T. Keller Towns Endowed Presidential Scholarship in Mechanical Engineering
Keller and Jolynn Towns with their children, Thomas and Jane.
By T. Keller Towns
After being asked to be part of the ExxonMobil recruiting team in fall 2008, I realized that many of the team members had given back to The University of Texas in numerous ways. Our team captain, Warren Waggoner, encouraged me to consider giving back to UT. So I took advantage of ExxonMobil’s three-to-one match program and gave $2,500 to the Friends of Alec. My gift was matched with $7,500 to reach the combined $10,000 gift level.
While interviewing numerous engineering students, I noticed a high level of financial support from endowments in the Department of Petroleum Engineering versus the Department of Mechanical Engineering. I decided to create two endowments, the T. Keller Towns Endowed Presidential Scholarship in Mechanical Engineering and the T. Keller Towns Endowed Scholarship in Mechanical Engineering. The selection of recipients for the Endowed Presidential Scholarship is broad, while my second endowment was restricted to Texas residents from a non-urban area.
I am the older of two boys, born on October 19, 1958 to Jack Jones Towns and Bettie Sue Blackwell Towns in Luling, Texas (Pop 5,500). In 1966, my family moved to Kingsville (Pop 24,500) when my father, an electrician, was transferred by Humble Oil & Refining Company (which later became ExxonMobil) to work at the King Ranch Gas Plant. My mother earned a degree in physical education from Southwest Texas State University in San Marcos (re-named Texas State University in 2003) and taught physical education at H.M King High School (4A) in Kingsville, where I graduated in 1977. I attended 2nd thru 12th grade in the Kingsville public school system. During 11th grade “Career Day” in high school, I thought that being an engineer sounded like a fun career path since my strongest subjects were math and science.
After I graduated from high school, my father helped me get a job as a fabricator and welder’s apprentice during construction of a compressor station at the Laguna Larga gas plant on the King Ranch. I learned how to read blueprints and lay out large-diameter piping sections with different angles that were required to route the gas to and from the compressors. This experience solidified my desire to study engineering after being exposed to several civil engineers when they came to construction sites to monitor progress. The idea of working in an office environment but also getting out to the field to see your projects become reality was very appealing.
In the fall of 1978, I enrolled in the College of Engineering at Texas A&I University (re-named Texas A&M University – Kingsville in 1989). I applied to UT in the spring of 1979 as a transfer student and was accepted into the College of Engineering. At the time, I did not realize that my father did not support my aspirations to attend UT. He developed that view based on his working relationships with several Exxon USA engineers who had graduated from Texas A&I Kingsville. His thoughts were that I had a better chance of actually graduating from Texas A&I Kingsville with an engineering degree versus getting overwhelmed at UT along with the Austin distractions. He said that if I wanted to go to UT that I had better get to work so I could pay for it. After that conversation, I decided to leave Kingsville and move to Houston where my dad’s brother, Albert Towns, lived and worked for NASA. I was determined to get a high-paying job so I could pay my own way to UT.
During 1979, the Shah of Iran was exiled and the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) increased the price of oil 14.5 percent to $14.56 a barrel. Saudi Arabia announced its intention to increase direct sales of oil. This is when phased oil price decontrol began. The then-Big Three automakers (Ford, Chrysler, General Motors) were downsizing the full-sized automobiles to meet economy mandates passed in 1978. The oil industry and particularly the Houston economy were in the middle of an “oil boom,” and population growth in Houston was about 30,000 people per month. Within three days of arriving in Houston, my father helped me get an interview with Creole Production Services and they offered me an entry-level job as a mechanic’s apprentice. Creole’s main business was repairing large industrial engines and turbines that power compressors that are required to process products in the refinery and chemical plants along the gulf coast of Texas.
Creole guaranteed 40 hours per week minimum whether you were on a job or at home waiting for a job to start. There would be two 10-man crews working back-to-back 12-hour shifts seven days a week until the engine or turbine was back in service. We got one-and-a-half hours pay for every hour worked over 40 hours per week and double time on Sundays. By the end of the summer, I had saved enough money to enroll at UT, pay 100 percent of my books and tuition, and pay for a six-month lease on a Riverside apartment.
During the fall of 1979, my first semester at UT, I was determined to make my grades and prove to my father that I could succeed at UT. I did not do much of anything but go to class and study. By the end of the semester, I decided to change my major to mechanical engineering (ME) because of the interest in rotating machinery that I gained during my summer job. I thought a ME degree was more general and would appeal to a larger number of potential employers when I graduated. I registered at the Engineering Career Assistance Center and signed up for an internship interview with almost every company that I could. At that time an interview schedule was posted and it was a scramble to be in line to sign up for an interview.
