Billy Byars, Sr.

From BoyWiki
Revision as of 02:04, 13 June 2021 by Sneeuwbol (talk | contribs) (→‎The November 22, 1963 Phone Call: Kiwanis, not Rotary)
(diff) ← Older revision | Latest revision (diff) | Newer revision → (diff)

Billy Byars, Sr. (1901-1965) was a Texas wildcatter, oilman and cattle breeder, underwriter of President Eisenhower's Gettysburg farm, friend of J. Edgar Hoover, and one of three men Hoover called the afternoon of President Kennedy's assassination.

Byars, Sr. is of interest here as the father of Billy Byars, Jr., owner of prominent naturist publisher Lyric International, and producer of the feature film The Genesis Children. The son may have inherited his father's flair for self-promotion, his telephone and handshake method of doing business with "someone who knows the ropes the way you do", his methods of reinvesting to avoid taxes, and a substantial fraction of his fortune, worth around $30 million in 1961, equivalent to about $260 million in 2020 dollars.

Texas wildcatter

Byars started life as as oil wildcatter. According to John Bainbridge, who combined a series of New Yorker essays on Texas millionaires into the book "The super-Americans":

... Among this group is Billy Byars. Like most players of his generation, Byars, who is fifty-nine, rotund, cheerful, unassuming, and astute, started earning a living early. “I went to the oil fields when I was fifteen, in December, 1917,” he says. I remember it was cold and muddy. Sleeping in tents. I was a roughneck, working on a rig.” After drifting from one oil-boom area to another, he managed to secure a half interest in a drilling rig, had luck in wildcatting operations, and went on to pile up thirty million or so.
"As in Byars’ case, the turning point in the career of most independents can be traced to the acquisition of a drilling rig ...” [1]

An interviewer of Byars, Jr. described his late father as "a Tyler, Texas wildcatter" and a friend of presidents and of Pancho Villa. She says "Starting with nothing, Byars, Sr. became a millionaire at twenty, went broke at twenty-one and hit millionaire status again by age twenty-five."[2].

The leading citizen of Tyler, Texas

Bainbridge says Byars was "an independent":

… the independents must sell their product if they want to sell it at all. B.G. (Billy) Byars, a prominent independent and the leading citizen of Tyler, Texas, has described the relationship succinctly: “Without the big companies, we couldn’t exist. They buy our oil and gas.”(p. 64)[1]

Hoover biographer Summers calls him "Humble Oil millionaire Billy Byars.”[3] A history through 1948 of Humble Oil (which changed its name to Exxon in 1973) lists not a single Byars among the founders, officers, or executives. [4]. Whatever his Humble connection, there is no question that Byars was a rich and prominent oilman.

Mr Byars adopted his son Billy, Jr, in 1936 and the next year, in the midst of the Depression, built a very substantial house in Tyler, Texas, where he was to live until his death in 1965 [5]. Bainbridge says the house had 16 rooms, describing it and other Texas millionaires' homes as modest in comparison with Gilded Age palaces.[1] Modesty is relative, "During the reign of their daughter, Betty, as Rose Queen, the back yard was used for several large parties, one of which featured a replica of the set from "Showboat." It was during this reign in 1959 that Ronald Reagan was guest speaker at the Rose Festival Men's Luncheon."[6]

Byars's office was in downtown Tyler, in the Citizens Bank Building.[2] Bainbridge describes Byars's office and routine:

A fairly representative inside operator is Byars, who, like most of his colleagues, particularly inside operators, is open for business by phone twenty-four hours a day. His operations usually begin when he receives an early-morning phone call at home from his secretary, who reports on the mail and other matters. Around nine o’clock, Byars gets into his station wagon and drives himself downtown to his office. On the wall behind his desk is an oil painting, of overwhelming dimensions, of an Aberdeen Angus bull, the late Prince 105 of TT, for which Byars and three other bull fanciers jointly paid the record sum of two hundred and thirty thousand dollars; on another wall is a reproduction of a painting of George Washington, simply framed, and inscribed, “For Billy Byars, Merry Christmas, 1954. Dwight D. Eisenhower.”[1]

