Major J. R. Parten (1896–1992), businessman, political activist, public servant, philanthropist, and university regent, lived a fascinating life that ranged from small town East Texas at the turn of the century to the capitals of the world. After studying at The University of Texas from 1913 to 1917, he served in World War I as the youngest major in the field artillery. He entered the oil business in 1919 and was a true pioneer in the industry, establishing numerous energy businesses that earned millions of dollars and employed thousands of people. While serving on The University of Texas Board of Regents from 1935 to 1941, Parten used his knowledge of the oil business to greatly increase the university’s income from its oil holdings, and fought tenaciously for academic excellence and freedom of speech for students and faculty. His leadership in the industry contributed to the creation of the Texas Railroad Commission, the primary regulator for the state’s oil industry which became the model for OPEC. When democracy was threatened during World War II, Parten was a dominant figure in the development of the “Big Inch” and “Little Inch” pipelines, which stretched from East Texas to the East Coast and provided critical fuel for the victorious Allied war effort. In 1945 Parten served as chief of staff for the U.S. delegation to the Allied War Reparations Commission in Moscow and later participated in the Potsdam Conference in Berlin.
Although he shared some characteristics with the stereotypical Texas oilman, Parten was a quiet gentleman, loyal to his friends, and a man of honor and principle. Little known during his lifetime, his accomplishments remain relatively unknown despite the fact that he played a number of historically significant roles in Texas and the nation, and counted numerous bigger-than-life characters as colleagues, associates, and friends: Huey Long, Sam Rayburn, John Henry Faulk, Lyndon B. Johnson, and Harry Truman, among others.
A lifelong Democrat of moderately liberal cast, Parten was a player in state and national politics, often crusading on the liberal and losing side of elections and issues. In 1950 he helped establish the Fund for the Republic in an effort to counter threats to basic civil liberties during the Red Scare of the 1950s. His support for the Texas Observer and for sometimes unpopular politicians and ideas brought important liberal ideas to the local and national stage. As a generous philanthropist and political activist—often behind the scenes—Parten supported world peace and opposed nuclear weapons and the Vietnam War.
J. R. Parten was actively involved in education throughout his life. In August 1952, he became a founding director of the Fund for the Republic, a program established by the Ford Foundation to provide grants in support of activities related to civil-liberties education. In 1959, Parten was involved in the establishment of the fund’s Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions in Santa Barbara, California, a “think tank” for the study of public policy, especially in regard to the civil-rights movement, academic freedom and student rights, constitutional reform, and international relations.
His relationship with The University of Texas—as a student, regent, and active former student—spanned eighty years. He served as a member of the university’s Development Council for more than twenty-five years, and he was a founding member of the Chancellor’s Council. In the 1970s, Parten joined C. B. Smith to provide funds to establish the university’s Walter Prescott Webb Chair in History. He served on the university’s Centennial Commission in 1983. In 1987, in recognition of his significant contributions to the university as well as his many civic and business accomplishments, The University of Texas Ex-Students Association honored Parten with its Distinguished Alumnus award. In 1988, he established at the university the J. R. Parten Chair in the Archives of American History, held by the Briscoe Center’s Executive Director, Don Carleton, and in 1990 the John Henry Faulk Fund for the Bill of Rights, another endowment benefitting Briscoe Center programs.
A man who stood firmly behind his beliefs, Parten was a quiet doer in a culture that is more likely to recognize the flamboyant gesture. He held fast to his principles, but as a lifelong learner he was always willing to change. J. R. Parten was a man who made a difference.