When General Motors came to campus, I was unable to get an interview but approached one of the recruiters in the hallway and gave her my résumé. She later called and offered me an internship at the GM assembly plant in Arlington, Texas during the summer of 1979. I was assigned as an environment engineer under the plant engineer. My main project was disposing of 440,000 gallons of class-1 waste materials, revising air conditioning duct systems, and researching union labor demands regarding work-area conditions for contract negotiations. During my internship I remember waiting in a long gas line and thought that I should go to work in the oil industry, which produced the fuel for the cars.
After my first year at UT, several of my friends encouraged me to go through rush, and I ended up pledging and becoming a member of the Phi Gamma Delta social fraternity, commonly known on campus as the FIJIs. I still lived in an apartment on Riverside but had gotten a roommate to reduce my expenses. Of course, my father did not support me joining the fraternity because he said my grades would suffer. I assured him that I would keep them up, but it was a gradual slide as I had more opportunities to socialize versus studying. Being in a fraternity was not something you would openly advertise in the UT engineering school; however, it was the second-best decision I made while attending UT. The first was staying the course and obtaining an engineering degree!
After I made my grades and obtained the summer internship with GM, my father started helping fund some of my educational expenses at UT. However, being a FIJI pledge the fall of 1979 drained my savings, and I moved into a basement room at the FIJI house to lower my overhead expenses and take full advantage of the fraternity meal plan. It didn’t take long for me to realize I needed a job to cover my increasing expenses. I asked about employment opportunities within the ME department and ended up interviewing with Dr. H. R. Marcus, a PhD in the mechanical engineering materials department. He hired me as a research assistant under an Air Force grant. I worked up to 20 hours per week preparing metal samples and taking metallographic photos of the grain structures.
I worked for Dr. Marcus for four semesters until I graduated in the spring of 1982. One of my proudest accomplishments was pioneering a technique to obtain high quality photos working on titanium composite structures that had different hardness surfaces. Dr. Marcus encouraged me to enter my research into the International Metallographic Contest, which was conducted by the International Society of Metals (ISM) and the American Society of Metals (ASM). I won first place in the undergraduate division and published my first technical paper before I graduated with an undergraduate degree.
Also during the fall of 1979, interviews resulted in a summer internship with Texas Oil & Gas Corporation (TXO) in Dallas. The following summer, my internship was in the reservoir-engineering department of Delhi Pipeline Corporation, a wholly owned subsidiary of TXO. My summer projects involved completing comprehensive studies of two gas systems, one in West Texas and another in Kansas. Remaining reserves and deliverability were calculated along with exposure to area operators and their contractual obligations. At the end of the summer, I presented recommendations regarding potential expansion possibilities to management. During that summer, the television series Dallas was a big hit. The star was Larry Hagman. I had a lot of fun spending the summer in Dallas near the SMU Campus!
In the fall of 1980, my junior year, interviews resulted in an internship with Sohio Alaska Petroleum Company, a subsidiary of the Standard Oil Company (Ohio). The following summer, I moved to Anchorage, Alaska and began my internship in the Sohio Exploration Drilling Department. Summer projects pertained to drilling exploration wells on the North Slope. This experience convinced me that I wanted to be a drilling engineer when I graduated.
In the fall of 1981, my senior year, I interviewed for permanent employment and got offers from Mobil Oil & Producing Inc. in New Orleans, Chevron Corporations in Los Angeles, and Cities Services Corporation and Exxon Company USA, both in Houston. I accepted the position with Exxon, where I have been for the past 29 years.
I have been very blessed to have graduated from UT with an engineering degree, which resulted in my employment with Exxon Mobil Corporation. Our company is one of the largest donors to The University of Texas, and I am privileged to support this attitude of giving.
I serve on the Petroleum & Geosystems Engineering Advisory Council committee for a three-year term through the spring of 2013. I enjoy this opportunity to give back to the University and to develop new relationships with UT faculty and fellow industry committee members.
I am married to Jolynn Beeler Towns, of Houston, and we have two children, Thomas Keller Towns, Jr. and Jane Elizabeth Towns. Jolynn graduated from UT in 1986 with a bachelor of business administration degree. Our children have attended The Kinkaid School in Houston since pre-kindergarten. Keller Jr. will graduate in 2013 and Jane Elizabeth in 2015 from Kinkaid.
My wife’s family includes a long list of UT graduates, including Mr. & Mrs. Richard A. Beeler (my father and mother-in-law), Mr. & Mrs. Richard Allen Beeler, Jr. (my brother- and sister-in-law), and Richard A. Beeler, III (my nephew) who is currently studying architectural engineering. Richard A Beeler, Sr. graduated with a degree in civil engineering and Richard A. Beeler Jr. graduated with a degree in architectural engineering.
My family and I are members of St. Luke’s United Methodist Church in Houston, where I currently serve on the grounds and facilities committee. I also serve on the finance and bayou erosion committees at Houston Country Club, where I have been a member since 2001.
I enjoy spending time with family and friends. My favorite pastimes are playing golf with my son, bay fishing for trout, water skiing, and bird hunting.