In 1950, the "B. G. Byars Power Drilling Co." was listed among "concerns in the oil industry using Beechcrafts".[7] Bainbridge put the annual operating cost of such aircraft as $45,000 and up, depending on the model.[1]

Byars' obituary recalled that,"The Byars' visited the Eisenhowers at the White House in 1959 for a rest after their daughter, Emily Elizabeth, had reigned at Tyler's annual Rose Festival."[8] It also said that, "In addition to his business interests, Mr Byars served as a member of the board of directors of the University of Dallas and a member of the board of advisors of Northland College in Ashlani, Wis. He also served as an officer of the Edna Gladney Home in Fort Worth and was a former member of the Tyler Welfare Board. He was also a former president of Willow Brook Country Club and a member of the Tyler Petroleum Club, the Tyler Club, and the Dallas Petroleum Club.[8] His son Billy, Jr. was adopted through the Edna Gladney Home.

Business by phone and handshake

The informal manner of business of Byars, Sr. may have served Byars, Jr well when he entered a line of business where written contracts were unenforceable. Again we turn to Bainbridge:

As a rule Byars stays in his office until noon, handling correspondence, discussing deals with employees, and transacting business on the telephone. “At least fifty percent of our deals are made by phone,” he says. His afternoons are generally spent reconnoitering Royal Oaks, a twelve-hundred-acre ranch he owns, a few miles outside Tyler, where he raises prize-winning cattle. While there, he keeps on doing business by means of a dozen or so telephone calls. Almost all his contacts are with other old hands at the oil game. “Oilmen like to deal with other oilmen,” he said one afternoon at the ranch. “That’s because it’s easier to deal with someone who knows the ropes the way you do. People who aren’t in the game don’t know how deals work ...”


The oilman’s approach to business is genuinely casual, as is indicated by, for instance, the opinion that Byars once rendered on the value of a legal contract. “A contract in the oil business,” he declared, isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on. All it’s for is to remind you of the terms you agreed on.”


In the oil game, a handshake is considered as dependable as a contract. The principle is based on the old-fashioned notion, still in circulation on the frontier, that people can be trusted. “You put faith in a person,” Byars has said, “and if he’s halfway honest, he’ll come through.”[1]

Ninety percent tax bracket

Bainbridge discusses the tax breaks that are specific to the oil business, such as the "depletion allowance", and others for which other lines of business have analogs, such as the ability to offset losses in some wells against gains in others. He also goes into the sort of risk-taking that the 90% tax bracket produces:

A player in the ninety-percent bracket puts a hundred thousand dollars into drilling a well, and it is a dry hole; he may therefore deduct the entire sum from his gross income. With his income thus reduced, he pays the federal government ninety thousand dollars less than he would have otherwise; the venture cost him ten thousand dollars. He has lost, but he has had the fun of taking a hundred-thousand-dollar gamble at a sensationally low price.


… the widespread practice among oilmen of spending their tax dollars on further exploration and drilling. “What do they do with their money? Byars once said in discussing oilmen's income. "I'll tell you what they do – they put it back into the ground. Let’s say eighty percent of it is lost. But you have to remember money used like that is far from a total loss."(Bainbridge, p.74)

Some of Byars's non-oil activities, such as the Byars Royal Oak Farms, or the Gettysburg farm operated under lease from President Eisenhower, were on paper for-profit enterprises that happened to always lose money, though providing enjoyment.

Angus Cattle Breeder

He also owned the Byars Royal Oaks Farm in Tyler, where he raised Black Angus cattle.(Eisenhower papers, infra).

