- Associated Press - Monday, January 11, 2016

LAFAYETTTE, La. (AP) - These days, Paul Hilliard roams the corridors of Badger Oil, four floors over Ambassador Caffery Parkway, past the photos and paintings and magazine covers that reveal the story of his long life and the oil and gas industry that he loves.

It would be hard to imagine Hilliard, ever vigorous and engaged in the world, without at least some grasp on the company controls. It’s a company he has built in the 1950s and over the past six decades, in a city that has ridden the highs and lows of the oil and gas industry roller coaster. These days, the industry struggles; it has struggled before. Hilliard, though, has survived difficult times before. The oil industry will prevail, he says.

In fact, the uncertainty of the industry is almost its charm.

“I find the oil and gas industry like a detective story,” he said. “Sometimes you catch the bad guy. Sometimes you don’t.”

Hilliard grew up far from the Oil Patch, in a rural northwestern corner of Wisconsin farm country, without a thought about being an oilman. Back then, he and his parents and two brothers simply weathered the Great Depression.

Hilliard’s escape from rural and small-town life came at 17, with World War II raging. His mother signed his paperwork for him to enlist in the Marines - his father had died four years before - and by February 1943, he was in uniform.

Marine life wasn’t so bad for a teenager who grew up largely without electricity and running water, he said: three square meals, free clothing and 50 bucks a month.

Marine life also granted him access to the GI Bill after he left the Marines in June 1946. He enrolled at the University of Wisconsin that September (hence, “Badger” Oil after the Wisconsin mascot) and transferred to a small college that’s now part of Syracuse University the following year. He squeezed three years of college into two calendar years and then enrolled in law school at the University of Texas, which altered its entrance standards for GIs like himself - no bachelor’s degree required.

Law school graduation left him with three choices: Two law firms were interested in him and so was Chevron Oil, which offered him employment in exotic New Orleans, working with leases and title searches at drilling sites. He needed the money - it paid $360 a month - to take care of the wife he married while in the Marines and their children. He was an oilman and never looked back.

He learned about the business end of oil; he learned how to pronounce “Atchafalaya.” He learned that he bristled, too, within the corporate structure. He took a position with Hunt Oil Co., which hired him to handle their Louisiana interests from Lafayette, but he became disenchanted with that structure, too.

He decided to work for himself. His office was in his family dining room, where maps stacked up. It was in his car trunk. It was wherever he worked.

In 1955, Cummins took the honorary role of the first LAGCOE Looey, the “face” of the Louisiana Gulf Coast Oil Exposition, which had recently formed in Lafayette. Fifty years later, Hilliard played the LAGCOE Looey role.

By the late ‘50s, Hilliard recalled, the oil and gas business was booming and Lafayette boomed with it. The town limits pushed south; Dwight Andrus Jr. was developing subdivisions everywhere, and the population soared. Oil was still cheap - it stayed at about $3 a barrel, natural gas at 16 cents, for Badger Oil’s first 16 years, Hilliard recalled, and President Eisenhower put import quotas in place to protect the industry.

Then came 1973.

That’s when the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries imposed an oil embargo against the U.S., Canada, Japan and The Netherlands. Oil became scarce, and what becomes scarce becomes more expensive. For over a decade, oil prices remained high and exploration companies flourished.

“We were using a lot of gasoline,” he said, because it was cheap. Hilliard himself drove an Oldsmobile that got about 10 miles to the gallon. He recalled a March 8, 1981 New York Times piece about Lafayette - “Lafayette, Louisiana: Home of a Thousand Millionaires” - that said with oil at $37 a barrel, the town was filled with people who lived a jet set existence - Acadiana style. Checking accounts were bursting and people were vacationing abroad and dining out, The Times said.

Two things could burst the bubble, The Times wrote: income taxes and lower prices. If OPEC could raise prices, they could lower them, too.

And they did.

In the 1970s and into the ‘80s, oil was up. In 1985-86, it crashed.

“You talk about knocking the hell out of the industry,” Hilliard said. U.S. rig counts fell from 4,000 to 600. Businesses closed. Lafayette swooned. The local economy went south.

And despite difficulties, in the ‘80s and more recently, Hilliard said, he has no regrets about his life as an oilman.

Especially meaningful from his Oil Patch career was the full knowledge that the industry creates and produces something of value.

At 90, Hilliard treasures his opportunities to participate in efforts that make the world a bit better.

He remains grateful for each day, he said, citing The Lord’s Prayer: “Give us this day our daily bread.”

“This day,” he emphasized. “He never went beyond that. Christ said it as a reminder that ‘this day’ is all we are certain of.”

“Yesterday is a canceled check,” he said, “tomorrow, a promissory note.

“Today,” he said, “is cash in hand.”


Information from: The Advertiser, https://www.theadvertiser.com

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