Chet Upham

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Chester Robert Upham, II
Texas Republican State Chairman
In office
Preceded by Ray Barnhart
Succeeded by George W. Strake, Jr.
Personal details
Born (1925-05-19)May 19, 1925
Mineral Wells
Palo Pinto County, Texas, USA
Died Mineral Wells, Texas
Political party Republican
Spouse(s) Virginia Frances Lee Upham (married 1946-his death)

Barbara Lee Upham
Mary Kathleen Upham, M.D.
Chester R. Upham, III

Richard Lee Upham (deceased)
Parents Chester Robert and Ida Irene Upham
Residence Mineral Wells, Texas
Alma mater

University High School
University of California at Los Angeles

University of Texas at Austin
Profession Oil and natural gas business
Religion Christian Church

(1) Some of the oil wells drilled by Upham in the late 1940s were still operating at the time of his death early in 2008.

(2) Upham's term as chairman of the Texas Republican Party (1979–1983) coincided with the first administration of Governor Bill Clements, the first GOP chief executive in Texas since Reconstruction.

(3) In addition to business and politics, Upham was involved in aviation and ownership of Loveland Ski Area in Colorado, the first to use "artificial" snow.

Chester Robert Upham, Jr., known as Chet Upham (May 19, 1925 – January 24, 2008),[1] was an oil and natural gas businessman from Mineral Wells, Texas, who served as the chairman of the Texas Republican Party from 1979–1983, corresponding with the first gubernatorial administration of his friend, William P. "Bill" Clements, Jr. Upham was a delegate to every Texas state Republican convention from 1960–1994 and to the national conventions of 1972, 1980, 1984, and 1992. He was a member of the Business Council organized by Governor Rick Perry.[2]

Family background and early years[edit]

Prior to 1900, Upham's grandfather, David A. Upham, came to Texas from Pennsylvania to work on a drilling rig at a time when there were only three such structures in the world. David Upham soon owned and operated what became the fifth rig in existence. Upham Oil and Gas originated in 1914, when David Upham heard about the emerging field in Ranger, located between Fort Worth and Abilene, Texas. In 1917, the senior Upham drilled his first natural gas well in Palo Pinto County. A few years later, David Upham's son, Chester R. Upham, Sr., came to Mineral Wells, the seat of Palo Pinto County, and two men purchased the Consumer's Gas and Fuel Company, a natural gas operation. In 1925, the company extended service to rural communities within Palo Pinto County. In 1926, the company was renamed the Brazos River Gas Company, which served fifteen communities. In 1950, the name was again changed to Upham Gas Company.[3]

Chet Upham was born in Mineral Wells but moved with his parents, Chester and Ida Irene Upham, to southern California. He spent his teenage years in Beverly Hills and graduated from University High School in Los Angeles, where as a youth he met numerous actors.[4] Before he returned to Mineral Wells to launch the new oil and gas company, Upham, Sr., had operated a neon sign business in California, when such operations were new. Upham, Jr., attended one semester at the University of California at Los Angeles before he dropped out to join the United States Navy during World War II. Commissioned an ensign, he served from 1943–1946,[4] with eight months at sea, having been released thereafter to the United States Naval Reserve.[2] His graduated in 1945 from the University of Texas at Austin, where he procured his Bachelor of Science in mechanical engineering after three and one-half years. He was a member of the swimming team and Phi Gamma Delta fraternity.[4]

Business success[edit]

The Baker Hotel in Mineral Wells, Texas, where the Uphams lived during the 1940s

After the war, Upham lived briefly with his parents at the landmark Baker Hotel in Mineral Wells.[2] In 1947, he joined his father in the management of Upham Gas Company. After his father's death in 1956, Upham Gas Company was sold and became Southwest Gas, which also handled the distribution system for the city of Mineral Wells.[3] According to Chet Upham's family, some of the first wells that Upham drilled were still in production at the time of his death in 2008.[2]

In 1956, Upham launched Upham Oil & Gas Company, an exploration and production company still in operation. In January 1977, Chester Upham, III, known as Robert Upham, joined the company and became its operations manager. The firm maintains wells in Palo Pinto, Parker, Jack, and Wise counties and natural gas processing plants in the nearby communities of Chico and Strawn, Texas.[3]

Upham was a past president of the interest group, the Texas Independent Producers & Royalty Owner’s Association, the recipient of the 1990 Chief Roughneck Award, and a member and director of the North Texas Oil and Gas Association. He was formerly a member of the Interstate Oil Compact Commission and the Natural Resources Petroleum Council. He was a founding director of Palo Pinto Municipal Water District No. 1 and the Palo Pinto Area Foundation. He was also a director of the Mineral Wells Area Chamber of Commerce. He was a former member and director of the conservative Mountain States Legal Foundation.[2] He was co-owner of Upham Development Company, a commercial real estate business, in California. He was also a director of City National Bank in Mineral Wells and a former regent of the University of Texas.[4]

Active in aviation, Upham flew his own plane until his health made that impossible. He then hired a pilot to transport him around the country. On December 16, 1946, Upham wed the former Virginia Frances Lee, who was born on February 24, 1924, in Phoenix, Arizona.[4] She was a stewardess for American Airlines prior to their marriage.[2] Upham used his background in engineering and oilfield compressor technology to introduce the first artificial "snow-making" to Colorado[5] in 1984, a system now used by almost all major ski areas. His resort, Loveland Ski Area,[6] is still independently-owned by his family and operated by his widow. Loveland "consistently has the best 'snow' conditions in Colorado," the family maintains. Upham and Loveland general manager Otto Werlin (1926–2008), conceived the idea of artificial snow from observing the pumps and compressors being used to dig the nearby Eisenhower Tunnel, built between 1968 and 1973 on Interstate 70 under the Continental Divide.[5]