Byars, Jr. may have gained some of his showmanship from his father. LIFE Magazine devoted a full page of its April 12, 1954 edition to "BULL IN THE BEDROOM: Prize sire gets prize treatment in governor's suite of Texas hotel". The text informs:

... the world's most valuable beef bull [...] Prince 105TT, an Aberdeen Angus, is more comfortable in a barn. But recently Rancher B.G. Byars and four other Texans bought a half-interest in him [...] to welcome the bull to Tyler for a six months' stay, nothing short of a formal reception in the governor's suite at the Blackstone would do. The rooms were carpeted with hay, an elevator repairman stood by while the guest of honor rode up to the fourth floor, and a boy (right) stood by with a gold-plated shovel." [9]

The boy with the golden shovel was a black pre-teen dressed in an Arabian Nights outfit with a turban, large hoop earrings, open vest, cummerbund and skirt or harem pants. Time-Life's archive includes a photo of the bull, the boy, and four gentlemen, one of whom is certainly Billy Byars, Sr.[10] Besides earning a page in LIFE, Prince 105 TT's hotel stay was re-enacted a decade later in the Texas pavilion at the 1964 World's Fair.[11] Also partners in the bull was the prominent Wynne family, including Angus G. Wynne Jr., who built—and was bankrupted by—the Texas Pavilions.[11]

A young man holds the bull's lead in several of photos in the Life archive.[12] He bears a distinct resemblance to adult photos of Byars, Jr., who was 17 at the time, and where else would the elder Byars's son and heir have been on such an occasion? There is no evidence as to whether the flair for publicity was the father's or the son's, but the later career of Byars, Jr., suggests the bare-chested boy with the golden shovel may have been his idea.

Six months after the LIFE article, and possibly because of the resulting fame, Byars was invited to a White House dinner:

“Dear Mr. Byars: For the past several days I have seen a great deal of George and Mary Allen, who are visiting in Denver. George has told me so much about you and your venture in the raising of fine Black Angus cattle that although I am a stranger to you, I am tempted to write you a short note.”

“My feeling is that some day I should like a chance to sit down and talk to you for an hour or so about the matter, because when once I get out of public life I hope to indulge in a modest way in the raising of Angus cattle.”

“It is my habit during the fall and winter months to have periodic stag dinners at the White House. I wonder if you might be interested in coming to one of them during this season. If so, I could write to you later after my schedules are made out.”[13]

Even in the era when the Presidency was less imperial than at present, notes of this nature cannot have been commonplace. Byars did attend the White House stag dinner on November 22.(ibid)

"The most incredible scandal in White House history"

Byars' relationship with Eisenhower developed. A footnote in the 1956 Eisenhower presidential papers observes, "Eisenhower had written to Billy G. Byars of Tyler, Texas, on May 21, 28, and June 1 (AWF/N). For developments see no. 1892. "[14] Byars was involved in the selection and purchase of cattle for Eisenhower's Gettysburg, PA farm. "Eisenhower's partner, George E. Allen and his partner, Billy G. Byars, had given Arthur Nevins permission to purchase Black Angus cattle (Byars to Nevins, May 16, 1956; Eisenhower to Byars, May 21, 28, 1956; Byars to Eisenhower, May 29, 1956; and Eisenhower to Byars, June 1, 1956, all in AWF/N)"(ibid)

The showmanship apparent in hosting the bull in the hotel also shows up here. Byars orchestrated the gift of a calf to Eisenhower from him, his partner and 38 newsmen who covered the "Denver White House"; Byars sent along with the calf an elaborate chain engraved with the names of all the donors - which was too heavy for the calf to use, as President Eisenhower noted in a letter. But, the President of the United States did notice, which may have been the point:

A letter just received from Mr. Byars says that he sent the young calf along with George's heifers to the farm.3 He sent also a duplicate of a large chain he sent to me, but since it is too heavy for the calf to wear you will have to mark her some other way.4

3 For background on the George E. Allen-Billy G. Byars partnership see no. 1101. Byars had arranged to have Eisenhower receive two Black Angus heifers for his sixty-fourth birthday on October 14. The heifers were gifts from the Allen-Byars partnership, and the Denver White House newsmen. [...] (see Eisenhower to Byars, Oct. 18, 1954 [...]
4 Engraved on the bronze and steel chain were the names of the thirty-eight Denver White House newsmen who had presented the heifer to Eisenhower.[15]

Muckraking journalist Jack Anderson had a different view:

"As a measure of their boldness, three oil millionaires contributed to the upkeep of former President Eisenhower’s Gettysburg farm during his eight-year term. This certainly should be recorded as the most incredible scandal in White House history"(emphasis in original).[16]

Anderson describes how Texas oilmen leased and operated Eisenhower's Gettysburg farm,

… the new President entered into a fantastic secret agreement with three oilmen to take over his Gettysburg farm.

