SHERIDAN — Not everyone has the ability to live a life of courage and faith, let alone one as high-profile as Raymond Plank.
The founder of the Apache Corporation, the Fund for Teachers and the Ucross Foundation has left the basis for his legacy all across the country. This week, he’ll be honored at the Ucross Foundation with an exhibit entitled, “Raymond Plank: A Life of Courage and Faith” as part of the annual Community Christmas Celebration.
Plank, who is now 95, graduated from Yale University and served with the U.S. Army Air Corps as a bomber pilot in the South Pacific during World War II.
He retired in August 2008, after five decades of building Apache Corporation from a company that raised investor funds for drilling into one of the nation’s largest international oil and gas exploration and production companies.
In his business life, Plank lays claim to a number of interesting stories. According to longtime business partner Jim Nelson, Plank owned an industrial company that was working to create seamless aluminum cans. That company was later purchased by Budweiser, which became the first beer company to produce seamless aluminum cans for its beer.
Plank also started a company that became the first to commercially grow pistachios in the U.S., and he created the very first master limited partnership.
Then, the businessman founded the Ucross Foundation in 1981.
“Coming from the Apache Corporation, an oil and gas extraction company, he felt it was important to give back,” Ucross President Sharon Dynak said of Plank. “Ucross was one of the many ways he chose to do that.”
Nelson, who serves as the chair of the Ucross Foundation board, has known Plank for decades. He worked on Apache’s audits and later became the company’s chief financial officer.
Nelson recalled the purchase of the ranch complex in eastern Sheridan County in the early ‘80s, noting that the now iconic big red barn was, at the time, dilapidated. With the purchase of the property, Plank and his staff invested considerable time and money in restoring the property.
Initially, though, they planned to utilize the space as a conference center.
“It took us a year to realize Ucross is not a destination for a conference center,” Nelson said with a chuckle.
About that same time, the company sold a herd of cattle that had been on the land. When Plank returned to Ucross, he noticed the cattle were missing and commented that the land was made for cattle and artists.
Dynak recalls that Plank’s wife at the time, Heather Burgess Plank, was also instrumental in the idea of turning Ucross into an artist colony of sorts.
“Could restoration of historic buildings in the foothills of the Bighorn Mountains render those sites as relevant to people in the future as they had been a century earlier?” the exhibit at the foundation quotes Plank as saying. “Could the environment, open lands and natural beauty be preserved and enhanced through stewardship as well as finding a use for them in the century beyond their construction? We decided to build a small conference center and artists-in-residence program.”
Plank collected art over the years, read avidly and thoroughly understands the idea of creative potential along with the importance of pushing yourself beyond your comfort zone.
“Raymond has always been attracted to creative people and creative things,” Nelson said.
Plank would have 10 ideas a day, Nelson recalled. While Plank thought they all were brilliant, Nelson and his colleagues would roll their eyes at eight, deem one good and one a home run.
“His mind was always working, always trying to create something,” Nelson said.
The visionary businessman led the Ucross Foundation with similar vision but has since retired.
That work ethic and forward-thinking strategy has led to great rewards.
Pulitzer-prize winning writers, MacArthur Fellows, Tony Award winners and National Book Award winners have all spent time in the wide open spaces filled with quiet, calm beauty.
“There’s something about Ucross,” Dynak said, noting not only the caliber of artists who have spent time there, but the staff that makes it all possible. “There is something about the place that attracts really dedicated people who have a great respect for artists and the land.”