Aug. 13–Permian Basin International Oil Show Honoree for 2016 Richard David “Dick” Gillham was an oilfield neophyte when he came to Odessa as a civil engineer in December 1952.
Confronted by the industry on its Texas-size scale, he worked as a roustabout and pumper and in well service units to learn the ropes and then worked in his father-in-law’s oilfield trucking company.
Gillham bought J.H. Marks Trucking and Marks Crane & Rigging 20 years later, embarking on the career that led to national heavy hauling awards and the presidency of the Centreville, Va.-based Specialized Carriers and Rigging Association.
“It was perseverance,” he said. “I don’t want to give up. Even on a wrong deal, you can come out in the right if you stick at it long enough. We had lots of ups and downs, booms and busts, but we introduced mobile cranes in the oilfield in this part of the country with cherry pickers and that sort of thing. It was innovative.”
The 88-year-old Hot Springs, Ark., native had been a cadet in the Army Reserve Officers Training Corps at the University of Arkansas, and he was a second and first lieutenant during the Korean War with the 969th Engineer Battalion at Lavigno, Italy, and Salzburg, Austria. He and his wife Iola have seven children, 20 grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.
Working from the 2400 block of East Eighth Street, Gillham had 30 trucking employees and 15 running cranes with projects in 15 states and six foreign countries, moving equipment as tall as 300 feet and as heavy as 500 tons into gasoline refineries and nuclear and coal degassification plants. He sold the businesses in the 1990s.
“You’d wake up at night thinking of all the things that could go wrong with that kind of weight,” he said. “I lost some sleep, but fortunately we never had any major accidents.”
A tall, athletic man who excelled at tennis and still tries to shoot his age in golf before each birthday, Gillham has been lucky with his health, chuckling to show his right thumb as evidence of the only serious problem he has had. “We were dismantling an Atlas Missile silo near Altus, Okla.,” he said.
“This boy and I were in the tunnel with a ladder. I got my thumb caught between two pieces of pipe, and the end of it was pinched off. I went to a doctor who I think was a veterinarian. He said he was going to cut the nail off, but he left some.”
Gillham’s nose had been broken previously, but three weeks before he was interviewed July 25, he broke it again when he fell forward while unloading a pickup.
Having developed an interest in blacksmithing and metal sculpture, he took a welding course at Odessa College in 1996 and began doing the sculptures that may now be seen throughout the city, including the red Odessa High School Broncho and black Permian Panther at the entrance of Ratliff Stadium.
His “Cosmos,” featuring discs from a heater treater at Permian Tank, and the ball-shaped “Molecules” help decorate the OC campus, and he enlisted Big Spring aviator Connie Edwards to donate enormous blocks of limestone from Edwards’ quarry to create an authentic Stonehenge replica at UTPB.
Gillham helped to secure the big Texas Longhorn sculpture at Fourth Street and Grant Avenue and the Chris Kyle Memorial for the renowned Army sniper at the Veterans Administration’s Permian Basin Community Based Outpatient Clinic at 8050 E. Highway 191 from artists Joe Barrington and Vic Payne.
“Some people resented it,” he said. “They just said Chris Kyle was a killer, but in my mind he saved a lot of American lives.”
Now Gillham is having brass plaques put on three 30,000-pound blocks of stone donated by Edwards to be placed at the memorial in recognition of its patriotic symbolism, the committee that organized its creation and the donors who financed it. “I don’t consider myself an artist or a welder,” he said.
“We don’t have a lot of natural beauty here, so anything anybody can do to make this community better is good.”
Two of the biggest days of Gillham’s life came last year with the presentation of the Odessa Chamber of Commerce’s Lifetime Achievement Award in September and the Oil Show’s Honoree Award in October. As the only lifetime achievement recipient since the late accountant Bill Elms was the first in 2006, Gillham said, “To be ranked up there with him was a great honor.
“People don’t realize what Bill did for Odessa. He was always in the background, promoting the city through the chamber and by any means. He was politically involved and politically savvy, prompting good people to run for office and working things out for the good of the community. Bill was very persuasive. He could talk you into things and make you think it was your idea.”
Asked what is the historical essence of the energy industry, Gillham said, “I’ve met a lot of people down through the years who would rattle the dice.
“The oil business is not a cinch, and they were willing to go out on a limb. Early people like Getty Oil and the Exxon people would take a chance. It didn’t always pay off, but they kept trying. Being the Oil Show Honoree meant a whole lot to me. It’s the business I worked in for 40 years, and it felt like a great honor by my peers.”
Gillham spends a good bit of time in his well-equipped 50-by-50-foot shop off Loop 338, and these days it’s in concert with Otis Hunter of Bowden Construction on twin “Prayer Trees” for the 9/11 Never Forget Mobile Exhibit coming to the Ellen Noel Art Museum Sept. 11.
With metal “branches” on six-inch flange beams to hold written prayers, he said, “Theoretically, the wind will blow them up to Heaven.
“God has been good to me,” said Gillham, a member of Westminster Presbyterian Church. “If it hadn’t been for God, I probably wouldn’t be here. A lot of times, we think we did it when somebody was up there helping us.”
UTPB Associate Art Professor Chris Stanley, who worked with Gillham on the Stonehenge project, said his transition from being an engineer and a company owner to an artist was not that big of a leap. “What he did for a living required a lot of creativity,” Stanley said.
“Assembling Stonehenge, it was like watching the master conductor of an orchestra with the tractor-trailers and moving overhead cranes in to pick those stones up and set them right where they were supposed to. I think it was a natural progression for him to become an artist.”
Stanley said a collaborative OC-UTPB metal arts program that he worked with Gillham on “was one of the greatest things ever done here.
“I have rarely been around such a person as Dick who can motivate large groups of people toward accomplishing a common good,” he said. “Watching him work on public art projects has been a master class in community-minded activism.”
Retired crane company owner Earl Johnson Jr. of Raleigh, N.C., called Gillham “one of the nicest people I ever met in my life.
“I don’t know anybody in the Specialized Carriers and Rigging Association who doesn’t respect him,” Johnson said. “Dick was hauling to oilfields when he took it to refineries, where he was about the only one in that area. Not many in our association could go to Odessa and take a job away from him.
“I had a battle with him on the tennis court for 10 years and finally gave that up. He is a great athlete and a prince of a guy.”
Former Odessa Mayor Larry Melton said Gillham “is a Christian first, a family man second and a community leader third.
“Dick was a sound businessman who sold his businesses and used his gain to put up various statues around town,” Melton said. “Most of them are his creations.
“He is a proven leader who is good at delegating. He always gets somebody to help him. He’s one in a million, a great guy. He always has something he is working on in his shop, and he does repairs for friends and calls on those who are ill. I don’t see him relax that much.”
Bob Campbell is a reporter for the Odessa American covering Religion and Lifestyle in the Permian Basin.
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