William Myron Keck

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
  (Redirected from William Keck)
Jump to navigation Jump to search
William M. Keck
William Keck.jpg
BornApril 27, 1880
DiedAugust 20, 1964
OccupationBusiness executive, philanthropist
Known forFounding Superior Oil Company and the W. M. Keck Foundation

William Myron Keck (April 27, 1880 – August 20, 1964) was an American oil entrepreneur and philanthropist. Founder of Superior Oil Company,[1] author Kevin Krajick has described Keck as "the world's greatest oil prospector, a man whose instincts about the location of petroleum were so uncanny, some believed him clairvoyant."[2] Keck established the W. M. Keck Foundation.[1]

Early life[edit]

William Myron Keck was born on April 27, 1880. After his father left home to work in the oil fields, he landed a job selling sandwiches[1] and candy[3] on the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad to support his mother.[1]

Oil career[edit]

Drilling as a speculator[edit]

In his younger years he became a "roustabout" in the oil business in Pennsylvania, before making his way to California. In California, he worked as a speculator drilling wells on contract for big oil companies. He often would take payment as leases instead of cash.[3] He struck oil in Huntington Beach[4] and in California's Kettleman Hills oil fields.[5] Keck was very successful as an oil prospector. In one instance at the height of the oil boom in the 1920s in Los Angeles, he was the only "wildcatter" to purchase a retain a lease on 300 acres of Andrew Joughin's farm outside Torrance. While other prospectors turned away from the property, Keck's "46 highly productive wells were considered one of California's most successful oil-drilling projects.[6]

Founding Superior Oil[edit]

By 1921, he had accumulated enough leases to start his own firm.[3] In 1921, Keck founded the Superior Oil Company in Coalinga, California.[7] The company focused on the exploration and production of oil and gas, and was involved with a number of new methods under Keck. Under Keck, in 1930 the company was the first to successfully use directional drilling in California.[8]

Author Kevin Krajick has described Keck as "the world's greatest oil prospector, a man whose instincts about the location of petroleum were so uncanny, some believed him clairvoyant."[2] He was one of the first oilmen to move his business to Houston, Texas,[5] and by 1931, his company had wells in Texas, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Louisiana and Venezuela.[3]

Growth of Superior[edit]

In 1933, under Keck the company was the first to use a reflection seismograph to help with finding hydrocarbons.[8] Keck was a "pioneer" in deep offshore drilling,[2] and in 1938, the company constructed the first offshore oil platform off the coast of Louisiana.[8] The first independent to drill offshore in the Gulf of Mexico,[5] he was the first to find commercial deposits in the Gulf of Mexico,[2] where he set consecutive records for the deepest-drilled well.[5] Running his company like a "one-man machine," he kept control of the company's stock after it went public.[5] The company also became the largest independent oil producer in the United States.[4] According to author Kevin Krajick, Keck also "practically ran the oil-rich nation of Venezuela."[2] Keck was an active stalwart of the oil lobby politically, in part through his attorney Harold Morton and lobbyist Monroe Butler.[6] Upon his death in 1964, his son William M. Keck Jr. became Superior's chief executive officer,[3] followed by leadership from his second son Howard.[9] He served as chairman of Superior. At one point, his fortune was estimated at $160 million, and at the time of his death, he and his family owned 51 per cent of Superior's shares.[10]

Personal life[edit]

He had several children: Willametta Keck, Howard Keck, and William M. Keck Jr.[3] In 1956, Keck purchased the historic Owlwood Los Angeles estate, installing a "24 carat gold bathroom sink feature shaped like an oil rig."[11] Keck died in 1964. Most of his estate was left to his three surviving children, and he also left five beneficiary trusts for USC, Stanford, Pomona College, Occidental College and the Church of Our Savior in San Gabriel.[3] In 1985, the gifts were sent to the five beneficiary institutions, with the New York Times writing that "four California colleges and an Episcopal church have received $40 million more from William M. Keck's trusts, bringing to $130 million the value of his bequests to those institutions." USC said it was the largest gift in its history, and Stanford said their sum was "the largest unrestricted bequest we have ever received." It was also the largest sum gifted to both Occidental and Pomona.[12]

