UCROSS, WYO. — An oil prospector must see potential and embrace risk, often in desolate locales.
Raymond Plank, a founder of Houston-based energy company Apache Corporation, had already earned his stripes as an oilman, when in 1967, he happened upon a dilapidated barn and ranch house in the grasslands on the western edge of the Powder River Basin. Plank bought the ranch — and eventually, with partners, some 20,000 surrounding acres.
Flash forward to the present: The Ucross Foundation, on the same site that once was once noteworthy for crumble and decay, is now a creative mecca, a retreat that attracts some of the nation’s most promising writers, visual artists, and musicians.
Annie Proulx worked on The Shipping News here, and Elizabeth Gilbert penned Eat, Pray, Love. The foundation’s list of fellows who have won top-tier national prizes stretches more than a page.
“Most of us would drive by and say, ‘Oh there’s a ruined ranch house,’” says Sharon Dynak, Ucross Foundation’s president. “Raymond drove by and said, ‘We’ll restore it and turn it into something relevant.’”
Turning thousands into billions
Raymond Plank — Yale graduate, World War II bomber pilot, uber-successful oil man — is now a full-time Wyoming resident, living in a relatively modest ranch-style home a few miles west of the Ucross artist colony.
His steady leadership of Apache led to a remarkable long-term return. He snapped up assets the oil majors deemed too small, made a significant find near Recluse, Wyo., and steered Apache clear of the financial engineering that sank other energy companies like Enron.
Apache was founded with capital of $250,000 in 1954, including a $5,000 investment that Plank made with borrowed funds. At the end of 2011, three years after Plank’s retirement, the company was worth $35 billion.
Plank now spends about 10 months each year in Wyoming. He also has a home on Lake of the Woods, in Canada, where he loves to go walleye fishing for several weeks each summer, and a fancy house in Santa Fe, N.M. that he almost never visits. “It’s the nicest one I’ve ever owned,” he says, “and I don’t give a damn about it.”
Here at Ucross, he can watch the shadows play on the sage and the tall cottonwoods outside his home in all four seasons, find intellectual stimulation by having dinner with the Ucross artists, add to the 10,000 books he’s read in his lifetime, and finish up the memoir he’s been grappling with for nearly 20 years.
“I like everything about it,” Plank says of life at Ucross.
A crusty art-lover
The walls of his Ucross home are adorned with quality art, including papyrus paintings from Egypt, where Apache Corp. has major operations. But Plank’s office has a different feel. Several tobacco pipes lay on his desk — a habit since his Yale days — a half dozen fine whiskeys sit on the bar that marks the office entrance, and a dozen shotguns hang on the wall.
“It’s like a slice out of a Hemingway novel,” says Joe Evers, a second-year law student at the University of Wyoming, who came to Ucross last fall with the school’s natural-resources law club for an informal session with Plank. (Evers, who hopes to perhaps go into the oil business himself some day, was sent away with one of Plank’s pipes — a “cool momento,” he says.)
“Complicated” is a word often used to describe Raymond Plank. He is founder of one of nation’s premier artist colonies, and a philanthropic entrepreneur who has given many millions to education causes. He has planted 20,000 trees on Ucross land, in a bid to offset the carbon impact from the ranching operations.
“He’s a crusty oil guy,” says Bill Huppert, a friend of Plank’s from Sheridan, and a regional president of First Interstate Bank, “but the arts are very important to him, and he’s a really good steward of the land.”
As for “crusty”? Many Ucross artists have captured ranch scenes over the years, but one they apparently missed was Plank driving around with a buddy in a Jeep shooting prairie dogs.
And during a three-hour interview at his home in mid-December, Plank can’t go more than 20 minutes without launching into an obscenity-laced rant about President Obama’s failed policies — on immigration, the budget deficit, his inability to rein in Wall Street excesses, and of course, his energy agenda.
“Wind power is gloriously subsidized, and so is solar power, and you still don’t get enough of it to light a popcorn fart,” Plank says.
A focus on philanthropy
The company Plank led for more than half a century is never far from his thoughts; during the interview, he sports a denim shirt stitched with an Apache logo. But as he prepares to turn 90 in May, Plank’s focus has shifted to his philanthropic legacy. He declines to say exactly how much he has given away, but notes that in his biggest year he made gifts totaling $25 million.
