There is nothing flashy about H.R. Bright. Everyone around these parts calls him by his nickname, "Bum." He talks like a good old country boy and wears plain white short-sleeve shirts and a steel-gray brush cut. He'd rather be fishing than doing much of anything else, except working. He saves huge balls of string, some sort of security blanket pack rat habit; says he has an abiding fear of going broke some day.
A Dallas Cowboy fan, Bum Bright allows as how the team looks shoddier than its 4-2 record indicates. "If they were an eight-cylinder team, they're now running on about five cylinders. They don't have a Riggins who can bust a hole open. The ground game leaves a lot to be desired."
Bright has more than a Monday morning quarterback interest in the team that rides into Washington today tied with the Redskins for first-place in the Eastern Division. He owns them. Last spring, Bright put together a group of investors that paid $60 million for the Cowboys. Bright's controlling share is 22 percent -- "Oh, that's about $13.6 million." Pause. "Then I got another $23 million in the stadium." (His Texas Stadium Corp. controls operations at the Irving facility.)
Is that really a good deal? "Aww, it's kind of a fun deal."
What's it like to watch a team that you own?
"Well, you feel more intense about it. 'Cuz when you get to winning you sell all those tickets." The humor shows in the slow drawl. "It kinda creates a real deep desire they'll be winners."
The owner of the team that Washington loves to hate stayed home today. There is speculation around here that Bright -- a heavy-duty competitor who once forced the firing of a Texas Aggie coach -- will not be a silent Cowboy owner. Yet he insists he is staying out of the fray as the Cowboys struggle with quarterback quandaries and uninspired performances. "I have seen coach Tom Landry one time. We rode on the plane to the New York game. I said probably 10 words to him."
If they lose badly will he sell?
"Well," drawled Bright, "if they lose, they're kinda like double-sided Scotch Tape -- don't know if you could get rid of them in that case."
Big D is the city of slick: mirrored skyscrapers that reflect the clouds. Gray-suited bankers and investors who wouldn't say "aw shucks" if their lives depended on it. This city has been described as "not so much where the West begins as where the East peters out." But it still has its vestigial wildcatters like 64-year-old Bright -- the oil roustabout who grew up to live next door to billionaire Bunker Hunt.
For Bright, one of the richest and most powerful men in Texas, the thrill is in Making the Deal. There is compulsion to pile up the money, but this is still ancillary to making the deal. And in Bum Bright's case -- despite his nightmares of going broke -- the pile assures him of paying the mortgage. He is worth an estimated $500 million. Fortune magazine calls him one of wealthiest of the nation's "private rich."
Bright is fond of his little aphorism, "Remember the Golden Rule -- whoever has the gold makes the rules." The rich around here play with their own Monopoly boards and know where everything is. And Bum Bright is very good at the game. He has vast investments in oil, insurance, trucking, real estate and banking. He is, for example, the largest individual stockholder in Republic of Texas Corp., which is vying for first place as the state's largest holding company.
Bright has so many drilling companies that he ran out of names. So he started naming them after spaghetti and rocks and the South Seas. Just a few in the rock series -- apatite, azurite, barite, beryl, chalcopyrite. South Sea companies include Timor, Java and Malacca. Bright takes pains to say his noodle named companies -- scallopini, manicotti, fettuccine -- are "spaghetti companies, not pasta . . .Don't know what pasta is."
Bright kept a deceptively low profile until he bought the Dallas Cowboys. He now fields questions from the national press with some amusement. "You know," says Foster Yancey, one of the other owners who, with his partner Bradley Camp, owns 10 percent of the team, "that money wouldn't buy you any real estate in Texas. You can go out and buy $30 million in real estate and nobody cares. It's nothing. Then you get a small percentage of a football team and everyone in the world wants to know something. Mostly, where you can get tickets -- free." New Money vs. Old
Dallas dough is often synonymous with ostentation. There is the home in North Dallas with a swimming pool in the dining room and furniture perched on a peninsula in the pool. And the late H.L. Hunt's home on White Rock Lake is an exact replica of Mount Vernon -- only bigger.
