February 3, 2020

For as long as he can remember, Tom Kelly ’53 ’55 has been immersed in the oil and gas business.

“I grew up in the oil industry,” he said. “As a kid, I was painting oil tanks or working on a rig. I loved it—and I still do to this day.”

But for Tom, “growing up in the oil industry” meant growing up as the stepson of one of the world’s most renowned petroleum geologists and wildcatters: Michel T. Halbouty ’30.

A mere six weeks after receiving his degree from the then Agricultural and Mechanical College of Texas, Halbouty discovered the 150 million-barrel High Island oilfield near Galveston. Then, in 1957, he became the first independent petroleum producer to adventure into Alaska’s unexplored areas. His reputation as a fearless adventurer and enormously successful wildcatter cemented his place in history—and in lore.

While some children try to escape the shadow of famous parents, Tom enthusiastically followed in his stepfather’s footsteps. Through business sense, subject knowledge, political involvement and an uncanny ability to spot and act on promising opportunities, Tom has made his own indelible mark on the oil and gas industry.

Like Halbouty before him, Tom is also leaving a legacy of a different kind: Gifts to the Texas A&M Foundation by Tom and his wife, Cyd, will help countless students afford a petroleum geology education at Texas A&M University, preparing them to make their own contributions to the fossil fuel industry.

Making His Mark

Cadet Tom Kelly '53 '55 poses for his senior Texas A&M portrait.

Growing up in Houston, Tom always knew he’d be a petroleum geologist like his stepfather.

“I got indoctrinated at an early age,” he said, “but I’ve loved everything about it.”

For Tom, attending Texas A&M was part of that plan. While he knew he would get a first-rate education, he didn’t foresee the mentor relationships that, in many ways, proved even more valuable than the classroom experience. “We had great professors who took tremendous individual interest in each student,” he said. “I found them incredibly encouraging, particularly when I reached the graduate student level.”

Among those many outstanding geology faculty members, Tom said, were Professor Travis J. Parker and Department Head Shirley A. Lynch, who influenced Tom’s enthusiasm for petroleum geology as a profession. But it was Professor Fred Smith, his graduate supervisor, whom he remembers most fondly. Tom spent many nights sleeping on the Smiths’ porch, after long, hot summer days in the field, followed by strict grammar corrections to his thesis by Fred’s wife, Odette, who was an incredible English teacher.

After earning his master’s degree, Tom spent two years conducting national security and counterintelligence operations in the U.S. Air Force. In 1956, he went to work as an exploration geologist for Conoco but left that job two years later and joined a new company: Halbouty Alaska Oil Company in Anchorage, Alaska.

It was during his nine years working for the Halbouty Alaska Oil Co. that Tom became friends with Wally Hickel—a larger-than-life figure who would rise from a Kansas tenant farm to become a self-made millionaire, governor of Alaska and U.S. Secretary of the Interior.

Tom and Hickel’s friendship was based in great part on their common vision for Alaskan statehood and growth, and for development of its resources by and for the Alaskan people. Hickel appointed Tom as the state’s commissioner of natural resources in 1967. Two years later, North America’s largest oil field was discovered on state-owned lands. Tom planned and presided over the largest oil and gas lease sale (to that point in time) of Prudhoe Bay leases, which netted the state of Alaska nearly $1 billion and brought the state out of near bankruptcy. This laid the groundwork for the Permanent Fund that pays all Alaskan residents a handsome cash dividend annually, something unique to Alaska.

After three years as commissioner, and a regime change, Tom decided to set out on his own. For 27 years, he shared his exploration, conservation and development know-how as a geological consultant, primarily helping native Alaskan corporations manage natural resource development matters on tribal lands.

A Perfect Partnership

By the time Tom and Cyd met in Houston, he was a widower with four grown children. They married in 1992, and she and her two children followed him to his home in Seattle. Tom was without an administrative assistant at that time and Cyd stepped in to fill the role for what was supposedly a two-week timeframe while Tom found another assistant. Nothing happened and Cyd has been his partner in life and business ever since.

Almost three decades later, the couple still marvels at the role fate played in their partnership. Cyd mastered accounting skills while working in Houston’s Galleria complex real estate office. Later, she served as an administrative assistant for two PricewaterhouseCoopers international tax partners who specialized in oil and gas taxation. She also handled the personal oil and gas investments of one of those partners. 

“Everything I did was beneficial down the road,” she said. “My prior careers prepared me to work with Tom.”

Another Kind of Legacy

When Halbouty passed away in 2004, he left a legacy both as a petroleum geologist and as a Texas A&M benefactor. In terms of his own legacy, Tom continues to provide gifts to the Foundation. He and Cyd have endowed two petroleum geosciences scholarships and one graduate student fellowship.

Tom Kelly believes in the future of the fossil fuel industry and Texas A&M's role in its importance.

While proceeds from the graduate fellowship are already helping Texas A&M students afford their education, the Kellys recently decided to enhance this endowment through a planned gift. By remembering the Foundation in their will, the couple will double the size of this endowment. And, by giving in the form of a charitable bequest, they retain full use of their assets during their lifetime while supporting Texas A&M students with a portion of those assets after they’re gone.

Dr. Julie Newman, professor and department head for the Department of Geology and Geophysics, explained the long-term impact of the Kellys’ gift.

"Graduate fellowships invest in our future because graduate education in geology is fundamental to the discovery of new knowledge about the Earth and its resources. The graduate experience in the Department of Geology and Geophysics at Texas A&M prepares students to lead our field. Contributions like this change lives and build careers. This generous gift will have a lasting impact for years to come." 

By pledging a planned gift that will enhance their already-established graduate student endowment, the Kellys feel they will both impact the lives of more students and, in doing so, bolster the future of the petroleum geology field.

“I’m still heavily partial to geosciences, and I think there’s a lot of life left in the fossil fuel energy business,” Tom explained. “Hydrocarbon resources are used for so many things besides fuel that there simply won’t be a time when we won’t need them. I’m all for renewable resources, but I don’t believe the fossil fuel industry is anywhere close to dead.”

To learn more about making a planned gift by including Texas A&M in your will, contact Angela Throne ’03 at athrone@txamfoundation.com or (979) 845-5638. For more information about making a gift to the College of Geosciences, contact Gary Reynolds ’88 at greynolds@txamfoundation.com or (979) 219-2944. 


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