Although his estate was estimated to be worth upward of $160 million, he died owing $36.4 million to three banks in New York and Texas.[13] He left his widow, Sylvia Jean Keck, with "$400,000 outright and trust income from 4,000 shares of stock valued at $6.34 million."[10] His two daughters and two sons were left "nothing specifically. They are said to be independently wealthy."[10] The family house was willed to the William M. Keck Foundation.[10] Another 11,000 shares of Superior stock, valued at $17 million in 1964, were placed in trust to be divided among the Southern California, Pomona College, Occidental College, and the Episcopal Church of Our Saviour, San Gabriel, California.[10]


In 1954 he founded the W. M. Keck Foundation,[7][8] one of the largest philanthropic foundations in the United States.[1] The organization has funded the W.M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii and the Keck School of Medicine at USC.[4] His foundation provided $70 million of the $87 million cost of the Keck Telescope on the summit of Hawaii's Mauna Kea volcano, which upon its start of construction in 1990, was to be the largest astronomical telescope in the world.[14]


  1. ^ a b c d e "Visionary Philanthropy: A Home Run!". W. M. Keck Observatory. Retrieved 28 April 2015.
  2. ^ a b c d e "Barren Lands: An Epic Search for Diamonds in the North America Arctic", Kevin Krajick, Open Road Media, Feb 2, 2016. Quote: "This was Howard Keck. Keck was not just any Houston oil billionaire; his father had been William Keck, the world's greatest oil prospector, a man whose instincts about the location of petroleum were so uncanny, some believed him clairvoyant. Starting as a penniless roustabout, he rose in the 1920s to found the Superior Oil Company. He pioneered deep offshore drilling, was first to find commercial deposits in the Gulf of Mexico, and practically ran the oil-rich nation of Venezuela. Even in his later years, when a drilling rig brought up a slimy core, old man Keck sniffed and tasted the rock to gauge the prospect."
  3. ^ a b c d e f g "Turmoil Plagues Wealthy Keck Family : Whodunit Reveals Problems of the Rich and Feuding", Edwin Chen, Los Angeles Times, March 19, 1989
  4. ^ a b c "William Myron Keck II, grandson of legendary wildcatter, dies at 72", Elaine Woo, Los Angeles Times, May 14, 2014
  5. ^ a b c d e "Wildcatters: A Story of Texans, Oil, and Money", Sally Helgesen, page 175, Quote: Keck started Superior after he made one of the biggest streaks of the 1920s, in California's Kettleman hills. William Keck then became one of the first oilmen to move his business to Houston, which at the time was not much more than an inadequately drained malarial swamp....William Keck was known throughout the company he had created as "the Old Man," and people called him that until the day he died. His character was strong and some said it was mean. His political views were fiercely conservative, but he was nimble and innovative when it came to doing business. He was the first independent to drill offshore in the Gulf of Mexico, and year after year he set records for the deepest-drilled well. He gambled on a big scale and earned Superior the epithet it still carries today, that of being "the Cadillac of the oil business..." William Keck ran his company like a one-man machine, and he retained control of the stock even after it went public.
  6. ^ a b "Big Daddy: Jesse Unruh and the Art of Power Politics", Bill Boyarsky
  7. ^ a b "Founder". W M Keck Foundation. Retrieved 28 April 2015.
  8. ^ a b c d "Founder", W. M. Keck Foundation
  9. ^ "Family Feud at Superior Oil", The New York Times, April 30, 1983
  10. ^ a b c d e "https://www.nytimes.com/1964/08/28/will-of-superior-oils-founder-reflects-lifelong-tax-wisdom.html", Robert Metz, The New York Times, August 28, 1964
  11. ^ "Inside the Historic Owlwood Estate in Los Angeles That Sold for $90M", Ariel Ramchandani, Mansion Global, October 23, 2016
  12. ^ "4 Colleges Share in Trust Gifts", The New York Times, April 14, 1985
  13. ^ "$160 Million Value Put on Keck Estate", June 30, 1965, The New York Times, June 30, 1965
  14. ^ "SCIENCE WATCH; Biggest Telescope", The New York Times, October 23, 1990

External links[edit]