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Governor Willie

Written by Gene Fowler.

Texas’ oil booms attracted remarkable characters, and every boom town had its own. In Kilgore (see story, page 12), the leading performer in the role was Henry Ralph Wooley, known throughout the East Texas Oil Field as “Governor Willie.”

A 1941 news report about the funeral of Governor Willie said the “unofficial jester of the East Texas oil field belt” was buried with “the pomp and style of a chief executive.” Willie “lived off the generosity of his friends.”

Photographer Jack Nolan, who documented the boom’s early days, wrote that Willie, the “famous oil field orator,” was called “Oil Field Willie” when he arrived in Kilgore in 1931, having performed at “all the good booms.” “Some folks think an unseen power guides him,” Nolan noted. Another Kilgore resident remembered Willie as “the most fantastic personage I ever met.”

The orator staged mock political campaigns that exalted him to the office of “Governor of the East Texas Oil Field.” On street corners and from the stage of the Crim Theater, Willie made dramatic speeches on issues of the day, astounding his audience with “brilliant flashes of logic,” wrote a Dallas Morning News reporter. The “Governor” stumped for “more oil wells but less oil, more beef but less beefing, and more rain but less mud-slinging.” His “liberal platform” for the 1932 gubernatorial race, as reported in the “Gushings by Gus” column of the Kilgore Daily News, called for “$10-a-barrel oil, 10-cent beer, no proration, cutting officers down to one gun, removal of all soldiers, bigger dance halls, higher skirts, and free roses for women.”

East Texans mourned when Willie died in a car crash at age 34. “Kilgore was different yesterday. Governor Willie was gone,” sighed the Longview Daily News. “Few men were better known among the oil fraternity than this court jester of the oil belt, whose antics and homespun humor were as East Texas as the derricks and slush pits he loved.”

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From the May 2000 issue.

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