By Andy Reiger, CNHI News Service
Harold Hamm looks out from his office and adjoining Continental Resources boardroom atop the converted Youngblood Hotel in downtown Enid. He points out the Garfield County Courthouse, a nearby baseball field, railroad tracks and other city landmarks.
“We’re really kind of a Norman Rockwell kind of town,” says Hamm, Continental’s founder, CEO and chairman of the board. He’s as recognizable here as a Rockwell painting, having ridden the ups and downs of the oil business here for more than 40 years.
Before he began his successful career as an oil wildcatter from Enid, Hamm called Cleveland County home. Born in a small farmhouse five miles north of Lexington, Hamm often missed school to help pick cotton. He traveled to Texas following the harvest with his family. At age 5, their house burned down and they moved into town.
“When I was a little kid, we sometimes didn’t start school until Christmas or the first freeze, whichever came first,” he said. “It was hard to catch up.”
He’ll do some catching up Friday night on the stage of the Gaylord Family-Oklahoma Memorial Stadium. OU will award honorary degrees to Hamm, former ambassador Edward Perkins, historian David McCullough and Tulsa business and civic leader Walter H. Helmerich III.
Hamm and his wife, Sue Ann, are founding donors of Oklahoma Diabetes Center on the OU Health Sciences Center campus. He was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes and sought the best doctors for treatment.
“It just kind of struck a note with me. When that happened, I wanted to get to the best doctors and facilities and get instructions but really there wasn’t one. It is such a terrible disease and there was not the kind of research being done that will find a cure.”
At the same time, OU President David Boren had the vision of a world-class diabetes center on the HSC campus. Research breakthroughs will come in an academic setting, Hamm believes.
But for him, education didn’t always come first. Hamm left home and school in Lexington at age 17 to take a job fixing flats and pumping gas at Potter’s Corner in Enid. He was in the middle of Champlin Oil country, where fortunes were being made in nearby fields.
He signed up for a DECA program in Enid. “I could work there as much as 60 hours a week and still go to high school,” he recalls.
He got his high school diploma, bought a truck and began an oil field service company. He drilled his first well in 1971. He found oil on his second try. He later finished college.
“I did it backwards. I made my fortune first then went to school,” he said.
He’s spent many years working to bring more higher education opportunities to Enid. He worked on a consortium to build a university center there, offering distance learning from existing campuses in northwestern Oklahoma.
“A lot of people can’t leave town to get an education,” he said.
Before the consortium’s efforts, only about 40 percent of high school graduates in the area went to college. Now, Hamm says the numbers are going up.
“That’s the brain trust for developing our future employees and citizens of Oklahoma. Now, we’re getting good, consistent growth.”
Hamm and his companies survived the turbulent ’80s through good planning, hard work and a little bit of luck.
“The ’80s were too good to be true,” he said. He sold a drilling company early in 1982, just months before the Penn Square Bank collapse.
When prices fell, he was able to use that cash to buy some properties cheap. He ventured north and west into the Rockies where oil is plentiful but harder to find and extract. He has about 400 employees in 12 states.
“We’re a different company than most,” he said “We’re the second largest producer of crude oil in the Rockies.”