James Spencer Collins
James Spencer (“Spense”) Collins, an oilman raised in West Texas who spent his life chasing oil and gas around the globe, died June 16 at the age of 94.
Collins lived independently, drank whiskey, cursed bilingually, smoked cigars, and held court until his very last day on earth. He grew up on ranches outside Midland and the Davis Mountains. After he left the ranch, he kept his vow to never wear a pair of blue jeans or boots again in his life. At the time of his passing, he was ready for his annual pilgrimage to Ajijic. Collins and his companion were sunbirds who spent their summers in lower Ajijic village over the last half decade. They enjoyed playing bridge and threw a Fourth of July party each year they were here.
An oilman from the days when petroleum reserves were a matter of true intrigue, Collins entered the Texas College of Mines and Metallurgy in El Paso in 1940. He left school to join the Marine Corps after Pearl Harbor. He attended the Naval Communications School at Harvard University and participated in four island landings in the Pacific.
After returning to complete his degree in mineral engineering at UTEP, Collins became an “oil finder.” He was one of the original wild-catters with the firm that was later bought by Tenneco, where he shot to the position of vice president in 1957 at the tender age of 35. Tenneco sent him back to Harvard Business School for an Advanced Management program, where he encountered classmates from 40 foreign countries, beginning his fascination with faraway places and people.
Declining the offer to be President of Tenneco, Collins took over the firm’s International Operations Division. His first assignment was building an exploration and drilling camp in Ethiopia. From there, he went on to tackle some of Tenneco’s most challenging explorations, discovering and developing production in Peru, Guatemala, South Africa, and Argentina.
It was Collins’ pleasure to continue to consult fledging oil companies after his retirement from Tenneco in 1971. In addition to jobs in Central and South America, he also consulted in East Africa, West Africa, Asia, Nepal, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Philippines, China, and Kazakhstan. He studied the culture and history of every country in which he worked or visited, and he befriended leaders and native workers at each stop. He took immense pride in identifying and developing some of the world’s largest oil reserves, and remained skeptical of alternate energy sources.
In 1999, after residences in Buenos Aires and Guatemala City, Collins moved back to the United States and chose San Antonio, Texas because “kin folks were at least two hours away.” But he continued to explore the world with his new companion for life, Barbara Christian. Together and with their families, they traveled to Italy, Spain, Peru, and Argentina. His proclaimed favorite trip was a photo safari on the Serengeti in Tanzania when he was 91. He was a virtual encyclopedia of knowledge until the very end. It was nearly impossible to name a place he had not been.
Collins lost his wife Mary Louise White in 1993. He is survived by his two children Greg Collins (wife Joan) of Spring Branch, Texas; and daughter Kelly Collins-Cunningham (husband Kenny Cunningham, Jr.) of Flagstaff, Arizona; and honorary daughter Cynthia Shea (with husband Patrick) of Austin, Texas. Grandchildren and honorary grandchildren far and wide: Cara Collins (San Antonio, Texas), Chase Collins (Durango, Colorado), Kenny Cunningham, III (Flagstaff); George Shea (London), Austin Shea (Santiago, Chile) and Anne Shea (Sewanee, Tennessee).
His longtime companion Barbara Christian will soldier on without her dear friend, advisor, explorer, and conspirator.