Farmington oilman leaves legacy of kindness, integrity
FARMINGTON — An oil and gas pioneer who established his reputation drilling natural gas wells during the San Juan Basin's postwar boom is also being remembered for being a "true gentleman."
Better known simply as "A.B.," Ashton Blanchard Geren Jr., came to Farmington in 1952 and helped build the local independent oil and gas company D.J. Simmons Inc., working alongside his uncle David "Jack" Simmons until his death in 1969, and, later, for his aunt, Thelma Ford Simmons.
Geren, who led D.J. Simmons for six decades and drilled wells in nine states, died June 6 at the age of 94.
He got his start in the oil and gas business working on a seismic crew for Stanolind Oil & Gas Corp. in Midland, Texas. By 1986, Geren was at the helm of D.J. Simmons and acted as its only employee for years, according to John Byrom, D.J. Simmons' outgoing CEO and president.
"He did everything," Byrom said. "In this company, A.B. went out with the (U.S. Bureau of Land Management) to figure out where to drill the (well) site, he got the archaeologist out, he'd contract with a (drilling) rig. He was basically the well-site supervisor in addition to being the geologist. He did the whole thing."
Born in 1922 in Shreveport, La., Geren attended Texas A&M and earned a degree in geology in 1949. But, like many men of his generation, Geren was first shaped by World War II.
After basic training with the U.S. Navy where he bunked with former Sen. John Glenn, Geren later transferred to the U.S. Army Air Corp. He was a lead navigator and flew in bombing missions over Europe in the noses of B-17 Flying Fortresses, which were responsible for guiding fleets of B-17s to their targets.
Byrom said that of Geren's 30 bombing missions, the fifth one, which involved a midair collision with another bomber, stood out. The crash sent both planes into a tailspin. Byrom said Geren often talked about his military experience and recalled the collision event as recently as a few weeks before his death.
"He was flying over Germany, in B-17s, under attack from German fighters in bad weather, watching planes explode and fall out of the sky right next to him," Byrom said. "(A.B.'s) plane went into a spin. A.B. popped the hatch — they were over the North Sea — and he put his feet out of the hatch to jump as they went into a spin ... . The bombardier looked at the altimeter and said, 'We're at 10,000 feet. It's too early to jump.' A.B. told me the pilot flipped on the autopilot, which stabilized the plane."
The other plane and all of its crew members perished, but Geren's bomber managed to reach England where it crash-landed at an airfield.
"When you've been through stuff like that, you aren't worried about what might happen to you (in the oil patch)," Byrom said. "After that, it gave him the confidence to go drill wells. At one point, he drilled 100 wells for Jack in Louisiana one year. He got work done — he was known for it — and he always stressed honesty and integrity."
Jeff Parkes, D.J. Simmons' finance officer, said Geren was emboldened by his military experience. He said Geren proposed to the love of his life, Judith Lee Geren, a week after they met at a bridge game. They married in 1949.
The couple had two children — son James Blanchard Geren, a Chicago attorney, and daughter Dana Lee Schmitz, who teaches music at the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls, Iowa.
"He was active until the last few years," Parkes said. "He'd come in just about every morning. Even well into his 80s, he was in looking at lease sales, talking to our geologists."
In his corner office at D.J. Simmons, a library of geology and oil and gas hardcover classics such as Twenhofel's "Principles of Sedimentation," L.L. Nettleton's "Geophysical Prospecting For Oil" and "Manual of Determinative Mineralogy with an Introduction on Blowpipe Analysis" by George Jarvis Brush stand guard beside oil samples from wells Geren drilled.
Rolled-up, yellowed maps Geren consulted and a stack of vintage copper-colored mineral sieves that he used in the field fill a corner of the office.
"He never did retire, per se," Byrom said. "When I'd go visit him at Namaste (House Assisted Living), he'd want to talk about work. He was 90 when he was still coming to work. He just loved it — loved D.J. Simmons and he loved the oil and gas business."
Geren never let any clouds gather or stresses linger, Byrom said.
"A.B. never let situations stop him," Byrom said. "He just would pick up and move ahead. It's a trait of oil men: if you're going to be in this business, you have to be an optimist because you end up with a lot of failure because it's a risky business. Sometimes, it helps to be almost irrationally optimistic. The saying of his that I will always take with me, the saying he got from his Uncle Jack, was, 'That's water over the wheel.' He was always positive. Always telling jokes."
Parkes said that Geren kept a plaque in his office that summed up his view of the boom and bust nature of the oil and gas business that read, "Tough times don't last; tough people do."
An avuncular leader, Geren was respected and loved by employees at D.J. Simmons and its subsidiary Twin Stars. They treated him and each other like family, Byrom said.
"A lot of people in other companies would help him," Byrom said. "The engineers at El Paso (Natural Gas Co.) would tell him how to frack a well, for example. People always seemed to want to work with him. And A.B. was always willing to extend his helping hand to others."
Bob Culpepper, former Farmington mayor and city councilman, and his wife, Mary Culpepper, also have fond memories of Geren.
The Culpeppers knew the Gerens for more than 20 years and often camped and traveled together. They said Geren was a true Southerner who embraced being a New Mexican and loved the outdoors.
"He was a great person," Bob Culpepper said. "He was pretty optimistic, and he was all southern gentile, a very nice man. A true gentleman."
Bill Hall, a retired Farmington optometrist and friend, said he and Geren sometimes went hunting together. Hall said he remembers Geren's great sense of humor and his being an "all-around great guy."
Geren was also involved in the community. He served as president of the Lions Club and was on boards for the San Juan Medical Foundation and the Four Corners Regional Airport.
Oilman Tom Dugan arrived in Farmington the same year as Geren, and said he always considered him a friend.
In 2002, Dugan and geologist Emory Arnold published their book called “Gas,” which charts the area’s earliest exploration through four booms in one of the largest natural gas fields in the U.S.
Now 90, Dugan said he and Dorothy Winer, who helped edit "Gas," were at one time working on a biography of Geren.
"(Geren) ran his company really well," Dugan said. "He ran his company's leases well, and, for a long time, they were quite profitable, I'm sure. ... We weren't close friends, but we were friends. What little bit I worked with him, he was always good to work with. He was an outstanding guy and his story should be told."
A memorial to celebrate Geren's life is planned for 10:30 a.m. Aug. 12 at First Presbyterian Church, 865 N. Dustin Ave. in Farmington.
James Fenton is the business editor of The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4621.