Fort Worth

Texas businessman Marvin Gearhart, legend in oilfield service industry, is dead at 92

Marvin Gearhart sold his old company Rockbit Interantional and started a new company, Geo Gyro Navigational Services. He’s shown here in May 2005 with a gyroscopic orientation tool and stone used for calibration. Gearhart died July 20, 2019 at age 92.
Marvin Gearhart sold his old company Rockbit Interantional and started a new company, Geo Gyro Navigational Services. He’s shown here in May 2005 with a gyroscopic orientation tool and stone used for calibration. Gearhart died July 20, 2019 at age 92. Special to the Star-Telegram

When Marvin Gearhart graduated with a mechanical engineering degree from Kansas State University in 1949, the 22-year-old immediately began searching for work.

Gearhart penned letters to companies using addresses he found in oil and gas magazines. His letters explained he was looking for a job and he sent them to companies near and far.

One potential employer wrote him back, saying that if he ever came to Fort Worth, he should visit. Gearhart didn’t hesitate. He traveled from his home in Manhattan, Kansas, to Texas based on that invitation.

“My dad hitchhiked and rode on the back of a motorcycle all the way to Fort Worth and walked into this guy’s office,” said Dee Ann Stenberg, his daughter.

Gearhart stepped into the offices of Welex Jet Services on Fort Worth’s Hemphill Avenue and found work. He also began a career that helped make him a legend in the oil and gas industries across the globe. As he found success, he built up the community he called home, including supporting the creation of an engineering program for TCU while serving as a trustee.

Gearhart, 92, died Saturday at his Fort Worth home after suffering from vascular dementia. His death came weeks after his wife of 72 years, Jo Anne Gearhart, died.

A visitation is scheduled 7-9 p.m. Wednesday at Greenwood Funeral Home on White Settlement Road. People can share stories about their interactions with Gearhart from 7:30-8:30 p.m.

A funeral will be held at 2 p.m. Thursday at the University Christian Church. A burial will follow at Greenwood Funeral Home. There will be a presentation of the flag and bagpipes.

Stenberg said her father’s health declined after he lost his wife in June. The couple had been under hospice care in their Fort Worth home for several months. On Saturday, Gearhart shared the Lord’s Prayer with his daughter and listened to the song, “Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus,” before his death shortly after 8 a.m.

Family and friends said they will remember the entrepreneur as a father, business leader and friend who was as comfortable starting companies with global reach as he was doing magic tricks for children.

“Every person on Earth is unique. Some are much more unique than others; count Marvin Gearhart among them,” said William E. Tucker, former chancellor of TCU. “I admired him for his mind, for his work and for his commitments.”

From farmer’s son to engineer

Gearhart was forever fixing things, but his children remember him for his whistle and love of the harmonica.

“He loved life, and despite being bedridden for two years, when we asked how he was feeling, he often said, ‘Wonderful. I sure do love you!’” wrote Stenberg in a prepared statement about her father.

Gearhart was born in Shaw, Kansas, on May 13, 1927. He was the son of a farmer who also worked as a “pumper,” said Stenberg.

Pumpers fixed pumper jacks — those above ground devices that pull crude oil from the ground. Gearhart’s dad would check and fix these machines twice a day (after taking care of his farm duties).

“My dad remembered riding with him in the truck and watching him, since he was 3 and 4, fixing things,” Stenberg said.

Gearhart attended a one-room school house in Shaw through the eighth grade. Starting in the ninth grade, he attended nearby Erie High School, where he met his future wife. In 1944, he graduated in a class of 16 students.

“He talked about using his slide rule and he could always fix things,” Stenberg said, recalling how her father described high school.

Gearhart joined the U.S. Army after graduation. He stood out for his mechanical skills and the Army recommended that he take part in a college program that took him to Michigan State University and Colorado School of Mines. His learning was taking place as World War II was ending.

Stenberg said this was an immense source of pride for Gearhart’s father, who didn’t attend school past the eighth grade.

After military service, Gearhart married his high school sweetheart, Jo Anne, on Valentine’s Day 1947. The couple had four children in the course of a marriage characterized by support for each other’s interests.

Gearhart also completed his mechanical engineering degree at Kansas State.

“They had a lot of respect for each other,” Stenberg said. “My mother encouraged my father in the business.”

Taking on a Goliath

While Gearhart worked at Welex Jet Services, he met Harrold Owen.

Owen, who died in 2008, was a physics major at TCU. In time, they became close friends and then business partners.

In 1955, the two men established Gearhart-Owen Industries, Inc. That company, which grew to become the world’s third largest oilfield services company, evolved into Gearhart Industries Inc.

It was acquired by Halliburton in 1988.

Through the years, Gearhart established many small companies, but he became forever known for Gearhart-Owen, Rock Bit International and GeoLink Ltd., Stenberg said.

Gearhart was intrigued by figuring how to measure while drilling, Stenberg said.

Joe Keyes, a former employee and friend, said Gearhart’s greatest success came in the form of a David and Goliath story of ingenuity mixed with a competitive spirit.

Schlumberger Limited describes itself as the world’s largest oilfield services company. In 1977, the company had about $2.2 billion in sales with more than $400 million in profits, according to Encyclopedia.com.

It was around this same time that Gearhart stepped up the competition in oilfield services by using a digital computerized system instead of analog, Keyes said.

Schlumberger was trusted by oil companies and so it had a firm grip on the market, he explained.

“Nobody could compete with them until Marvin came along,” said Keyes, who worked for Schlumberger until he was wooed by Gearhart’s business acumen. “He took on this gigantic valuable company and he was able to compete with them on an international scale.”

Keyes said Gearhart grew the company by enlisting engineers from South America and other parts of the world. At his plant in Everman, employees were deeply loyal.

“Everybody at Gearhart, called him Marvin,” Keyes recalled, adding that Gearhart had a unique winning style that included magic tricks.

A humble leader

Ashok Bhatnagar began working for Gearhart’s Singapore-based oilfield services company in 1984. Gearhart had offices all over the world.

“He is known as a legend in our industry,” said Bhatnagar, an engineer who is originally from India.

Bhatnagar said he will never forget his boss’ human side.

“I can’t ever find a boss like him,” he said, explaining that Gearhart had more than 2,000 employees in the Fort Worth area and he knew everyone by first name.

When Bhatnagar experienced personal problems, Gearhart opened the doors to opportunity by helping his family relocate to Texas.

Later, when Gearhart was sold, Bhatnagar moved to Houston to work with Halliburton. In 2002, he lost his job with Halliburton. When Gearhart learned about it, he called his CFO and said: “I’m hiring Ashok today, but you start paying him from the day he lost his job.”

Steve Weis, an engineering professor at TCU, said that sounds just like the humble leader he knew.

“I will always remember him as a very genuine, generous person,” Weis said, adding that Gearhart seemed embarrassed when people talked about the good things that he did.

Weiss said Gearhart supported starting an engineering program at TCU in the 1990s.

“He was always in our corner,” Weiss said.

Gearhart is survived by four children and their spouses; 13 grandchildren and 14 great-grandchildren.

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Diane Smith, a graduate from the University of Texas at Austin, has been a reporter for the Star-Telegram since 1997. Smith, who has covered municipal government, immigration and education, has won multiple awards for reporting, most recently as part of a Star-Telegram team recognized by the Headliners Foundation of Texas for coverage of child abuse and Fort Worth’s Las Vegas Trail area.
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