Allen brought two partners into the Gettysburg farm deal, Texas oil millionaire B.G. “Billie” Byars and the late W. Alton Jones of Cities Service. Among them, the three represented a substantial segment of Big Oil. Allen and Byars promptly opened an an account in the Gettysburg National Bank and began paying Ike’s farm bills. Although they later told tax agents they were running the farm as a business, they made no serious effort to produce a profit. But they did transform the Pennsylvania Dutch country farm into a luxurious Presidential retreat ….

… a letter from the farm manager, retired Gen. Arthur Nevins, to Allen and Byars with a copy marked for Jones. The letter read: “Dear George and Billie. The funds for the farm operation are getting low, so would each of you also let me have a check for the usual amount of $2500. A similar amount will also be transferred to the partnership account from Alton Jones’s account. I bought an exceptionally fine cow …”

“… officials of the Maryland Angus Breeding Association describe Angus ranching as an “avocation” – in other words, a rich man’s hobby, not a commercial operation.(Anderson, 1967, pp. 214-216)

Anderson claims that the IRS eventually set a value on the largess - $500,000, in 1950s dollars -- and a classification, gift.(Anderson, 1967, p. 206)

He also claims that Texas oil money set up Mamie's brother-in-law on a 550-acre estate in Virgina's horse country, boarding race horses there and buying and selling a racetrack, with the brother-in-law getting commissions coming and going. Anderson names names in both deals, but only one name appears in both: Billy Byars, Sr.

The quid for the pro quo, Anderson claims, was that when a Cabinet advisory committee was set up on oil regulations, industry representatives were simply called in to write policy. One was the treasurer of Humble Oil.(Anderson, 1967, p. 216-217)

Friend of J. Edgar Hoover

Billy Byars, Sr. was a friend of J. Edgar Hoover. Summers says,

"Byars was close to Edgar. They used adjacent bungalows at [Texas oilman Cliff] Murchison's California hotel [del Charro] each summer."

A 1958 letter to Hoover apparently from the editor or publisher of the Tyler newspaper, acknowledging receipt of a copy of Hoover's book "Masters of Deceit", suggests a visit to Byars's home was expected:

“our mutual friend [blanked] told me recently he would obtain this volume for me, but I did not know that it would come directly from your office.


We are hopeful that before too long you will make a visit to Tyler on one of your trips away from Washington, and I think you will find the Byars’ facilities for hospitality to be very comfortable, in town, at the farm or at the new lake.”[17]

FBI agent Joseph L. Schott describes Senator Lyndon Johnson welcoming the Director to Texas in November, 1959, and the elaborate preparations made by the FBI field offices, including having an FBI agent insure a gas station restroom was spotless before Hoover and Tolsen used it. The pair spent the night in Dallas after visiting the LBJ ranch. Schott describes the nervousness of the SAC - special agent in charge:

"Today, of all days, the damned airplane has to be late." He seemed unable to stop pacing back and forth cracking his knuckles. "But one thing may save us. Billy Byars and his wife from Tyler are coming to see the Old Man off, so maybe they can keep him entertained. Bain has arranged it so they can visit in the VIP room until the flight leaves."

B.G. "Billy" Byars was an oil millionaire from Tyler, Texas, 96 miles east of Dallas. He and his wife were old friends of the Director from La Jolla or somewhere.

In the American Airlines VIP room at Love Field an attractive middle-aged lady wearing a mink coat threw her arms around the Director and said, "Welcome to Texas, J. Edgar!" Then she hugged Mr. Tolson. She was accompanied by a prosperous-looking man in a dark suit. These people were Mr. and Mrs. Billy Byars from Tyler.

