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Oil Legend Got Start In Artesia

By Leslie Linthicum
Copyright 2007 Albuquerque Journal; Journal Staff Writer
    Robert O. Anderson, a legendary New Mexico wildcatter who built a stake in an Artesia oil refinery into one of the country's largest oil companies, has died.
    Anderson, whose name graces the business school at the University of New Mexico, was 90 when he died Sunday at his home in Roswell.

Robert O. Anderson dies at age 90 in Roswell.

    Anderson was a Chicago transplant who went to Artesia in eastern New Mexico in 1941 to get a start in the oil business and eventually built AtlanticRichfield Co., known as ARCO, into the nation's sixth-largest oil company.
    He served as chief executive officer of ARCO for 17 years and chairman of the board for 21 years— overseeing the audacious Trans-Alaska pipeline project and discovering the largest oil field in North America— before retiring at the end of 1985.
    Anderson was as comfortable in a business suit and bow tie at his company headquarters in a Los Angeles skyscraper as he was in a cowboy hat and boots on his New Mexico cattle ranch along the banks of the Rio Hondo near Picacho.
    Even with immense wealth— he owned thousands of acres of ranchland, farms, feedlots, office buildings, a boot manufacturing business and an eight-bank holding company— Anderson remained down-to-earth, happiest puttering around his ranch in one of his many battered Stetsons, inspecting cattle.
    "With all his wealth and accomplishments, he always measured his true success by his family and his marriage to his wife, Barbara," said his son Phelps, who also is an oilman in Roswell.
    R.O. and Barbara raised seven children and were married for 68 years.
    She was with him at their home in Roswell— along with some of his children, his two dogs, a roaring fire and a Christmas tree— when he died Sunday evening, Phelps Anderson said.
    Gov. Bill Richardson ordered flags to fly at half-staff in memory of Anderson and called him "an outstanding New Mexican."
    Richardson, in a statement, said Anderson would be remembered "for his impeccable reputation in the oil industry and his dedication to civic and environmental issues. He has left an everlasting impression on the petroleum industry and New Mexico."
    Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., called Anderson "a rare individual whose life and contributions went well beyond energy and business."
    "There is a Bible verse that says to whom much is given, from him much will be required," Domenici said. "Robert understood this and actively parlayed his business success to education, civic and charitable causes. That will be his lasting legacy."
    Anderson was born in Chicago in 1917 into a family with a connection to the oil industry. His father, Hugo, was an oil and gas banker.
    Anderson got a taste of the oil fields during summer vacations when he worked as a pipeline maintenance worker near Corpus Christi, Texas. After he graduated from the University of Chicago in 1939, Anderson went to work for the American Mineral Spirits Co., a Chicago-based oil company.
    With a $50,000 loan and a desire to get his hands dirty in the oil business at the ground level, Anderson moved to Artesia in 1941 and bought a one-third share in a small refinery. He built that business by buying other refineries and in 1945 moved the business headquarters to Roswell.
    In 1957, he hit it big, discovering the Empire-Abo Field in southeastern New Mexico and, in 1963, merged his company with the Atlantic Refining Co. of Philadelphia.
    In 1965, he became chairman and CEO of Atlantic and merged with Richfield Oil of Los Angeles, creating the giant AtlanticRichfield Co.
    Anderson was in charge of ARCO when the company discovered the Prudhoe Bay oil field on Alaska's North Slope in 1968, the largest oil field ever discovered in North America. He led the movement among a group of energy companies to build the 800-mile Trans-Alaska pipeline from the Arctic Sea to the Gulf of Alaska.
    After he retired, Anderson returned to the Hondo Valley and created Hondo Oil & Gas Co. in Roswell, where he served as CEO until retiring in 1996.
    Although oil and ranching were his loves, he also was an art collector and philanthropist. He founded the International Institute for Environment and Development in London and served for more than 20 years on the board of the Aspen Institute.
    His name is familiar to most New Mexicans through the business school at UNM, which was named the Robert O. Anderson School of Management.
    Above all, he was a family man. Although he had suffered a stroke and his health was failing, he visited his ranching operations and his sons' Sun Valley Energy Co. as recently as two weeks ago.
    "He was a fantastic father," his son Robert said. "He was generous, he was funny and he was supportive."
    Robert said the family plans a public memorial service sometime after the New Year's holiday.
    Anderson is survived by his wife, seven children, 20 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.