When you're talking parties, you're talking high tack. There was the celebrated "Get Your Kicks on Route 66" debutante ball next door in Fort Worth rumored to cost anywhere from a quarter- to a half-million. Replicas of major Route 66 pit stops were built around the Ridglea Country Club. (Oklahoma City was replete with Indians and tepee; Hollywood had a facsimile of the Coconut Grove, and a drive-in theater featured "Beach Blanket Bingo.")
Then there was the tasteful little wedding put on by one real estate developer who hired the Oklahoma Symphony to play the themes from "Chariots of Fire" and "Dallas." As the bride and groom held up their hands in victory at the end of the ceremony, the symphony played "Rocky." There were his-and-her wedding cakes -- the groom's a brown chocolate replica of his father's condominiums. A uniformed guard stood with a sackful of quarters to pay for wedding guests as they took the tollway from wedding to reception. Shortly after, according to a Dallas newspaper, the developer figured in an extensive ongoing investigation by federal and state officials into allegedly fraudulent land deals.
In Texas, the fortunes of tycoons ride up and down all the time. But this is not the world of Bum Bright, the publicity-shy multimillionaire who remains securely solvent year in and year out and purposely assembled some of the least showy Texas rich to invest in the Cowboys -- such as Arthur Temple, former vice chairman of Time Inc. Temple's dealings with that publication softened not at all his position on the press. "He does not talk to reporters on any subject -- ever," announced his secretary by way of dismissing an interview.
The new-money crowd lives in North Dallas' sprawling spreads, but many long to have an address in the more exclusive old-money haven of Highland Park. Bright lives there, naturally, in a comfortable, non-showy Tudor style mansion. In Dallas, to be sure, old money is a relative thing. Not a port city or natural trading center, this place was simply made up by merchants and investors and began to thrive after the turn of the century. Shells of new construction dot the constantly changing landscape. Making It
One afternoon Bum Bright sat in his living room, scratching the ears of his Great Dane, Regent, and reminisced about when he was young and consumed with making it in the "oil bidness." He was in the process of buying up land cheap and selling it at some profit to oil companies. This meant getting up at dawn and doggedly cajoling farmers into selling.
Although Bright has a reputation of being hard-eyed tough in business deals, he can be an amiable yarn spinner. His eyes twinkle as he tells the story: "I was talking to this farmer's wife and I told her, 'It is foolish for y'all not to sell this royalty a share paid to one from whom lands rich in oil or minerals are leased . You make $3,000 on a good crop. I can buy a quarter of your royalty and pay you $80,000. That still leaves you 120 acres of royalty left.' She said, 'I know what you mean but that guy of mine has the hardest head.'
"So I asked her what time he got to the fields and she said 5:30 a.m. So I'd get there at 5 a.m. He had this little square box of a house, oilcloth on the kitchen table. He's still in the bedroom, in his one-piece BVDs, sitting on the bed, no screens on the windows, no sheets on the bed, cutting his dirty toenails. That old pig iron was banging outside and the sun was just starting to come up. As a conversation opener I said, 'Bet it's hard to sleep with the oil rigs running hard all night.' He squints and looks me in the eye and says, 'Nope -- the closer they get, the better I sleep.' He wasn't about to sell.
"So I went back to the wife. She said, 'I desperately want him to sell some royalty for a piano.' and I said, 'If you make him sell that royalty I'll buy you a piano.' She said she didn't know how to make him sell. So I said, 'Tonight when you go to bed, you get out a clean pair of pajamas and you tell him, 'You sleep in the spare room,' and you tell him 'You can come back here to the bedroom when you sell that royalty.' " Bright pauses. "It took about a week." He recalls, "He sold -- and she got her piano."
There was more than a little cunning to transactions in those days. When some oil companies bought up 5,000 acres that paid $2 an acre, "I went around the periphery of that and leased the land around it for 50 cents an acre." This land was considered "out of the play" (secondary, possible oil-producing land). Bright would arrive with cardboard satchels -- they were nicknamed "hope-it-don't-rain" suitcases -- full of money in small amounts. "A guy would have 90 acres and I would set out that money in ones and fives and tens on the oilcloth tables like this," says Bright, making the motion of dealing cards at poker. "I'd say, 'It's all yours if you'll give me the land.' It was impressive to the people -- and I got those leases."
