How the Boy Scouts, Texas and an Oil Giant Shaped the Pick for the Nation's Next Top Diplomat

Last fall, Jack Randall and his longtime friend Rex Tillerson were having drinks at a hotel bar on the campus of the University of Texas in Austin, where they met in the 1970s.Over a Jack Daniel’s, the Exxon Mobil CEO told his oil banking pal Randall that he was looking forward to an upcoming career move.Retirement.“His wife was very much looking forward to it, too,” Randall said. After 41 years at Exxon, Tillerson had earned it, “in terms of putting in horrendous hours and traveling a whole lot.”But retirement would have to wait. A month later, Randall’s former marching band mate was chosen to fill the role of secretary of state by President-elect Donald Trump.It was a move that caught many by surprise -- including Randall. “But the more I heard about it, the more I thought: ‘That’s a good idea.’ Trump went up in my eyes when he picked somebody like Tillerson,” he said. Tillerson, 64, is in many ways an unorthodox choice for the nation’s top diplomat in an incoming administration that has signaled a willingness to chart a new path on foreign policy.The Wichita Falls native has devoted himself to the mission of Exxon Mobil, helping lead the world’s largest publicly-traded energy company in its pursuit of oil, gas and profits in far-flung and often hostile corners of the globe.On Wednesday, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is scheduled to open a two-day confirmation hearing, where Tillerson’s business dealings and relationships with foreign leaders will be closely scrutinized.Democrats are expected to put up a fight over Tillerson’s ties with Russia’s Vladimir Putin, but lack the votes to block the confirmation by the full Senate barring the unlikely defection of at least three Republicans.Tillerson’s had extensive dealings with foreign leaders as the head of a $361.5 billion organization that has its own intelligence arm and operates in some four dozen countries. But he lacks the political background held by his recent predecessors, who include two former senators, a retired general and a former national security adviser.Those who know Tillerson consistently describe a disciplined and effective communicator with an engineer’s logical approach to solving problems and the ethical compass of a Boy Scout.“What you see is what you get,” said John Stuart, a longtime Dallas banking executive who has known Tillerson for a decade. “He’s a straightforward, honest, honorable person.”But so far, nearly all of what’s been seen of Tillerson has been filtered through the lens of Exxon and its singular pursuit of natural resources around the world.Critics question his ability to separate himself from the interests of the only company he’s ever worked for, a place that emphasizes loyalty and sacrifice for the greater good of the corporation above all else.As secretary of state, he’ll be asked to shape fundamental ideas and relationships for the United States across the world.“There’s no theory of the world he’s articulated except on behalf of Exxon,” said Steve Coll, author of the book Private Empire, which details Exxon’s history, global rise and influence.“The secretary of state has been somebody who has their own ideas of what balance of power should be,” Coll said. “What alliances matter? How far are we willing to go to defend an expanded NATO? Is he prepared to accept Russia's place in Ukraine? What does he believe about China’s relationship with Taiwan?”Tillerson’s rootsTillerson’s story begins with the Boy Scouts. That’s where his parents, Bobby Joe and Patty Sue, met as teenagers, during a sing-along at camp. The Boy Scouts would become a full-time profession for his father, who moved the family between offices during Tillerson’s adolescence. Tillerson was raised in Wichita Falls, then lived in Stillwater, Okla., and Huntsville in East Texas. In 1965, when he was 13, Tillerson earned his Eagle Scout rank.In junior high, he played in a band called “Sons of Adam” with friends, and in college, he picked up gigs with a country-western band at barbecue joints around Austin. In high school, he played the timpani drums. “He never did anything that would cause him to stand out in life. He didn’t act up,” said Richard Wuensche, Tillerson’s Huntsville High School band teacher, who described Tillerson as quiet and polite. “Just another guy that was doing a good job.”After graduating from high school, Tillerson attended the University of Texas to pursue an engineering degree. He was called to science as a career after watching Neil Armstrong land on the moon while at a Boy Scout camp in Idaho, but admits he “wasn’t the smartest student,” struggling to eke out a C in calculus.During his college freshman year, he joined the drum section of the Longhorn Band. That’s where he met Steve King, a saxophone player. The two became close friends in college, enough that King asked Tillerson to be an usher in his wedding. During their sophomore year, Tillerson and King were nominated as section leaders of the band. It was an honor mainly reserved for upperclassmen, each tasked with teaching their respective sections the halftime routines. “I was not at all surprised that Rex was tapped to be a section leader,” said King, 65, now a judge in Fort Worth. “He was all business when it came time to doing things that made a difference.” The two rushed the band fraternity, Alpha Phi Omega, and were invited to join the Tejas Club, an all-male student affairs organization. That’s where they met Frank Rynd. “I had the messiest room on the floor, and [Tillerson] had the cleanest room on the floor,” said Rynd, 65, who now works as general counsel for the Roman Catholic Archdiocese in Galveston-Houston. More than 40 years after Rynd and Tillerson met, the memories that stand out for Rynd surrounding his former housemate revolve around one central concept: work. The Tejas Club was an old house that needed many repairs, and Tillerson would organize the projects, then complete them. “He wasn’t just a delegator. This sounds corny, but he led by example. There was no project that was beneath him or too hard for him,” Rynd said. “He was busy -- if not busier than the rest of us. ... If it needed to be done, Rex signed up and got it done.” Highly regimented approachTillerson graduated in 1975 and weighed a higher-paying offer at a steel company. But in Exxon, he found a company whose highly regimented approach mirrored his own.“It’s very demanding and competitive,” said Coll, the author. “It’s a very rule-driven institution. But it also requires something on the dealmaking side, a little bit of a sense of subtlety and resilience because most of these places where they work, these things don’t come easily.”Tillerson worked for Exxon’s upstream division -- the rough-and-tumble business of exploring and developing new resources. His early days found him in East Texas, a time he later described as “sheer joy” in solving complex problems out on the oilfield.He steadily rose through the ranks and by the 1990s, he landed career-defining assignments in places like Yemen and post-collapse Russia.  Continue reading...

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