Houston man makes a difference

H-Texas Magazine

A visionary maverick with a philanthropic soul, Raymond Plank arrived in Houston in the mid 1990s, bringing with him the company he founded in 1954. With the disgrace of Enron still slapping Houstonians daily, Raymond, the chairman of Apache Corporation, is a welcome change.

Early on in the scandal, Raymond said publicly of Enron’s management, “They ought to be breaking rocks in the hot sun.” His blunt, straight talk is just one of the reasons everyone loves Raymond. Growing up on a Minnesota dairy farm, he comments on his formative years by saying, “… the most important influence in my life other than my father was a man named Noah Foss. He was a Latin teacher, a towering figure who inspired, challenged and motivated countless young men at the small country day school that I attended in the 1930s. But for Foss, who gave me the focus and self-respect I needed, I wouldn’t have received an honors score on my college entrance exams. And, almost certainly, I never would have gone to Yale.”

Before Yale, he served his nation as a pilot in WWII. After college, Raymond and two partners began a small accounting services company in Minneapolis. That company became Apache Corporation. Today, Apache has $15.5 billion in assets scattered around the globe. Raymond told Business Week in 2001 one of the secrets of his success, “… when others zig, we’re zagging.”

From his very first paycheck, Raymond set aside money for teachers. He did it as a way of honoring his mother and Noah Foss. His private efforts morphed into a public charity, The Fund for Teachers. It provides grants of up to $5,000 for teachers of kindergarten through 12th grade for sabbaticals of their own design. Last year in Houston alone, 94 teachers from 71 schools received grants. Some of their stories can be found at www.fundforteachers.org.

When I first met Raymond, he was sporting a bright African knit cap. It was to support another educational effort; this one was half a world away. Springboard – Educating the Future, founded by Raymond and Apache, is currently building 36 schools for girls ages 6-14 in Egyptian villages. They are committed to building 200.

In May 2005, the world learned of this effort when the first ladies of the U.S. and Egypt, Laura Bush and Suzanne Mubarak, visited the first school. It is in Abu Sir, 10 miles south of the Giza Pyramids. The innovative, environmentally friendly design is being replicated for the other schools.

That he would make sure these schools work with the environment is vintage Plank. The Nov. 28, 2005, issue of High Country News says of Raymond, “He’s worked to protect Wyoming landscapes, consulting with a series of governors and working with the Sierra Club… The Ucross Foundation, which he founded, runs a 22,000-acre ranch near Sheridan that’s a model of holistic land management.”

The Ucross Foundation has an artist in residence program. Annie Proulx’s Pulitzer Prize novel, “The Shipping News” and Adam Guettel and Craig Lucas did some of their creative work for the Broadway hit “The Light in the Piazza” at Ucross.

A smaller version is now just up the road from Houston in New Ulm, Texas. In looking for a weekend retreat, Raymond found a beautiful vista with a house that was built in 1853. Rather than tear it down, he has saved Restoration House. Apache makes it available for groups during the day.

Plain words, support for education, respect for the world’s people and the environment are more of the reasons Houston loves Raymond. – Fran Fawcett Peterson H