How do you clear a room full of really old timers in Corpus Christi? You walk in and sit down and mention one name and almost immediately the room gets pretty quiet, pretty quick. One day recently I walked into a local café over near the refineries where I had heard that a group of old timers hung out and I walked out with a new understanding of the love and hate relationship that Corpus Christi and South Texas had with one legendary oilman.
“I am journalist here in town,” I said to the table of old timers across from me. “I hear there used to be an ol’ boy who made good for himself in this town and then got ticked off and left the place high and dry.”
“There has been a bunch of them,” one roughneck sipping coffee grinned.
“This one came into town without a pot to leak in or a window to throw it out of,” I said. “Give me a minute and I will think of his name. Pete? No, that is not it. George? No, that is that guy from San Diego. Oscar. That is it, Oscar, Oscar Wyatt.”
Almost immediately the mood of the place changed and you could immediately sense it. It seemed like even the waitress got a little uptight at the mention of the name.
“You guys just have to come in here and ruin a durned fine day,” one husky fella said as he asked for the check. “Look, you ain’t going to make no friends in this place talking about that (expletive) around here.”
But then again, I was not looking to make friends here as much as I was looking for answers to questions about a guy who may have very well been the most beloved or most hated man in town at one point in history, depending on which side of the fence you were on.
Oscar Wyatt was and still is a self-made man and while some say that he has a sketchy past, it seems to reckoned with that this man of many hats might have very well been the glue that held this community together for a period of time. But what happened when he basically sold out and left town?
Back in 1951 Oscar Wyatt, Jr. established a very small natural gas company here in Corpus Christi and that company eventually went onto become Coastal States. In the early 1960s, Wyatt would go onto purchase the old Sinclair refinery over off of the former “Refinery Road” in Corpus and it was there that he would make his billions. A series of changes, buys and sells would later develop the Coastal Corporation and a headquarters would be established in Houston. But Wyatt would remain very close to the city of Corpus Christi and many of the businesses that once were here were credited back to him and his interests.
It was no secret that Oscar Wyatt, Jr. made a ton of money and while the way that he ended up with it might be stuff of legends, Oscar Wyatt reinvested that money into the city—at least some of it. He was a donor to Little Leagues and he gave money to the school district and to the hospital district. He was friends with powers that be and the movers and shakers in town that had wheels that needed to be greased. But really, it seems that they were all more friends of him and for good reason—they needed his money to get by and they needed his political pull to make things happen.
Then one day something happened and there is not many folks know exactly what that “something” was. He frequented the old Dragon and deals were made in both the light and the shade. He had a lot of pull in this town but then “something” went wrong—way wrong.
Oscar and his social butterfly wife, Lynn moved full-time to Houston and they took their money with them and some here still believe that when Oscar Wyatt left town that is when this downward spiral really began.
My family history with Oscar Wyatt goes back to the 1960s where my grandfather Sidney worked for the man for over 30 years. It could be said that that my “Paw-Paw” knew Oscar Wyatt well enough and it seemed like he had a certain fondness for the man himself. In fact, when my grandfather passed away some years ago, dignitaries from Coastal and its subsidiaries attended his funeral. Oscar however, was just couldn’t find a place to land his Boeing 727 in Jourdanton or maybe he was freeing hostages in Iraq or something. But either way, Oscar Wyatt made sure to send a very personal message and very large spray to the funeral home. To those that knew Oscar well, it did not shock them that he would “not be able to attend” a close ally’s funeral, but nonetheless, he did send his love.
But what was it that caused Oscar Wyatt to leave Corpus and go over to Houston?
Oscar Wyatt knew that to run his pipelines and to run his refinery, he would need people and skilled people at that. He would give money to engineering firms, landmen, and other necessary people to help support his daily operations. He would work closely with financial powerhouses and he had money stashed away in just about every bank in town. City Hall knew him and his people on a first name basis and then one day he was just up and gone.
“Oscar was a crook that made promises to cities like Corpus Christi that he never came through on,” says Delany Hughes, who used to work at Coastal’s “Big Office” here in Corpus. “He was a generous crook. He was our crook.”
According to Hughes Oscar had a falling out with city officials and many of the people who he had once been friends with here in town. But what was the so-called “falling out” over anyway? Nobody really knows.
“Look, whoever says that Oscar Wyatt was a crook is a flat out liar,” said former Coastal Project Engineer Danny Stewart. “I remember when my child became severely ill and had to treated at Santa Rosa in San Antonio, Mr. Wyatt and his people made sure that we had everything we needed and we never went without a paycheck, either.”
Stewart says that while Wyatt is known to be a hard man to deal with, he believes that Wyatt has a heart of gold.
You did not double cross him and sadly, I think a number of people here did,” says Stewart. “These guys here in town today just can’t hold a candle to the great man that Oscar Wyatt was and still is.”
But there is one thing that almost everybody agrees too. When Oscar Wyatt sold his refinery here in town and most of influence went up the coast to Houston, the money and prosperity of Corpus Christi went right along with it.
Back in Oscar’s day all of those empty offices downtown were filled with something and business downtown was still pretty much booming. Cars parked on the street curb and wheelers and dealers of all kinds were going about their day trying to make their next fortune. Oddly enough, many of them were doing something that most businesses here in town are not doing today—keeping the money right here at home.
“The big corporations give the community peanuts and the little man doesn’t really care to give back and spend money like they once did,” says Billy Foster, another former “Wyattman” and engineer. “You could trace so much back to Oscar and his wheeling and dealing here and by-God they kept their money here in town instead of sending it off to other places.” Foster said that to him, that is the biggest difference.
I reached out to Wyatt to try and speak with him for this article but the now 95 year old businessman they say is just not keen on talking about what happened. They say that he just wants to let the past be the past and who could blame him for that? But one thing is certain: Corpus Christi certainly went downhill after Wyatt and his companies left town and only now does it seem like it is starting to recover—maybe.