Roy Huffington, 90; Oilman, Ambassador

By Joe Holley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Roy M. Huffington, 90, a Houston oilman who played a major role in developing Indonesia's oil and gas fields and who served as ambassador to Austria during the first Bush administration, died July 11 in Venice, while on a cruise.

According to his daughter, Terry Huffington Dittman, he considered himself in excellent health, traveled extensively and was still serving as chairman and chief executive officer of Roy M. Huffington Inc. Italian authorities had not determined the cause of death, she said.

Mr. Huffington's big strike, the 1972 discovery of huge reserves of natural gas in Indonesia, not only made him one of the richest men in America but also helped finance the political career of his son, Rep. Michael Huffington (R-Calif.), who in 1994 unsuccessfully challenged incumbent Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.).

The elder Huffington began oil and gas exploration in Indonesia in 1968 and made the natural gas discovery on the island of Borneo. His associates were disappointed.

"They were looking for liquid hydrocarbons and got gas," said his son-in-law, Ralph Dittman, executive vice president of Huffco. "Everybody threw up their hands."

His father-in-law's genius, Dittman said, lay in his wildcatter's willingness to buck conventional wisdom. Instead of burning off the gas as waste, he liquefied it in a plant he constructed in Indonesia, in partnership with Pertamina, the state-owned energy company. The Japanese government became an eager buyer of the natural gas.

The company weathered the late-1980s collapse of energy prices, in large part because its holdings included 20 percent of the joint venture in Indonesia, where profit margins were protected. Huffco also entered into a social compact with Indonesia to create jobs and infrastructure, and offer job training.

When Mr. Huffington sold Huffco, including valuable property in downtown Houston, to a Taiwanese consortium in 1990, the company was worth an estimated $600 million to $700 million. The sale left him with a fortune estimated by Forbes magazine at $310 million.

In 1988, Mr. Huffington supported the presidential campaign of fellow Houston oilman George H.W. Bush and was a member of the elite Team 100, with membership reserved to those who raised or donated $100,000. Bush, a Republican, appointed him ambassador to Austria in 1990.

Mr. Huffington also supported his son when he used his $70 million share of the Huffco sale to run for Congress in 1992. The younger Huffington won that race and two years later mounted a spectacularly expensive campaign challenge to Feinstein.

Married at the time to Arianna Stassinopoulos Huffington -- then known as a best-selling biographer and socialite, now as founder of the blog Huffington Post -- Michael Huffington lost his Senate bid despite spending more of his personal fortune -- $28 million -- than any candidate in history. (He and his wife later divorced, and Michael Huffington subsequently announced that he was gay.)

"My dad supported Michael in everything he did," Terry Huffington said. "We're a family of peace. We all get along."

Mr. Huffington belied the stereotype of the earthy, larger-than-life Texas wildcatter. "He loved geology, loved the earth and was a voracious reader," his daughter recalled. He also published articles on geology in scientific journals.

Dittman noted that his father-in-law, a longtime member of Houston's Memorial Drive Presbyterian Church, was on his knees for 15 minutes of prayer every night of his life. "He was the gentlest man I've ever known -- even when he'd had a drink," Dittman said playfully.

Roy Michael Huffington was born Oct. 4, 1917, in Tomball, Tex., and grew up in Dallas. His father was killed in an accident in a Venezuelan oil field, and Mr. Huffington helped his family weather the Depression by delivering newspapers on two routes.

He knew from an early age that he wanted to follow in his father's oilman footsteps. He was a 1938 geology graduate of Southern Methodist University and received master's and doctorate degrees in geology from Harvard University in the early 1940s.

He returned to Harvard in 1976, where he completed the advanced management program in the business school.

He served in the Navy aboard the aircraft carrier Hornet during World War II, earning the Bronze Star, and then joined the Humble Oil and Refining Co. in 1946 as a field geologist.

He worked for Humble (now Exxon) in various capacities for the next decade, moved to Houston in 1951 and founded Huffco in 1958. He discovered and developed domestic fields in Texas and Louisiana before the Indonesia find.

Mr. Huffington established the Huffington Foundation, which gave millions to Texas charities and academic institutions, including a $10 million gift to Southern Methodist University in 2006. In 1988, he and his wife, Phyllis Gough Huffington, founded the Huffington Center on Aging at the Baylor College of Medicine.

He also served as chairman of the Asia Society, chairman and director of the Salzburg Seminar and director of the Rothko Chapel, among other civic and charitable involvements.

Mr. Huffington's wife died in 2003.

Survivors include his daughter, of Houston, and his son, of Los Angeles, Boston and Houston; and four grandchildren.

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