Bum returned to Dallas with $800 in leases and 1,300 acres. "I started in the Yellow Pages under 'A' in oil producers. I'd call with my little lease plat. Trying to sell it at $2.50 an acre. Got down to the S's until I got a taker. I got my $2.50 an acre and netted better than $2,000. It had taken me about six weeks." Did that company ever find oil on the land you sold them? "No."
By buying land cheap and selling at some profit, Bright "built up to a large sale of a half a million. That was the nest egg or 'taw' -- the marble you use when you play a game of marbles." Today Bright still lives off the profits of Bright & Schiff Oil Co., which he began in post-World War II boom years with his former Texas A&M roommate Herbert Schiff. He vividly remembers having $12.76 in his checking account, barely enough cash to buy a loaf of bread, and Schiff scrounging up a few cents for a jar of peanut butter.
Through the years, Bright piled up money and kept diversifying his interests, driven always by the fear of going broke -- and back to those peanut butter sandwich days. Even after all his money and all these years he insists the fear remains. "People go belly up all the time. It's a very compelling thing for me. I don't want to be broke."
This fear has its roots in a childhood that had few frills. His father was a Johnson & Johnson salesman. "Every kid I grew up with had more money than I did. I wore clothes given to me by friends who were bigger than I. Leather patches on sweaters are fashionable," he says, with a smile, "but we really needed them."
When Harvey Robert Bright was born, his father took one look at his screwed-up bawling face inside swaddling clothes and remarked that he looked like a "little old railroad bum." The nickname stuck. The day Bright decided there was more to life than being a bum was when he was an oil roustabout "down in a well, with mud and muck up to my waist. I looked up and saw this fella in gabardine and I thought if I could learn to be a petroleum engineer I could make a living in gabardine slacks and sport shirt and get out of my denims."
At Texas A&M, Bright learned the "persistence and tenacity" that guided him in his career. One lesson he passes on to the aspiring young comes through the Get-the-Book lecture. He recounts the day when a Professor Vance, head of the A&M petroleum department, called him in and wrote the name of a book on a 3-by-5 card and told Bright not to come back without it. Bright rushed to the library and found that it was checked out. So Bright got the date it was checked out, the borrower's name, "even the Dewey Decimal number." He returned proudly with the information. Vance stared at him, told him he had wasted 20 minutes and still hadn't got the book. "In this old world, results count."
So Bright dashed out again, found the professor who had the book and was so dogged that the man left his class and got the book for Bright. When young Bum handed it to Vance, the professor asked Bright, "Son, did you learn anything?" Bright nodded yes. "Then don't ever forget it as long as you live." He repeated the phrase that stuck with Bright forever. "The world pays only on results."
During World War II, Bright was in the Army "putting in the river crossings all the way across France and Germany. I would have shamed myself if I had not gotten overseas and in the real war." He returned to Dallas just in time for the postwar oil boom days.
Tenacity, daring, "being willing to tackle something," plus luck in hitting the boom years have been Bright's keys to success. "You have to work out your strategy as you go. Can't pre-strategize it. You have to get in the melee. You learn that playing marbles. Say a guy's got a marble that costs a dime and you can't afford but a nickel. So you get a rock and you shine it up and call it a 'lucky rock' -- and you trade that for his 10-cent top." There is a lot of the trader in Bright, but the tenacity counted a lot. "If you're going to put a deal together, you will try 25 before you get a one -- and the next 25 you try you'll fail at all of them."
Bright quotes long stanzas of uplifting poems he has memorized. "I can quote poetry all night. I don't have your 'Thanatopsis' or 'Paradise Lost.' Don't fool with all of that. I'm a Kipling and Robert Service man." Then he launches in to Edmund Vance Cooke's "How Did You Die?":
"It's nothing against you to fall down flat/ but to lie there, that's disgrace/ the harder you're thrown/ the higher you bounce/ be proud of your blackened eye/ it isn't the fact that you're whipped that counts/ but how did you fight and why/ a trouble's a ton or a trouble's an ounce/ or a trouble is what you make it/ it isn't the fact that hurts that counts/ but only how did you take it."