In addition to Ucross, Plank is also the founder of the Fund for Teachers, a Houston-based charity that provides summer fellowships for teachers so that they can pursue a passion and bring their experiences back to the classroom. Since 2000, the charity has awarded grants to nearly 5,000 teachers worth $15.9 million.
Teachers have used the funds to study ethnic minorities in China, conduct science experiments while kayaking the length of the Lower Mississippi River, and even to learn about paleontology at the Wyoming Dinosaur Center in Thermopolis.
“Raymond wanted teachers to be able to travel and see different parts of the world, rather than having to stay home during the summer to work a second job,” says Karen Kovach-Webb, executive director of the Fund for Teachers. “He knew if teachers had a broader view that students would benefit.”
The charity has tried to spark some interest in Wyoming, which is one of only about a dozen states in which the charity does not make grants. But education or community foundations are required to administer the selection process locally, and none have stepped up.
“We would love to be in Wyoming,” Kovach-Webb says.
Plank also founded Springboard — Educating the Future, a charity that has created 200 one-room schools In Egypt to educate about 7,000 girls with no previous formal education. And in 2009, he gave $2.5 million to Expeditionary Learning, a network of 165 innovative schools in 30 U.S. states.
He has also given millions to his alma mater, Yale, for its management, nursing, and forestry schools. The Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies has assisted Ucross in determining what shrubs and trees are best suited for the planting program on the ranch.
Ucross and Fund for Teachers will be the two primary beneficiaries of Plank’s estate, he says. He’s divorced from his third wife and now lives alone, and he has told his children and grandchildren that he does not intend to leave them so much money that they can coast through life.
“I used to say to the kids, I wouldn’t dream of denying you the opportunity to know the difference between working for a living, and having it handed to you,” he says.
A World War II Bomber Pilot
Plank grew up on a farm near Minneapolis, and enrolled at Yale in 1940. He signed up for the Civilian Pilot Training Program, and by late 1944, he was in the Pacific Theatre, taking aim at Japanese targets. He flew 40 combat missions as a pilot or co-pilot, and took hits on nearly half of them.
“How you got shot up and didn’t get killed I will never know,” he says.
Plank was stationed on an island near Okinawa in August 1945 when the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. Three days later, when air missions from his base were canceled a second time, he and a friend snuck off in a C-46 transport plane, gambling that another bomb would be dropped and they would see history in the making. That bet proved accurate, and after seeing the mushroom cloud rise over Nagasaki, the two quickly turned and headed back to base.
Plank credits his parents — his mother died when he was 15, and his father had only a 7th grade education — for instilling his philanthropic drive. They told him it was important to live an honorable life and give back to others. Seeing so many Americans die during the war also left an impact.
“I had the idealistic view that it was very important that those who had done so much to protect and defend the U.S. not have died in vain,” he says.
The birth of Apache
After the war and his Yale graduation, Plank opened an accounting business in Minneapolis, calculating that returning vets would be opening small businesses and would need help with their books. Among his clients were some wealthy Minnesotans who had invested in oil, and fallen victim to a drilling scheme that involved kick-back payments.
Plank tipped the investors off to the fraud, and they thanked him. Then they said they wanted to continue investing in oil, with Plank running the show. Plank didn’t commit right away — he knew almost nothing about the oil business.
“They said if you don’t know it, you damn well can learn it,” he recalls.
Apache was born in 1954. The company’s first major find came in 1967, when the Fagerness No. 1 well, near Recluse, Wyo., about an hour east of Ucross, flowed at 1,200 barrels per day. The find ultimately led to 24 productive wells, and vaulted Apache on to the New York Stock Exchange.
“Discovery is a wonderful thing,” Plank says. “The longest skein of dry holes I ever drilled was 19 in a row. But boy, if you hang in there and keep analyzing what you did wrong and learn from it, then when you do discover something in the oil business, it doesn’t have to have much relation to the profit-and-loss statement.”
The discovery near Recluse led to the purchase of the ranch at Ucross; Plank wanted a place to house shareholders who would be curious about the new field. “We figured that our investors were going to want to see what we were doing out here,” he says.