The Director was delighted to see them. [...]

He was still telling how fantastic it all had been when the Washington flight was called. Regretfully he said goodbye to Mr. and Mrs. Byars.[18]

Byars was one of Lyndon Johnson’s financial backers when the Texas Senator sought the Presidential nomination in 1960. (Summers, p. 263-264)

Byars either shared Hoover's anti-Communist stance, or was more than willing to go along with the crowd. “Senator McCarthy to Speak in Tyler on Friday, October 17” was the Oct 9, 1952 headline of the Tyler Junior College POW WOW. The article began,

Senator Joseph R. McCarthy of Wisconsin is scheduled to speak in Tyler, Friday, Oct. 17.
“Arrangements are now being made for the largest possible meeting place for the speech,” said B. G. Byars, Tyler business man.[19]

He was listed in 1961 as a member of the advisory board of the "Tyler Freedom Forum", a four-day series of lectures billed as "an anti-communism, pro-Americanism school, sponsored by a local group in conjunction with the Christian Anti-Communist Crusade. [...] ... lectures each day from 9:30 A.M. to 10:00 P.M. ... Freedom Forums have been held in major cities all over the United States [...] Tyler is by far the smallest city to undertake this job ..."[20] Byars is listed near the top of the advisory board list, but then, it's alphabetical. He doesn't appear in any photos.[21]

Byars had also met Jack Ruby, who would kill Lee Harvey Oswald. (Summers, p. 329)

The November 22, 1963 Phone Call

"The phone log for the [FBI] Director’s office shows that, aside from calls to Robert Kennedy and the head of the Secret Service, Hoover called only one man on the afternoon the President was shot – Billy Byars," Summers informs, a peculiar fact sometimes cited by conspiracy theorists to link the assassination to Hoover and to Texas oilmen. While many of Hoover's phone logs are online, that for November 1963 is not.[22] Summers does not provide the time of the phone call.

That same day Senate candidate George H.W. Bush was giving a luncheon speech at the Blackstone Hotel to the Kiwanis Club in Tyler.[23] His wife Barbara recalls, "On November 22, 1963, George and I were in the middle of a several-city swing. I was getting my hair done in Tyler, Texas, working on a letter home."[24]

Bush stopped his speech when news arrived of the assassination. His wife wrote a letter home, but Bush made a phone call to the FBI in Houston, telling of someone who had threatened to kill the president:

[DATE: November 22, 1963]

At 1:45 p.m. Mr. GEORGE H.W. BUSH, President of the Zapata Off-shore Drilling Company, Houston, Texas, residence 5525 Briar, Houston, telephonically furnished the following information to writer by long distance telephone call from Tyler, Texas.

BUSH stated that he wanted to be kept confidential but wanted to furnish hearsay that he recalled hearing in recent weeks, the day and source unknown. He stated that one JAMES PARROTT has been talking of killing the president when he comes to Houston.[25]

Mr. Bush of the Zapata Drilling Company left Tyler that afternoon on the aircraft of Mr. Joe Zeppa of the Tyler-based Delta Drilling Company.[26]

The Blackstone Hotel was at the corner of Broadway Avenue and Locust Street.[27] On the next block was the Citizens' Bank Building where Billy Byars had his office, and certainly had J. Edgar Hoover's phone number. With a long history of political activism and gifts, Mr. Byars of the B.G. Byars Drilling Company would likely have been at the Rotary luncheon, and at the head table with his fellow oilmen. His friendship with Hoover was known to the newspaper publisher (see letter above) and likely to everyone else in town, given his talent for self-promotion.

A memo a week later from Hoover says the bureau briefed "Mr. George Bush of the Central Intelligence Agency" on the reaction of Cuban exiles to the assassination.[28]

If George Bush had urgent information of the highest importance for the FBI, the quickest and perhaps most discreet way to transmit it that day from Tyler to the head of the FBI would be to adjourn to his colleague Billy's office, let Billy place a call to Hoover's office, and wait for a call back, which would appear on the log as being to Byars. The time of Hoover's call to Byars would reinforce or undermine the theory. If personal calls to Hoover were logged, there might be record of a prior call from Byars.