Does he get depressed when some deal goes wrong?
Bright shakes his head. "I get competitive." Knights of the Round Table
Bright's office is on the 12th floor of the Trinity Banc Savings. He owns the company and the building. The dominant look is wood paneling and maroon. Bright is an Aggie freak. There is the Texas Aggies pillow, the maroon leather chair with Aggie seal and his Aggie ring that he refused to take off when he was admitted to the hospital for a gall bladder operation. In 1967, Bright's Aggie boosterism surfaced when the team upset the University of Texas to win the Southwest Conference title. He was sick of seeing the orange and white bumper stickers touting 1967 as the "Year of the Horns," so after the Aggies won, Bright printed 1 million maroon and white matchbooks and distributed them statewide. They read "Tee Hee Hee: Texas A&M 10, Texas 7."
Through the years Bright has adopted some eccentricities and superstitions. He always puts his right shoe on first. He lines up his money in ascending order of serial numbers and in ascending quantities. Taking out a wad of bills, Bright peels them off. "I line up my $10s, I line up my $100s. I seldom spend money out of this," he explains, tucking the roll back in his pocket. "I just accumulate it." Bright has an aversion to spending even pittances if he thinks he is being fleeced. "When we were in Hawaii for the NFL deal I was waiting in line for coffee and I saw that it was 85 cents -- not for a pot but for a cup. I said, 'Let's bolt out of this line. I'm not about to pay 85 cents for a cup of coffee.' " And he didn't.
In a supply room adjoining his office are those collections of a pack rat: Rolls of twine about the size of medicine balls saved from packages sit on top of cabinets. Boxes of stamps saved from envelopes are in drawers. And box after box of Bright's doodles, intricate swirls and circles and starbursts so precise that they look as if made by a drawing compass. They are done on a "Memorandum from H.R. Bright" memo pad that states in large type "I Welcome Criticism." In small type are the words "write yours here" -- next to a tiny box barely large enough for a check mark. Bum Bright colors in his doodles while on the phone "concentrating on a deal."
One wall is dominated by a tapestry with all the realism of calendar art depicting his favorite theme from childhood -- the Knights of the Round Table. "There's Lancelot," he says, pointing. "He's fixing to take Sir Gawain's head off." Bright turns a bit prudish. "In my childhood version, Lancelot was not the knight who had a liaison with Guinevere -- but King Arthur's strong right-hand man." It took months to get his tapestry made. "I had this artist and he had grotesque horses and arty things. I said, 'Get me another artist.' And he had surreal things. So I said, 'I guess I don't want an artist. Just get me somebody who can draw.' So I liked what he did and I sent him to Europe to study the works of the Italian, French and English tapestry makers and I liked the English work best. It took them about a year to weave it."
Old-fashioned chivalry is a Bright trademark. "We have no swearing in the office, male or female. I don't permit vulgarisms. All the ladies in my office wear skirts, because I want them to look like ladies, and act like ladies, and they'll be treated like ladies." Politics and Football Coaches
On his desk sits a block with AuH20, the symbol for gold and water. Barry Goldwater, one of Bright's political heroes, gave him 50 of them. "I keep them around to irritate my liberal friends." A hearty supporter of President Reagan, Bright, one of the state's ultraconservative rich, was campaign finance chairman for his friend Bill Clements' successful 1978 bid for governor. In 1981, Clements appointed Bright chairman of the Texas A&M board of regents. The regents soon hired Jackie Sherrill from the University of Pittsburgh as college athletic director and head football coach and fired incumbent head coach Tom Wilson. "Bum Bright wanted to get rid of me," Wilson quickly charged, and there was outrage and protest among alums faithful to Wilson. Bright says that story was overblown and insists he will not meddle with the Cowboys. "Tex Schramm president of the Cowboys knows what he's doing and doesn't need the injection of amateur ideas into the running of a professional sports organization."
