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Remembering When T. Boone Pickens Got A Brain Scan


Pickens, 2017.

Pickens, 2017.

Martin Schoeller for Forbes.

The oil and gas tycoon died in Dallas today at age 91. 

After T. Boone Pickens donated $11 million to the University of Texas Center for Brain Health in 2006, I convinced him that if he was going to give the center so much money he ought to at least get his brain scanned. 

Pickens not only took me up on the challenge, but allowed Forbes to print the subsequent MRI images in the magazine (see below). They showed how Pickens’ brain responded while he was asked to think about a series of questions (i.e. “Is a unicorn a living or nonliving thing?”). 

The scans revealed part of the secret to Pickens’ success: a brain about 30 years younger than his physical age. “I was truly astonished,” said his doctor, Denise Park, who entered his results in her clinical study. His brain “activated in places that young brains activate.” 

That made sense to Pickens: “I’d rather surround myself with sharp young minds than play golf and gin rummy all day.” 

He was a man who loved to be in the mix, and was still going strong in 2014 when at age 85 he invited Forbes to spend a week with him jetting around the country in his Gulfstream, accompanied by his fifth wife Toni (since divorced). Several times throughout the day he’d call into the office of his BP Capital hedge fund and say, “Whaddya got for me?” Before listening to an update on market action. 

It was a treat to witness his routine: rising at 6 a.m. to work out with his personal trainer — a mile on the treadmill, 50 situps, two sets of 20 squats while wearing a 60-pound weight vest. Standing on his treadmill, Pickens looked over at CNBC, which was doing a promo for an interview Pickens had scheduled with them that afternoon. He looked at me and grinned: “Is it clear to you yet that I’m trying to change the world?” 

Pickens did change the world. After starting his career with Phillips Petroleum he borrowed $2,500 in 1954 to launch his first oil company. He rolled that into Mesa Petroleum, which he took public in 1964. That was his vehicle for a series of hostile shareholder attacks on the likes of Gulf Oil and Unocal. “I prefer the term ‘shareholder activist,’” he said. He shook up boards, demanded changes, booked some profits. Some called it greenwashing. “I was right about corporate America,” he told me in 2014. “They really truly believed back there in the ‘80s that if you got to be CEO you owned the company.” 

Pickens overreached at Mesa, taking on too much debt to acquire assets. “I believed natural gas prices would bail me out,” he said. In the 1990s he was kicked out of the company by Fort Worth financier Richard Rainwater in a recapitalization of Mesa that led to the formation of Pioneer Natural Resources. 

No big deal. Pickens gave up liquor in 2000, dusted himself off and started over. In the 2000s he reemerged as a hedge fund manager, and as oil and gas prices surged in 2007 he built up a fortune of $4 billion and earned a place on the Forbes 400. “Of all the taxes I’ve paid, 90% of them were after I was 70,” he said.

“He’s a true role model for those of us entering the fourth quarter,” Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones told me about Pickens. “By the time you start the fourth quarter of a game, you’re banged up. Not pretty anymore. He entered his in one of the down times, in a serious depression. And he went from being broke to making several billion.” 

In 2008 he published, “The First Billion Is The Hardest.” Emboldened, Pickens waded into politics, backing the Swift Boat Veterans For Truth — a group of Vietnam vets who denied Presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry’s tales of wartime derring-do. Numerous vets rebutted his claims.

Deep into his fifth decade of dealmaking, Pickens literally tilted at windmills, launching his ambitious Pickens Plan to build $2 billion worth of wind energy projects. The recession, paired with the shale drilling boom, gutted both energy prices and Pickens' fortune. "I've lost two billion, given away one and I've got one left." He likely lost some more since then — Pickens had long been a proponent of natural gas for transportation use, and was the biggest investor in Clean Energy Fuels, which aimed to build a network of stations to fill up cars and trucks with compressed natural gas. It’s a niche, but hasn’t caught on. Clean Energy shares trade near a 10-year low. 

In recent years he continued to drill for oil on his Mesa Vista Ranch in the Texas panhandle, which has been on the market in recent years for more than $100 million. As a nostalgic lark Pickens years ago had acquired the house he grew up in and relocated it to the ranch from Holdenville, Oklahoma, 300 miles away. They even transplanted chunks of sidewalk with young Boone’s hand- and footprints in it. We toured the modest house, and he showed me a spot in the back of his bedroom closet under the floorboards, where he remembers stashing $286 from his paper route, until when he was 13 his mom made him take it to the bank. “I’ve always loved making money,” he said. “And since that first paper route, I’ve never been broke.”  

Pickens’ legendary stamina began to wane over the past two years after a series of ministrokes and a fall. He continued to be a reservoir of wit, and he and his team even contributed columns to Forbes.com. The best was this one: Ninety Years Of Lessons Learned, a handpicked selection of favorite “Booneisms” including: “A fool with a plan can beat a genius with no plan,” and, “Keep focused. When you are hunting elephants, don’t get distracted chasing rabbits.”

He is survived by five children and 11 grandchildren.


T. Boone Reborn
Forbes Christopher Helman
Inside T. Boone Pickens' Brain
Forbes Christopher Helman
Ninety Years Of Lessons Learned: T. Boone Pickens' Letter To The Class Of 2018
Forbes T. Boone Pickens



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The oil and gas tycoon died in Dallas today at age 91. 