Billy Goebel Byars, Sr. was born October 6, 1901 in Guthrie, Kentucky, and came to Tyler from Texarkana in 1932. He died on his birthday in 1965, in Tyler, with services at the Immaculate Conception Catholic Church.[29][8] His wife Emily survived him, living to 1979. The New York Times index lists no obituary, but the Tyler Morning Telegraph put his death on the front page.


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 Bainbridge, John (1961). The super-Americans; a picture of life in the United States, as brought into focus, bigger than life, in the land of the millionaires--Texas. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday & Company. LCCN: 51-16775 pp: 64, 65-66;. 
  2. Swisher, Viola Hegyi. "Generating The Genesis Children", After Dark, September 1972, p. 18
  3. Summers, Anthony (2003). Official and Confidential: The Secret Life of J. Edgar Hoover. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons. p. 329. ISBN 0-399-13800-5. 
  4. Larson, Henrietta M.; Porter, Kenneth Wiggins (1959). History of Humble Oil & Refining Company; a study in industrial growth. New York: Harper. ASIN: B0006AVIDM. 
  5. Historic Tyler on Tour, 2004
  6. "Byars-Summer Home Included In '89 Tyler Heritage On Tour". The Tyler Courier-Times. 3 Apr 1989, Page 10
  7. advertisement "Beechcraft Serves the Nations Industries" Newsweek, July 17, 1950, p.57
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 "B.G. Byars Dies Here at Age 64",Tyler Morning Telegraph. 7 Oct 1965, Page 1
  9. "Bull in the Bedroom". LIFE Magazine (New York: Life): 41. April 12, 1954. 
  10. Prize Bull photo by John Dominis Look for fifty-two, rotund, cheerful, unassuming and astute
  11. 11.0 11.1 "Texan with Big Dreams + Big Apple = Big Trouble"
  12. Possibly Byars, Jr. holding the bull's lead. The online photos have no captions identifying the subjects.
  13. Eisenhower, Dwight D. Personal To Billy G. Byars, 7 October 1954. In The Papers of Dwight David Eisenhower, ed. L. Galambos and D. van Ee, doc. 1101. World Wide Web facsimile by The Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial Commission of the print edition; Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996
  14. Eisenhower papers doc. 1888 in Breeds of Cattle, 2nd Edition
  15. Eisenhower papers doc. 1155 Eisenhower to Nevins, November 15, 1954
  16. Anderson, Jack (1967). Washington exposé. Washington DC: Public Affairs Press. pp. 214-216. 
  17. T.B. Butler Publishing is the letterhead, the letter is dated June 16, 1958 and released under a FOI request. The blanked-out mutual friend is from the context Byars.
  18. "No left turns". Schott, Joseph L. 1975 New York: Praeger. pp 182-184
  19. "Senator McCarthy to Speak in Tyler on Friday, October 17", POW WOW, Tyler, Texas, Oct 9, 1952, p. 1
  20. FBI Dallas Freedom Forum file
  21. FBI Dallas Freedom Forum file
  22. FBI FOI Vault J. Edgar Hoover phone logs
  23. Some sources say Rotary Club, but the Tyler Morning Telegraph 06 Nov 1963, Page 1, "Kiwanis Speaker", has the Tyler Kiwanis Club lunching on Fridays, and holding a reception at the Blackstone.
  24. Bush, Barbara. Barbara Bush: A Memoir. United States: Scribner, 2015. P. 59
  25. [1] Original source needed
  26. Civic biography of Zeppa Barbara Bush, above says "we ... flew to Ft. Worth and dropped Mr. Zeppo off (we were on his plane)"
  27. Postcards of the demolished Blackstone Hotel
  28. "'63 F.B.I. Memo Ties Bush to Intelligence Agency" N.Y.Times, July 11, 1988, Section A, Page 15
  29. Find A Grave