We were rolling along on a Texas highway, when Wendy Herman of Wichita, at the wheel, suddenly shouted, “Wyatt.” I had to think only a few seconds before I realized what brought on this outburst. “You’re right,” I said. “It’s Wyatt — Oscar Wyatt.”
The day before, we had been pursuing our favorite subject, the gasoline marketing business and the people in it we knew. We were trying to think of the name of the creator of the Coastal Corp., and we couldn’t get past “Oscar.”
Herman obviously had been churning the question long after I had given up on it, and when he remembered he gave me a smug look that said he still had all his marbles, and I obviously didn’t.
We were on our close-to-annual golf trip, and we talk gasoline a lot because we worked together at Vickers Petroleum in Wichita for about 15 years. Before that, and after that, Herman ran his own string of service stations and convenience stores.
On this trip we made an amazing discovery — that we’d both had an opportunity with the same service station site in Topeka, at different times. We both blew it.
We know now the reward would have brought a victory smile to Herman’s usually poker face, and it would have caused me to turn handsprings on Topeka Boulevard.
I introduced this topic when I told him of the time Bill Kiene and Jack Bradley, of the architectural and engineering firm of Kiene and Bradley, were putting together Holliday Square. It was, and still is, at S.W. 29th and Topeka, and it was the city’s first shopping center.
Their plan called for a service station on the southwest corner of the intersection, and Kiene came to me and asked if I would be interested in taking command of the station. The overture had the sweet smell of money, but I turned it down, for several reasons.
First, I had worked at Pete & Mike Ferguson’s Deep Rock station in Oklahoma City while going to school, and didn’t like it. I pumped gasoline, washed and steam-cleaned cars, fixed flats, swept and washed the drive, changed oil and greased cars. Now, I was sports editor of the paper, doing what I liked, so why would I go back to the grease pit?
Second, Mary Hudson had a station just south of the intersection, and she was tough competition. A recognized price-cutter in several states, I figured she’d make life miserable for any new kid on the corner.
Third, although I had worked in a station, I really didn’t know anything about running one.
Fourth, I had not the slightest inkling of an idea that the station on that site would chase away Mary Hudson and become a perfectly situated bonanza.
That’s my tragic story, and when I finished, Herman smiled and said, “You didn’t make nearly as big a mistake as I did.” Sure enough, his was worse, and he made it long before mine.
Herman had a station on US-24 highway, west of the Goodyear plant. It wasn’t doing much, and he didn’t own the ground, so he traded it to Sid Long, the Phillips 66 jobber in Topeka, for a carload of antifreeze, which he sold.
At the time, Diamond DX had a station on the 29th and Topeka site, but suddenly decided to close all its units in the city, and clear out. Phil Sewell, the DX jobber, told Herman about the property.
Here’s the big mistake: Herman could have bought the corner, 150 by 150 feet, for $30,000.
“I had the money, and I was looking for property, but I guess I just didn’t want to be that close to Mary Hudson.” Based on similar situations, he guesses the corner now would be returning him several thousand dollars a month.
The site now is home to an Amoco station that probably is among the top five or so pumpers in the city. At least, you never see its drives empty. All that is missing is a plaque by the owners or operators or whatever saying, “Our thanks to Wendy and Dick.”
A few years after our double fumble, Herman sold out to Vickers and was working for the company when it bought most of Sewell’s Topeka stations, and one of the realtors he worked with was Bob Lee. The Vickers brand later disappeared from the city when the company was sold to French-owned Total Petroleum.
The sale was in 1980, and that’s when Herman and I left Vickers. I left because I didn’t want to move with Total to Denver. Instead, I wound up moving to Des Moines, proving I never got any smarter in making the big decisions. I still wonder what would have happened to me at 29th and Topeka.
Herman, on the other hand, went back to doing what he did best — making money for himself. Lots of it.