He also saw it as a chance to help preserve an important structure from the early days of the West. Big Red, the signature red barn at Ucross that was built in 1882 and had once served as the centerpiece of a vast ranching empire, had fallen into disrepair.
After restoring the barn and the adjoining ranch house, Plank held a brainstorming session about how to use the buildings. Heather Burgess, who would become his third wife, drafted the plan that resulted in the creation of the artist colony.
Since 1983, Ucross has hosted more than 1,400 writers, painters, dancers, musicians, filmmakers and other artists, including 63 from Wyoming. The artists come for a few weeks at a time and work in the ranch’s 10 studios — four for visual artists, four for writers, and two for musicians. The food is reportedly superb, and the artists can dive into their work amid the kind of isolation that is hard to find in the urban areas where most of them live.
Ucross fellows have won six Pulitzer prizes, four MacArthur Foundation “genius” grants and six National Book Awards, among other accomplishments.
Verlyn Klinkenborg, a Ucross Foundation board member known for his essays on rural life, says that with the possible exception of Lander’s National Outdoor Leadership School, he can think of no other Wyoming organization that has had a greater impact on the “larger world” than Ucross.
“It’s one of those things that is a little hard for people to understand,” says Klinkenborg, who has a brother who lives in Lander. “It’s an invisible transaction. The artists come and absorb something from Wyoming and then return it, but they don’t return it in an immediate and tangible way. They return it down the road in the nature of the work itself.”
Diluting the mission?
No artists were at Ucross in mid-December, but the heart of the ranch, at the intersection of Highways 14 and 16, was abuzz with construction activity. Several years ago, Ucross cleaned up a big junkyard near the intersection, and now the foundation is turning the nine-acre space into the “Park at Ucross.”
Ucross has planted hundreds of small trees in the park, and last summer the foundation opened a small nondenominational stone chapel. The latest construction will result in a library and museum that will feature some of the intertwined histories of Plank, Apache, and Ucross.
Some people close to the foundation, who asked not to be quoted, argue that the artist colony is the crown jewel at Ucross, and that Plank risks diluting that mission with these new projects. The fear is that the new projects will consume too much revenue at a time when the foundation could use additional staffing, including a full-time development director.
Plank says both the Ucross board and the artists say they value the land, and believe it is worth integrating with the artist’s retreat.
“I asked the board, what distinguishes Ucross from the other artist colonies that are well known?” Plank says. “And they said, ‘It’s the land. It’s the land.’”
The addition of the park, chapel, and museum also adds a more public presence at Ucross, which can sometimes seem cut off from nearby Wyoming communities, even though the foundation hosts a big July 4th fireworks bash at Big Red each year.
“The more we can connect with the community, the better, as long as we’re still preserving time and space for the artists,” says Dynak, the Ucross president.
Plank says he agrees that the foundation needs to diversify its sources of income, and he supports the hiring of a fund-raising director. But Ucross is hardly hurting. It has an endowment worth more than $17 million, and income from the endowment and from renting out the ranch provides the majority of the revenue needed to cover the foundation’s operating budget, about $900,000 this year.
By May, Plank expects his self-published memoir to be out, and he hopes to have a release party that coincides with the opening of the new library and museum.
Bill Huppert, who has fished with Plank at his much-loved Lake of the Woods home, doesn’t expect the memoir to be a swan song. “He can talk and visit at night until I’m just shot,” Huppert says. “I would be shocked if he doesn’t make it to 100.”
Karen Kitchel, a landscape artist, has twice been a fellow at Ucross, and she served on the artist selection committee for several years before ending her stint in November. Oil men are among her biggest collectors, she says, but most of them have narrow tastes and would never consider providing broad support for all sorts of artists, as Plank has done at Ucross.
“I believe people deserve to be evaluated ultimately by the size and the greatness of their vision,” Kitchel says. “This guy who founded and ran an oil company made an art paradise in the middle of the hills. That’s pretty great.”
Ben Gose is a Lander journalist who writes frequently for The Chronicle of Philanthropy and The Chronicle of Higher Education, and contributes to programs on Wyoming Public Television. He also coaches the sprinters on the Lander Valley High School track team.
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