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Life of Texas oil man J. R. Parten subject of new biography

J. R. Parten, a small-town East Texas boy who grew up to lead one of the most remarkable careers in the 20th century, including service as chairman of The University of Texas System Board of Regents, is the subject of a new biography published by UT’s Texas State Historical Association and the Center for American History.

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AUSTIN, Texas — J. R. Parten, a small-town East Texas boy who grew up to lead one of the most remarkable careers in the 20th century, including service as chairman of The University of Texas System Board of Regents, is the subject of a new biography published by UT’s Texas State Historical Association and the Center for American History.

Through extensive research, unlimited access to Parten’s personal papers and numerous interviews, Dr. Don E. Carleton, director of the Center for American History, brings a new understanding to Parten and his accomplishments in his book, A Breed so Rare: The Life of J. R. Parten, Liberal Texas Oil Man, 1896-1992.Born in 1896, Parten attended the University from 1913 to 1917, then became the youngest major in the field artillery during World War I. He entered the oil business in 1919, and was a pioneer in the industry, establishing numerous energy businesses that earned millions of dollars and employed thousands of people. While he was on the board of regents (1935-1941), he used his knowledge of the oil industry to greatly increase the University’s income from its oil holdings. He also fought for academic excellence and freedom of speech for students and faculty.

Little known during his lifetime, Parten remains a relatively anonymous figure today, despite his historically significant roles in Texas and the nation. He counted numerous bigger-than-life figures among his friends, including Huey Long of Louisiana, President Harry Truman, Sam Rayburn, John Henry Faulk and Lyndon B. Johnson.

During World War II, Parten was a dominant figure in the development of the “Big Inch” and the “Little Inch” pipelines, which stretched from East Texas to the East Coast and provided critical fuel for the victorious Allied war effort. In 1945, he became the chief of staff for the U.S. delegation to the Allied War Reparations Commission in Moscow and later participated in the Potsdam Conference in Berlin. He also led the campaign in 1944 to reinstate Homer P. Rainey, who had been fired as president of UT Austin.

Parten was active in state and national politics as a lifelong Democrat, often crusading on the losing side of elections and issues. In 1950, he helped establish the Fund for the Republic to counter threats to basic civil liberties during the red scare of the 1950s. His support of the Texas Observer, and for sometimes unpopular politicians and ideas, brought important liberal ideas to the local and national stage.

As a generous philanthropist and political activist, Parten supported world peace and opposed nuclear weapons and the Vietnam War. Parten was a man who stood firmly behind his beliefs, a quiet doer in a culture that is more accustomed to the flamboyant gesture. But he was a lifelong learner and was willing to change when shown a better way. Carleton began work on Parten’s biography after conducting a series of interviews with him in the summer of 1983. Realizing the significance of his untold story, Carleton obtained Parten’s permission to use the interviews and his personal archives as the nucleus of the research for a full-scale biography, but went much further in filling in the story.

The result is “a masterful biography of one of the most important and influential Texans of the 20th century,” according to UT history professor Lewis Gould. “Anyone interested in the workings of the Texas oil industry, The University of Texas at Austin, and Texas politics generally must read this book. It belongs on the shelf of everyone interested in Texas history.”

For further information, contact George Ward at the Texas State Historical Association (512/471-1525) or Carleton at (512/495-4515).