Political matters[edit]

Upham was named Texas Republican chairman in 1979, when Ray Barnhart of Pasadena resigned to join the Clements administration as one of the then three members of the Texas Transportation Commission. During the Clements first term, Upham worked closely with the administration, but Republican growth remained slow even with the statewide victory of Ronald W. Reagan in Texas in 1980. In 1983, blamed for poor Republican election showings, Upham was replaced as GOP chairman by Houston oilman and philanthropist George W. Strake, Jr., who had been the unsuccessful nominee for lieutenant governor in 1982 on Clements's failed reelection ticket. Strake lost to Democratic incumbent Bill Hobby, also of Houston, whom he attempted to brand in the campaign as a "liberal." Texas Monthly magazine later reflected that "squabbling and demoralized Republicans turned on" Upham mistakenly as "a postelection scapegoat."[7]

Upham was an admirer of Ronald Reagan, whom he described as a man of principles who did not waver in his beliefs: "The thing about Ronald Reagan so many of us were so very, very proud of is that he didn’t worry about the polls," Upham told the Mineral Wells Index newspaper.[2] He claimed in a 1983 interview with The Washington Post that former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, who was unseated by Reagan in 1980, "pushed" the Texas oil and gas industry "into the Republican Party. There's no question about it. The principles of the Republican Party are more akin to the things that oil and gas people are seeking."[8]

Even as his chairmanship ended, Upham continued to work to nominate and elect various Republican candidates over the years, including Ed Hargett,[9] a former football star, who failed in a 1985 special election for the United States House of Representatives from East Texas. In 2002, Upham and later GOP state chairman Thomas Pauken worked to nominate former State Representative Kenn George of Dallas County, who lost the primary for Texas land commissioner to the current holder of the office, then State Senator Jerry E. Patterson of Harris County.[10]

State Representative Jim Keffer from House District 60 said that Upham "shepherded Texas into a vibrant two-party system, giving many Texans a voice in government for the first time."[2] State Senator Craig Estes of Wichita Falls, representing District 30, likewise called Upham "a legendary pioneer in helping to grow the Republican Party of Texas."[11]

Death and legacy[edit]

After a five-year struggle with bone cancer, Upham died in the Palo Pinto General Hospital in Mineral Wells. In addition to his wife, he was survived by daughters, Barbara Lee Upham, formerly Barbara Kemp, and Dr. Mary Kathleen Upham, and son, Chester Robert Upham, III, and his wife, Lori. A second son, Richard Lee Upham, preceded his father in death. He had five grandchildren and two great-granddaughters. Services were held in the First Christian Church of Mineral Wells, where Upham was a member. He is interred at Woodland Park Cemetery in Mineral Wells.[2]

Mineral Wells Mayor Clarence Holliman, who left office on May 20, 2008, described Upham, accordingly: "He was a giant among men that always kept an humble spirit and that was just who he was . . . a tremendous support system for me with his wisdom, with needed resources or just somebody that you could sit down and enjoy a conversation with. I count it a privilege and a blessing to be counted among his friends." When asked what one word could describe Upham, Holliman replied, "'Real' in every sense of the word, because no matter who you were, Mr. Upham was always Mr. Upham. … Whether it was someone he worked with or just met, he was always the same."[2]

Upham donated in 2007 to U.S. Senator John McCain's presidential campaign. His son was an active donor to the successful reelection of Republican U.S. Senator John Cornyn of Texas in 2008.[12]

On May 19, 2008, the first "Chet Upham Day" was posthumously proclaimed on his birthday in Mineral Wells. U.S. Representative Mac Thornberry of Clarendon sent a statement to the event: "In business, [Upham] left an indelible mark on the oil and gas industry, contributing greatly to the economy and job base of Palo Pinto County. . . . Today, Chet is being honored for the many contributions and lasting achievements, not only in the state and area, but in the hearts of so many people … All who have benefited from his efforts have been blessed as we have experienced the epitome of excellence, leadership and character."[13] Gayle Gilmore of the staff of State Representative Jim Keffer said that Upham "was a Republican when it wasn't cool to be a Republican."[13]


  1. ^ "Social Security Death Index". Retrieved January 20, 2010. 
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Lacie Morrison, Upham's death mourned by local, state political leaders," Mineral Wells Index, January 25, 2008
  3. ^ a b c "Upham Oil and Gas Company, LC". Retrieved January 30, 2010. 
  4. ^ a b c d e "Chester R. Upham, Jr.: Curriculum vitae". Retrieved January 30, 2010. 
  5. ^ a b "Otto Werlin (1926-2008) Hall of Fame Nomination" (PDF). Retrieved January 30, 2010. [dead link]
  6. ^ "Loveland Area Ski Owner Chet Upham Dead". Retrieved January 30, 2010. 
  7. ^ Texas Monthly, February 1986. Google Books. Retrieved January 30, 2010. 
  8. ^ "Michael King, "It All Leads Back to Texas", June 18, 2004". Retrieved January 30, 2010. 
  9. ^ "Mineral Wells, TX, Political Contributions by Individuals". Retrieved January 30, 2010. 
  10. ^ "Kenn George for Texas Land Commissioner". Retrieved January 30, 2010. 
  11. ^ "Senator Craig Estes statement on the passing of Chet Upham". Press release. Retrieved January 30, 2010. 
  12. ^ "Chester Upham: Political Campaign Contributions, 2008". Retrieved January 30, 2010. 
  13. ^ a b Libby Cluett, "Legacy living on: Upham honored on special day in special way," Mineral Wells Index, May 24, 2009
Preceded by
Ray Barnhart
Chairman of the Texas Republican Party

Chester Robert "Chet" Upham, II

Succeeded by
George W. Strake, Jr.