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Oklahoma Memories

Dean McGee Remembered


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“Well, I had a detached retina. I never had had any trouble with my eyes. And I just woke up one morning with partial sight in one eye. ”

That’s the voice of Dean McGee explaining why he endowed the McGee Eye Institute. Dean McGee is remembered as half of the Kerr McGee Corporation that was headquartered in Oklahoma City until recent years.

From the Oklahoma History Center, this is Oklahoma memories. I’m Michael Dean.

Petroleum geologist and philanthropist Dean McGee was reverently known early in his career as "the man with a nose for oil. " He was born in Humbolt, Kansas, on March 20, 1904. After his graduation from the University of Kansas in 1926, he went to work for the Bartlesville-based Phillips Petroleum Company, starting in their Texas oil fields. By 1937, he had risen to the position of chief geologist. That’s when Robert S. Kerr noticed him, and offered him a position with Anderson and Kerr Drilling Company in Ada.

“By 1937, I had become chief geologist at Phillips, and liked very much my job. I liked the Phillips Petroleum Company and the people I worked with, but when the opportunity to join a small company and share in its growth came along, I looked on it as a challenge, really. Not because I was dissatisfied in any way with my progress or the people I worked with. ”

McGee’s ability to guide exploration activities while adding refining and distribution capabilities gave Kerr the luxury of running for public office, first as governor of Oklahoma, and then as United States Senator.

Following World War II, McGee began studying the ocean floor off the gulf coast and became convinced that at least one fifth of the world’s oil could be found underwater. Using Governor Kerr's political influence, the company acquired a surplus World War II barge, mounted a drilling rig on it, and pioneered offshore exploration. The one problem with off-shore drilling was something that wouldn’t be solved until long after his death, and was locating the exact positions of rigs out side the sight of land.

“So when we found these structures, and decided to build a platform, we had to make sure they were where we thought they were, so we went out and drove a pylon on the block 32 structure where we thought it was, then we went back and seismographed again, just to make sure it was there. You don’t realize the problem when you get ten or eleven miles off-shore in the water, trying to decide where you are geographically. ”

He was rewarded for his efforts when the company name was renamed Kerr-McGee & Company and by his promotion to president in 1946. By 1954, the company's board of directors named him chief executive officer.

In 1979, McGee remembered how important that decision to drill in the ocean really was:

“Discovery of oil in the ocean might have been a turning point for us, because it put us in the off-shore drilling business. And for a period of the early two or three years we were the only people in the off-shore drilling business. ”

Dean McGee died at the age of 85 on September 15, 1989.

The interview with Dean McGee was recorded in 1979, the 50th anniversary of Kerr McGee.

On June 23, 2006, Kerr-McGee directors agreed to a buyout by Anadarko Petroleum that involved moving the headquarters from Oklahoma City to Houston. The Oklahoma Historical Society, however, houses the complete collection of documents, film, and tape that chronicle the history of the Kerr-McGee corporation.

The Oklahoma History Center is located on NE 23rd Street just east of the state capitol in Oklahoma City.

Oklahoma Memories is a production of the Oklahoma History Center, dedicated to collecting, preserving and sharing our state’s past. I’m Michael Dean.