After T. Boone Pickens donated $11 million to the University of Texas Center for Brain Health in 2006, I convinced him that if he was going to give the center so much money he ought to at least get his brain scanned. 

Pickens not only took me up on the challenge, but allowed Forbes to print the subsequent MRI images in the magazine (see below). They showed how Pickens’ brain responded while he was asked to think about a series of questions (i.e. “Is a unicorn a living or nonliving thing?”). 

The scans revealed part of the secret to Pickens’ success: a brain about 30 years younger than his physical age. “I was truly astonished,” said his doctor, Denise Park, who entered his results in her clinical study. His brain “activated in places that young brains activate.” 

That made sense to Pickens: “I’d rather surround myself with sharp young minds than play golf and gin rummy all day.” 

He was a man who loved to be in the mix, and was still going strong in 2014 when at age 85 he invited Forbes to spend a week with him jetting around the country in his Gulfstream, accompanied by his fifth wife Toni (since divorced). Several times throughout the day he’d call into the office of his BP Capital hedge fund and say, “Whaddya got for me?” Before listening to an update on market action. 

It was a treat to witness his routine: rising at 6 a.m. to work out with his personal trainer — a mile on the treadmill, 50 situps, two sets of 20 squats while wearing a 60-pound weight vest. Standing on his treadmill, Pickens looked over at CNBC, which was doing a promo for an interview Pickens had scheduled with them that afternoon. He looked at me and grinned: “Is it clear to you yet that I’m trying to change the world?” 

Pickens did change the world. After starting his career with Phillips Petroleum he borrowed $2,500 in 1954 to launch his first oil company. He rolled that into Mesa Petroleum, which he took public in 1964. That was his vehicle for a series of hostile shareholder attacks on the likes of Gulf Oil and Unocal. “I prefer the term ‘shareholder activist,’” he said. He shook up boards, demanded changes, booked some profits. Some called it greenwashing. “I was right about corporate America,” he told me in 2014. “They really truly believed back there in the ‘80s that if you got to be CEO you owned the company.” 

Pickens overreached at Mesa, taking on too much debt to acquire assets. “I believed natural gas prices would bail me out,” he said. In the 1990s he was kicked out of the company by Fort Worth financier Richard Rainwater in a recapitalization of Mesa that led to the formation of Pioneer Natural Resources. 

No big deal. Pickens gave up liquor in 2000, dusted himself off and started over. In the 2000s he reemerged as a hedge fund manager, and as oil and gas prices surged in 2007 he built up a fortune of $4 billion and earned a place on the Forbes 400. “Of all the taxes I’ve paid, 90% of them were after I was 70,” he said.

“He’s a true role model for those of us entering the fourth quarter,” Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones told me about Pickens. “By the time you start the fourth quarter of a game, you’re banged up. Not pretty anymore. He entered his in one of the down times, in a serious depression. And he went from being broke to making several billion.” 

In 2008 he published, “The First Billion Is The Hardest.” Emboldened, Pickens waded into politics, backing the Swift Boat Veterans For Truth — a group of Vietnam vets who denied Presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry’s tales of wartime derring-do. Numerous vets rebutted his claims.

Deep into his fifth decade of dealmaking, Pickens literally tilted at windmills, launching his ambitious Pickens Plan to build $2 billion worth of wind energy projects. The recession, paired with the shale drilling boom, gutted both energy prices and Pickens' fortune. "I've lost two billion, given away one and I've got one left." He likely lost some more since then — Pickens had long been a proponent of natural gas for transportation use, and was the biggest investor in Clean Energy Fuels, which aimed to build a network of stations to fill up cars and trucks with compressed natural gas. It’s a niche, but hasn’t caught on. Clean Energy shares trade near a 10-year low. 

In recent years he continued to drill for oil on his Mesa Vista Ranch in the Texas panhandle, which has been on the market in recent years for more than $100 million. As a nostalgic lark Pickens years ago had acquired the house he grew up in and relocated it to the ranch from Holdenville, Oklahoma, 300 miles away. They even transplanted chunks of sidewalk with young Boone’s hand- and footprints in it. We toured the modest house, and he showed me a spot in the back of his bedroom closet under the floorboards, where he remembers stashing $286 from his paper route, until when he was 13 his mom made him take it to the bank. “I’ve always loved making money,” he said. “And since that first paper route, I’ve never been broke.”  

Pickens’ legendary stamina began to wane over the past two years after a series of ministrokes and a fall. He continued to be a reservoir of wit, and he and his team even contributed columns to Forbes.com. The best was this one: Ninety Years Of Lessons Learned, a handpicked selection of favorite “Booneisms” including: “A fool with a plan can beat a genius with no plan,” and, “Keep focused. When you are hunting elephants, don’t get distracted chasing rabbits.”

He is survived by five children and 11 grandchildren.

T. Boone Reborn
Forbes Christopher Helman
Inside T. Boone Pickens' Brain
Forbes Christopher Helman
Ninety Years Of Lessons Learned: T. Boone Pickens' Letter To The Class Of 2018
Forbes T. Boone Pickens

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