austin awards and honors include:

Distinguished Graduate (Engineering) 1977

Distinguished Graduate (Geology) 1984

Distinguished Alumnus 1985

Hall of Honor (College of Natural Sciences) 1995

Hall of Distinction (Geology) 2006

Walter family donations include:

Seven endowed chairs, professorships, and scholarships in Engineering and Geology

Houston Oil and Minerals / Walter Faculty Award

JC Walter Jr., and EC Walter Geology Library Endowment

Renovation funding for Walter Library from the Walter Family

It is the last two items to which I particularly want to draw attention. In 1984, when the Walter's endowed the Geology Library, the collection was strong, but the worlds of geology, publishing, and academic libraries were poised on the brink of enormous changes. The Walter gift gave the Library the opportunity to reach for excellence and growth at the very time when market forces caused the geological sciences and most university libraries, including The University of Texas, to begin to shrink. 1985-1995 was a hard time for libraries in particular, with prices going up fast, expensive technological developments, constricting budgets, and painful decisions every budget cycle. The Walter's analytical foresight allowed their namesake collection to forge ahead into new thematic areas and wider coverage, and these ambitions drew more resources, particularly from the Barrow family, the Chernoff family, and many alumni who benefitted from this great information resource and wanted to give back.

In 2001, when Jack Jackson's initial gift was put to work to add on to the Geology Building, Elizabeth C. Walter Keeney, Carol Looke and JC Walter III (Rusty) stepped forward again with funding to renovate and refurbish the Walter Library - further positioning it as the earth sciences information source to beat for the 21st century.

So Joe, described by his peers as the archetypal wildcatter, made his own luck one last time, with the quiet foresight and thoughtful generosity that were his trademarks. We who benefit daily from this collection are thankful to Joe, his family, and his friends - our alumni and supporters, for all they have done.

DRT/ July'08

Portrait of Joe Walter by Gittings
Copyright by Gittings, used with permission.

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Donahue, Jack , 1984. The finest in the land : the story of the Petroleum Club of Houston. Houston : Gulf Pub. Co., 336pp.

Murray, Thomas J , 1974. "The Quiet Wildcatter" Dun's v.103, #6 (June), pp.64-67

Sterba, James P. , 1977 "Houston Oil: a Skyrocketing Wildcatter Comes of age", New York Times , Nov. 6, p.F-3.

Texas Alliance of Energy Producers Presents the Houston Legends honoring J.C. Walter, Jr., Judge E.E. Townes and Herman P. Pressler, Jr. Master of Ceremony Therman Andrews. 11/1/2005, 4pp.

Walter, Joseph C, 1951. Paleontology of the Rustler Formation, Culberson County, Texas. Thesis (M.A.)--University of Texas at Austin. 93pp.

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