Bright's brand of conservatism earned him a minor footnote on that black day in Dallas history, Nov. 22, 1963. The morning John F. Kennedy came to town, the Dallas Morning News ran a full page ad under the headline "Welcome Mr. Kennedy To Dallas." Bordered in black, the ad posed 12 questions accusing the president of being pro-communist. They included "Why have you approved the sale of wheat and corn to our enemies when you know the Communist soldiers 'travel on their stomachs' just as ours do?" "Why have you ordered or permitted your brother Bobby, the Attorney General, to go soft on Communists, fellow-travelers, and ultra-leftists in America, while permitting him to persecute loyal Americans who criticize you, your administration, and your leadership?" The ad continued, "Because of your leadership thousands of Cubans have been imprisoned, are starving and being persecuted -- with thousands already murdered and thousands more awaiting execution . . ." Three John Birchers placed the ad -- which was paid for by oilman Nelson Bunker Hunt, insurance executive Edgar Crissey and Bum Bright.
"They came and asked me for money and I thought it was a good ad," explains Bright today. "I didn't like Mr. Kennedy's withdrawal from Cuba, his Bay of Pigs fiasco. The terrible thing was that he got assassinated by a kook. It was a political ad up to that point and then it became an issue." Bright has no regrets about the ad and has said, "I contributed to conservative and right-wing causes, always have and still do."
Bright is among those first-generation rich who believe in Horatio Alger free enterprise and are against "liberal giveaways." "It is the function of churches and social organizations to provide for welfare; citizen participation on a voluntary basis. It is not for the government to provide for welfare or to redistribute wealth."
He has been chairman of the Dallas Children's Medical Center for a decade. "I give it time and I give it money. I give money to my church, to Texas A&M, to the cancer drive." But handouts to the down and out are viewed as suspect. "I raised my family to believe that everybody should stand on his own two feet."
Bright has never considered being a politician himself. "Don't think I could be elected. Some people don't like me. I've got very definite ideas. I'm not enough of a compromiser to be a politician." Home Sweet Home
Bum is in his Music Room and his wife, Peggy, is at the organ. He claps his hands and hums along as she plays "Toot Toot Tootsie Goodbye." Bright's first wife and highschool sweetheart, Mary Frances, died of cancer in l97l and Bright married Peggy, his former secretary, in 1972.
Peggy had been carefully screened by Bright, who "did not want any wild-eyed liberals." She passed the test when she said she had worked for Goldwater. She passed another test when she was willing to show up at the office as early as Bright -- before 7 a.m. For 18 months before his wife's death, Peggy helped run the house. "The day we got married, I let her off work about 4 and we got married around 5:30 p.m., says Bright. "She never came back to the office again." His four children and 10 grandchildren -- who visit four days a week after school -- are considered her family as much as Bright's.
Theirs is a homey lifestyle; one that sounds as if it could be managed easily on a million or so. They do not like the Dallas social scene and rarely entertain except family at home. Bright does not travel much and there are no round-the-world junkets. "I keep a boat down in Fort Lauderdale ready to go, with crew on it. It's been four years since I've been on it." There are some fishing weekends at his nearby ranch, but Bright often shows up at the office on Saturday mornings.
Home is his domain -- filled with his toys. There is a collection of swords and guns and Prussian helmets. One mammoth upstairs room looks like F.A.O. Schwarz West. It holds his elaborate train set, which includes small towns and mountains made by Bright and row upon row of toys, many of them in unopened plastic wrap -- airplanes and boomerangs and barbells and trucks and Matchbox cars. He saves them against that mythical going-broke day but also for his grandchildren. He sometimes gives some away to the church and children's hospital. Bright makes chess sets and dollhouse furniture for his granddaughters in his wood shop. A leftover childhood hobby is casting lead toy soldiers, which his wife paints.
There are many reasons why rich men buy sports teams. Bum Bright says it is in part his civic duty to keep the Cowboys Dallas-owned. It is like an investment in art: "You can enjoy it even though you didn't paint it." As for returns, he says "you would do better in government bonds."
Bright would be very happy if the Cowboys became a good investment, but the team is one of the few properties he bought for pleasure, not to make money.
For the man who worked so hard to make his few hundred million, the Dallas Cowboys now belong to his arsenal of toys.